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A MOVING EXPERIENCE : Basketball Coach's Firing at USC Opened Linebacker Na'il Diggs Eyes to New World at Ohio State

September 08, 1999|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS, Ohio — You wondered if Na'il Diggs knew what he was up against as he leaned on the glass trophy case that lines monument wall at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

Diggs pressed against the encased reminders of excellence in this corridor of Ohio State prizes: six Heisman trophies, five Lombardis, four Outlands, four Maxwells, a Butkus Award here, a Biletnikoff there.

Diggs didn't even notice the faces staring back: Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, Wayne Woodrow Hayes, Les Horvath, Archie Griffin, the Rex Kern-led team photograph of 1968, that last championship season.

Three years ago, in fact, Diggs didn't know Columbus from Kalamazoo.

Truth be known, he had his back set on leaning against the trophy case at Heritage Hall.

He should not have been here today, sweating in summer camp, an Angeleno on Ohio soil.

"True, very true " Diggs says. "If that wouldn't have happened, I wouldn't be here today. It gave me a new base as to how to look at how things happen in your life at any time, anywhere. It might not even be something that deals with you."

In Diggs' case, it certainly didn't.

The former Dorsey High star had committed to play for John Robinson at USC before an incident--totally unrelated, yet very closely related--sent him on a trek to the unknown.

Diggs' sister, Roslyn, was dating USC basketball coach Charlie Parker at the time. When Athletic Director Mike Garrett fired Parker in February of 1996, he lost a coach and a future All-American linebacker.

In the wake of Parker's firing, Diggs' revoked his commitment to USC and began shopping for a new school. Na'il leaned heavily on his older sister Roslyn, who raised him after the death of their mother.

"I only had one trip left," Diggs recalls. "I knew I had to nail it down to one place. I was really looking at Arizona, but my sister made some calls around. I didn't know anything about Ohio State. They were basically done with recruiting. They had taken all their staff reports down. They didn't know who I was."

Ohio State Coach John Cooper doesn't need recruiting gifts to keep his program in the national title hunt year after year. But he's more than willing to take handouts.

"His sister calls me and tells me what happened with Charlie Parker," Cooper says.

As for Na'il?

"Oh, we knew who he was," Cooper continues, "but we didn't have a chance to recruit him. He was going to Southern Cal. When a local kid commits to Southern Cal, we're not going to change that. But she called me up and opened the door to a good player, and he is a good player."

Better than good.

After playing defensive end his freshman season, Diggs was switched to outside linebacker last season--with wondrous results.

Diggs teamed with Andy Katzenmoyer and Jerry Rudzinski to form perhaps the best linebacking trio in the country.

Katzenmoyer, the 1997 Butkus Award winner, hogged most of the headlines, but most people who followed Ohio State last year thought Diggs had the better season.

That suspicion was confirmed when the sophomore Diggs, not Katzenmoyer, was named to the Big Ten Conference's first team at linebacker.

Diggs has recorded a team-high 12 sacks the last two seasons, but also knows that opponents' double-team blocks on Katzenmoyer made some of that possible.

This year will be different. Katzenmoyer and Rudzinski are gone, and now Diggs is the marked man.

"This year, I'm in the Andy role, getting double-teamed, getting cut [blocked] and all that good stuff," Diggs says. "That's what I've prepared for, early on."

Diggs got all he wanted in Ohio State's opening loss to Miami in the Kickoff Classic; he was an even bigger target with two Ohio State linebackers suspended for disciplinary reasons.

Still, Diggs was a bright spot on a day Ohio State gave up 398 total yards, 153 on the ground.

"I never thought a team could run on us like that," Diggs said afterward.

He finished with seven tackles, four for a loss, with one sack.

After a week off, Ohio State hosts UCLA this weekend in Columbus.

Had Diggs gone to USC, he would have faced the Trojans' cross-town rival three or four times in his college career.

Given the Trojan's eight-game losing streak to the Bruins, maybe it's best Diggs is taking on UCLA once, from afar.

Diggs thinks it's a shame the game has lost some of its luster with 11 UCLA players sitting out suspensions in the well-chronicled handicapped-parking scandal.

"I mainly feel sorry for them," he says of the suspended players. "But it really doesn't matter. It doesn't change my attitude as to how I'm going to prepare for them. I'm pretty sure there'll be somebody in there that will step up to play."

Diggs has no regrets on how things ended up, although the first winter in Columbus was cold and lonely.

He warmed up to the town after his first trip to Ohio Stadium on game day.

"I can't describe in words how that feels," Diggs says, "to run into that stadium was probably the best thing I've experienced in college other than beating Michigan."

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