Before Ohio’s game against Virginia on Saturday night, Jeff Boals was on his phone. He has a group chat exclusive to his teammates from Ohio’s 1993-1994 season. In that season, the Bobcats won the Mid-American Conference Championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament before bowing out to Indiana in the first round.
Boals maintains a lifelong bond with his teammates from 1994. The chat keeps tabs on one another, and the talk speeds up as basketball season comes and goes. Celebratory texts and congratulations poured in after Boals and the Bobcats won the MAC Championship in mid-March.
As he scrolled through the chat and prepared to face the Cavaliers, Boals found the perfect video to send.
Earlier that day, Ohio graduate assistant Mike Cifliku had edited together a highlight reel of Boals from 1994, when Ohio played against Virginia in the Preseason National Invitation Tournament. Ohio defeated the Cavaliers in the quarterfinals that year, so the video seemed appropriate before the two met again on a much larger stage.
“Here’s your pregame hype video,” Boals sent to the chat as a kicker.
Turns out the video was a good luck charm. When Ohio upset Virginia in Assembly Hall on Saturday, the group chat exploded. Boals said he had to sift through over 200 messages from that chat alone.
“Yeah, those guys are so awesome,” Boals said of his former teammates. “Like I told you, they keep me humble. And they're telling me during the course of the game we need to do this more, we need to do that more. And just a great group of guys.”
Boals’ past resurfaced to support him. Several of his former teammates had made the trek to Bloomington to support him in person. Boals didn’t meet up with them, but the support was palpable. He’d be able to read it in the chat after the game.
His teammates aren’t afraid to criticize him, or each other. If Ohio lacks polish, Boals hears about it in the chat after games. Or any day of the week for that matter.
The group chat buzzes at all hours of the day with friends ribbing each other or discussing basketball. Many in the chat are now coaches themselves. Geno Ford, a freshman during the 1994-run, is Stony Brook’s coach. He assumed the job after Boals left in 2019 to take the job at Ohio.
“I mean, there's not a day goes by that we don't talk,” Boals said. “And it's like you're in the locker room, it’s like you're on a bus trip. Guys are cracking jokes and cracking on each other. And nobody's safe, including myself. I think that's part of being a championship team. You're bonded for life.”
Boals’ teammates have talked to each other every day for the past 27 years. They’ve been to each others’ weddings and picked up conversations at reunions like they saw each other the other day. It’s a bond like any other, and now Boals can share a similar bond with his players this season.
Ohio hasn’t seen a run in the NCAA Tournament in almost a decade. An air of uncertainty surrounds the Bobcats on whether or not this season was a temporary glint of excellence or a preview of things to come for them. Monday’s game against Creighton awaits and the media buzz around the Bobcats is flooding in.
For now, Boals just wants his team to drink in the experience. They’ll only experience their first dance once.
“I told our guys after the game, ‘Enjoy it. Soak it in,’” Boals said. “‘Enjoy the moment because too many times in life you don't stop and look around and enjoy that experience.’ You're always on to the next thing.”