Leistikow: How Luke Lachey's Ohio State family became all-in on Iowa football

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

Jim and Ann Lachey are native Ohioans who met while attending Ohio State in 1985, when he was a senior and she was a freshman, and they’ve been together ever since.

Even while Jim enjoyed a magnificent 10-year pro career, the couple kept a condo in Columbus for the NFL offseason. Their three daughters all attended and graduated from Ohio State. One daughter, Emily, is married to former Ohio State and current Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Pat Elflein. Jim has a brother who is the equipment manager for Ohio State athletics. And, oh by the way, for the last 26 years Jim has been the radio analyst for Ohio State football broadcasts alongside legendary play-by-play man Paul Keels.

So, yeah, it’s safe to say the Lacheys are a Buckeye family, through and through.

Yet this Saturday, when second-ranked Ohio State hosts Iowa and tries to win its 28th consecutive Big Ten Conference home game, the “LACHEYGATE” − a tailgate that was established in 1981, Jim's freshman year at Ohio State − just outside Ohio Stadium will be over-run with folks wearing black and gold. Because this week, the Lacheys − even Dad up in the press box on the radio call − are partial to the Hawkeyes.

“It’s a Buckeye family. But now it’s a Hawkeye family,” Ann Lachey says. “We’re very excited about that.”

More:Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Iowa football taking fearless approach as 29-point underdog to Ohio State

That’s because Luke Lachey, the youngest of five Lachey children, is a redshirt sophomore tight end who wears No. 85 for the Hawkeyes. Luke spent his childhood wearing scarlet and gray and rooting for Ohio State every Saturday, attending just about every home game from age 7 through high school. Now he gets a chance to play a game in Ohio Stadium for the first time ... against the Buckeyes.

"I can think of so many times I was out there throwing the ball with my friends or my uncle’s friends (at tailgates)," Lachey says. "But I never really thought I would play in there.”

The Lachey family is shown following Iowa's 51-14 win against Maryland on Oct. 1, 2021. From left: Ali, Emily, James, Luke, Ann, Jim, Paige and Beau (Paige's husband).

Special moments in the radio booth for Luke's father, Ohio State analyst Jim Lachey

The “LACHEYGATE” will kick off around 7:30 a.m. Saturday, well before the noon ET start time for Iowa vs. Ohio State, which will be watched by millions nationwide on Fox. Daughters Ali, Emily and Paige and son James (who played football at Bowling Green but had to retire because of concussion issues) weeks ago sent out the spreadsheet about who’s bringing what. This has been a long-anticipated moment, ever since the schedule came out. Saturday marks Iowa’s first game at Ohio Stadium since 2013, when Luke was 12 years old. There's an outside chance Iowa could return to Columbus in the reimagined 16-team Big Ten in 2024, but those schedules haven't been released yet. This is likely Luke's one and only chance to play there.

“The kids have been counting it down for two years," Ann says.

While Luke says his family has been giving him some space this week, he got a text reading "Let's go!" from Emily on Wednesday morning. There's just a little more family juice for this game.

A big community contingent is expected at the tailgate − mostly in support of the Hawkeyes, because of their affinity for Luke and the Lachey family – as well as a large group of Hawkeye football parents who have been invited to attend. (The Lacheys' home in the Grandview neighborhood is a mere 3-mile walk from Ohio Stadium.)

By the time they all arrive, though, Jim Lachey will already be up in the Ohio Stadium press box, working the pregame broadcast for the Buckeyes’ latest checkpoint in what’s expected to be a season-long march to the College Football Playoff. Jim was an all-America offensive lineman at Ohio State who paved the way for legendary running back Keith Byars. He recalls playing at Kinnick Stadium in a classic 1983 contest when the seventh-ranked Hawkeyes upended No. 3 Ohio State, 20-14.

“Larry Station was their linebacker, right?” Jim says. “I remember knocking heads with him.”

Jim Lachey is shown during Ohio State's 45-26 win against Iowa in the 1984 season in Columbus.

Jim Lachey became an NFL legend. He was the No. 12 overall pick in the 1985 draft by the San Diego Chargers and was a three-time All-Pro who won a Super Bowl with Washington in 1991. It was during his time in suburban Washington (the team practiced in northern Virginia) that Lachey became enamored with sports-talk radio. Though his commute was just 14 miles to practice, he would sometimes sit in D.C. traffic for an hour each way and listen to the banter.

After he retired and ended up back in Columbus, he got asked to get involved in radio. After all, a Super Bowl champion with an all-America pedigree at Ohio State had lots of cache. Pretty soon, he was the Buckeyes’ version of Ed Podolak at Iowa.

Jim recalls being a little over-the-top in his fandom as an announcer in 2002. He hadn’t seen a national title for Ohio State since 1968, when he was 5, and he wasn’t sure he’d ever see another one.

“I probably yelled about 11 times during that double-overtime championship win over Miami,” he sheepishly recalls.

But he’s mellowed since and tries to perform his Buckeye analyst duties straight down the middle.

More:Here's what Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said ahead of facing No. 2 Ohio State

However, there’s one topic on Saturdays where he'll potentially become a little biased: his youngest son. During Buckeye games, Jim will have his iPad on in the radio booth if the Hawkeyes are playing. He always catches the replays at a minimum.

When Luke scored his first career touchdown three weeks ago, even though it came with 8 seconds to go in a 27-14 loss to Michigan, it became a big deal on Buckeyes radio. As Ann Lachey put it, Luke didn’t like Michigan growing up and would never think of walking out of the house with blue and yellow together. That color (combo) was not working here."

Luke's touchdown vs. the team up north (as some Buckeye fans refer to Michigan) occurred just before Ohio State was set to kick off against Rutgers that Saturday afternoon. Jim contends that Keels was more over-the-top on-air about Luke’s touchdown than he was.

How down the middle will Jim keep things when his son is playing for the Hawkeyes in Saturday’s game?

“I’m more worried about how Paul’s going to handle it,” he says. “I know I’ll be a pro.”

Jim Lachey, Ohio State's color analyst for radio broadcasts the past 26 seasons, is shown when current Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Luke Lachey was a small boy.

The stage is set on multiple levels for Luke Lachey's return home

So, how did Luke Lachey end up at Iowa and not Ohio State?

For starters, Luke was more accomplished as a basketball player at Grandview Heights High School, where he averaged 16.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game as a senior. He was still a football projection but had an impressive football offer list that included LSU, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Second, Ohio State never offered. Luke told the story Wednesday about attending a Buckeyes football camp and being disappointed that a scholarship offer didn't come. After he got off the phone with Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, Luke recalls talking with his dad and almost instantly setting up a visit to Iowa.

"So it all worked out in the end for me," Luke says. "I think that might have been the best thing for me. I love where I am; I don’t think there’s a place better for me."

Luke committed to Iowa in July of 2019. Just 20 months earlier, he was home in Columbus watching the Buckeyes get torched for four touchdowns by the Hawkeyes’ star tight ends, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, in a 55-24 Iowa win on Nov. 4, 2017. That remains one of the most stunning wins in Iowa history and stands as the fifth-most points scored against an Ohio State team.

That outcome certainly left an impression on 16-year-old Luke.

"Once football started coming up in 2018, I started to think about past games and that one really stuck out to me," Luke says. "They used their tight ends really well in that game. ... It definitely stood out."

Previously:Leistikow's DVR Monday: Iowa's biggest offensive problem is clear after Illinois loss

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz recalls attending a Grandview Heights game in the fall of 2019 and seeing Luke catch a fade pass over a defender who was almost a foot shorter than him.

“To us, he just looked like a really good athlete … a guy I thought had great growth potential,” Ferentz says, “and I think that's what we've seen develop over the last couple years.”

This image of Luke Lachey pointing for a first down after a catch last season during Iowa's 23-20 win against Penn State was the inspiration for Lachey family T-shirts that will be prevalent Saturday at Ohio Stadium, near where Lachey grew up.

Luke has 17 catches for 290 yards in his young career, which includes seven starts (Iowa uses a lot of two-tight-end sets). He’s the Hawkeyes’ No. 2 tight end alongside Sam LaPorta, who will be an NFL Draft pick this spring. That’ll clear the path for Luke to become Iowa’s featured tight end in 2023. With more development, he could follow his father's path into the NFL.

But even now, Luke is one of the best players on an Iowa offense that has had trouble gaining ground in a 3-3 start. He posted a career-best four catches for 84 yards against Michigan. At 6-foot-7 (even though he’s listed at 6-6) and 252 pounds with excellent hands and improved blocking skills, he could be a factor in Saturday’s game.

After all, covering the tight end has long been problematic for Ohio State defenses. (Iowa's last two matchups vs. Ohio State, in 2013 and 2017, have been evidence of that.)

“I just watch trends,” Jim says. “I know that every tight end over the years has killed us.”

The rationale makes sense when you hear Jim explain it.

“(The defense) always had so much work against wide receivers in practice. The tight end is like the fourth option, and he might get thrown the ball once or twice a game,” Jim says. “So, the defense is used to working against wide receivers. It’s just different.”

That would be quite the story, if Luke has a big game against a Buckeyes program he once loved.

A few final notes about the meaning of this game for the Lacheys ...

This will be Ann's first game in Ohio Stadium since 2019, her son's senior year. She's been to every Hawkeye game except one (Illinois, during the 2020 COVID season) over the past three years instead, supporting her son.

This is the only time Jim can see his son play in person this regular season; Iowa and Ohio State had the same idle week. Additionally, Jim's parents (ages 90 and 87) are planning to attend an Ohio State home game for the final time. His father, a physical education teacher for 48 years, proudly wears a Hawkeye hat around town in support of his grandson.

When Luke was born, his godparents purchased a brick that is engraved just outside Ohio Stadium that reads, "For our godson, Luke J. Lachey. Go Bucks." Lachey’s sisters have plans sometime before Saturday’s game to correct that with a sticker that says, “Go Hawkeyes.”

Whether Iowa pulls off the stunning upset or loses as oddsmakers expect, there's no doubt Luke Lachey will be feeling the love Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

“It’s definitely a business trip at the end of the day," Luke says, "but it is a little more exciting to go home and play in Columbus."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.