Last Night At The ‘Shoe

We went to see the Ohio State-Michigan State game last night at Ohio Stadium.  It was a great test for the Buckeyes, who prevailed 34-10.  The Spartans are always a tough team, and their physical defense gave the Men of the Scarlet and Gray all they could handle until Ohio State broke some big plays and established a cushion.  MSU, like true Spartans, kept fighting to the end — they are a better team, I think, than many people realize.

While it’s always nice to go to a game at the ‘Shoe, to revisit some of the old traditions, it’s also interesting to see what new features have been added.  Last night’s game was a “black out,” where the fans were supposed to wear black.  Many did, including most of our party, but the concept didn’t really work in my opinion.  The stands really don’t look that much different, and the device certainly doesn’t pack the same punch as the “white outs” that Penn State seems to schedule every time Ohio State visits Happy Valley.  I’d rather see “Scarlet Fever,” where everyone is encouraged to wear their scarlet jerseys and sweatshirts and jackets.  I think that would have a lot more visual impact.

The game also involved some shooting flames and fireworks added to the traditional entrance of the team onto the field, as well as fireworks launched from time to time from the south end of the field and the area above the press box.  That added a little dash to the contest.  And at one point after darkness had totally fallen, everyone pulled out their cellphones, tapped their flashlight apps, and the stadium became a sea of slowly moving lights, like fireflies on a lazy summer evening.  That was also a pretty cool effect.

I don’t mind the OSU athletic department experimenting with innovation, so long as they keep the old traditions, too.  After all, every current tradition was, at some point, a new innovation.  Who knows?  At some point the cellphone flashlight moment may be as enshrined in Buckeye tradition as the band’s ramp entrance or Script Ohio.

Noon Kickoff Memories

Today the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Maryland Terrapins at noon.  Nowadays, that seems like a weird time for an OSU football game.  It’s so early!  Now, the Buckeyes typically play at 3:30 or at 8:00, under the lights.

But when I first started going to OSU football games in the ’70s, noon was the kickoff time for pretty much every game.  And at our house, where Dad and Mom hosted a gang of clients, colleagues, and family members who were going to the game, the noon kickoff produced a certain rhythm and sameness.

Scarlet-and-gray clad people started arriving at about 8:30.  An Ohio State Marching Band record would be playing on the stereo, and Mom would lay out a buffet of food.  For the hardy souls — and I do mean hardy — Uncle Tony would prepare lethal, translucent Bloody Marys that could end your football Saturday before it really began.  Jim, Aunt Bebe and I would look at Aunt Bebe’s football card, which identified the games you could bet on for the day and their spreads, and Aunt Bebe would consult her season-long Stat-Key information before making her picks. As kickoff time neared, we’d start to hear the motors of the prop planes flying overhead, heading for Ohio Stadium with their advertising banners for pizza or insurance in tow.

We’d nibble at food, listening to the noise level in our split-level house mount as more people arrived and feeling that growing excitement that comes with the knowledge that a game is only hours away and you’re going.  Jim and I were usually responsible for making sure that iced-down coolers of beer and sodas were put in our transportation.  Then the departure time would come, and we’d don our Buckeye Nation gear, pile into a van or RV, and roll from Upper Arlington down to the French Field House parking lot across from the Stadium for some tailgating before game time.

After the game — which usually lasted no more than three hours, because only one or two of Ohio State’s games were televised each season and at the game you didn’t have to wait through a bunch of commercial interruptions — we’d return home, ready to celebrate another Buckeye victory and eat the lavish spread that Mom had set out.  The adults would drink some more, but Jim and I would usually go outside to throw the football around with our neighborhood friends on a crisp autumn afternoon, and there was still plenty of daylight left to do so.  When we came back inside the remaining guests were roaring and red-faced and entertaining in their own right, and usually there would be a late game to watch before the 11:30 start of The Woody Hayes Show rolled around.

College football coaches don’t like noon kickoffs these days.  They want a later kickoff, so visiting recruits can see the campus and spend some time with the current players before the games begin, and I can understand that.  But as a kid, I liked the noon games.  The memories of those games during my teenage years are still very fresh.

Hoping For The Right Rub-Off Effect

On August 7 the Cleveland Browns will hold the Orange and Brown scrimmage at one of the most hallowed sites in football:  Ohio Stadium.

It’s hard to imagine teams with more different trajectories than the Buckeyes and the Browns.  Last year the Buckeyes won the first college football playoff, in dominating fashion, and collected another national championship trophy.  With high-intensity coach Urban Meyer at the helm, the Buckeyes have rampaged through the Big Ten, thrown the SEC monkey off their backs, and recruited a roster of incredibly gifted athletes.  And with much of last year’s great team returning and more talented players being added, the future looks bright, too.

The Browns are, well, the Browns.  They’ve stunk up the joint for years and become a punch line in the pro football world.  They’ve never made it to the Super Bowl, which is incredibly embarrassing.  Their long-suffering fans expect terrible things to happen — and, unfortunately, all too often they do.

Why are the Buckeyes successful when the Browns are terrible?  Both teams have a great history and tradition, but tradition doesn’t win football games.  You need smart, capable, motivated people at the top who can find the talent, develop the right game plans, and then provide solid leadership and good decision-making at crunch time.  The Buckeyes have all of this, and the Browns don’t.

Maybe by holding a scrimmage at Ohio Stadium the Browns front office and coaching staff can spend some time with Coach Meyer and his staff and learn something.  Those of us who are fans of both the Browns and the Buckeyes can only hope that some of Ohio State’s formula for success might rub off on the snake-bitten team from Cleveland.

Of course, the Browns being the Browns, we probably need to worry that some of the Browns’ record of failure and disaster might rub off on the Buckeyes.

Snow ‘Shoe

IMG_5469I’ve been going to Ohio State home games for more than 40 years, and I’ve never seen it snow as much as it did during yesterday’s game against Indiana.

It made the game a memorable one.  At times the old Horseshoe experienced blizzard-like conditions, and there was sufficient accumulation on the field that two attendants had to go out with push brooms to sweep off the yard lines and the hash marks.  Fortunately I was sitting in B Deck, so I was shielded somewhat from the cutting wind and only had to deal with the distinctly arctic air.  It was cold, and sitting in C Deck must have been brutal.

By the end of the third quarter, as the Buckeyes surged to a 35-0 lead, C Deck had emptied out and so had most of the stands, as even the diehard fans decided that the game was in hand and it was time to start worrying about potentially losing digits to frostbite.IMG_5479

Learning About The House That Chic (And Howard) Built

Ohio Stadium, also known as the Horseshoe, is one of the most famous football stadiums in the land.  But who built that cavernous concrete edifice on the banks of the Olentangy River — literally and figuratively?

IMG_1827If you are a Buckeyes fan, you probably know the name of the figurative architect.  It’s Charles William “Chic” Harley, the great player who put Ohio State on the national gridiron map and started the quasi-religion that is Ohio State football.  Harley could run, pass, punt, and kick field goals and extra points, and he led Ohio State to its first undefeated season in 1916.  With Harley leading the way, Ohio State football became so popular that the Buckeyes outgrew their existing field and needed to look at a new — and much larger — home.

Which brings us to the literal architect, whose name was Howard Dwight Smith.  He not only designed Ohio Stadium, and won a gold medal for public building design from the American Institute of Architects in the process, he also oversaw the construction of St. John Arena and French Field House, which are other, well-known campus landmarks.

Want to learn more about these two legends of the Ohio State campus?  You can get ready for the Ohio State football season by signing up for a timely On the Road with Ohioana presentation on August 17.  The program will feature a tour of these and other campus landmarks, including the newly restored William Oxley Thompson Library, as well as remarks from OSU professor emeritus Raimond Goerler and Columbus Dispatch sportswriter Bob Hunter, the author of Chic and other books about Ohio State.  I’m pumped about the chance to learn a little bit more about my alma mater and my team and to support the Ohioana Library Association in the process.  If you’re interested in joining me, you can sign up here.  At only $35 for a four-hour tour and program, it’s a real Buckeye Bargain!

Dotting The i At “The Game”

If you are a Sousaphone player in Ohio, you have one overriding dream:  to one day dot the i in Script Ohio.

Script Ohio is one of the most revered traditions of the Ohio State University Marching Band — commonly known, without exaggeration, as The Best Damn Band In The Land.  In fact, Script Ohio may be the most famous band maneuver in the world.  Starting from the form of a square, the band plays “Le Regiment” and follows the drum major in order to spell out “Ohio” in cursive letters, as if the word were being written by a giant hand.  The climax comes when the drum major leads one of the senior Sousaphone player out to dot the i.  The Sousaphone player high steps out, removes his or her hat, and does a deep bow to make the dot as Ohio Stadium roars its approval.

As great as it is to dot the i, the real cherry is to dot the i in Script Ohio during The Game — Ohio State’s annual grudge match against the Michigan Wolverines. I’ve actually met the Sousaphonist who will have that tremendous honor, and the nationally televised thrill of a lifetime, during Saturday’s Big Game.  Her name is Jocelyn Smallwood, and her parents are Carl and Connie Smallwood.  TBDBITL is a strict meritocracy, and Jocelyn has worked hard to earn the acclamation that will come with dotting the i at the Michigan game.  Among the more than 100,000 screaming fans will be many members of the extended Smallwood clan, cheering Jocelyn on as she prances out to Sousaphone immortality.

Congratulations, Jocelyn!  (And Beat Michigan!)

Gunning For 10 And 0

This afternoon Ohio State plays Illinois in Ohio Stadium.  Under new coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have bounced back from last year’s grim 6-7 record and now stand at 9-0 — surprising all but the most optimistic members of Buckeye Nation.

Like OSU, Illinois has a new head coach — former Toledo coach Tim Beckman — but the similarities end there.  The Illini season has been one of disappointment rather than accomplishment.  Illinois is 2-6, has lost every one of their four Big Ten games, and has experienced some embarrassing losses, like a 52-24 loss, at home, to Louisiana Tech and a 45-0 drubbing at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines.  Illinois’ offense has sputtered and broken down; the Fighting Illini are one of the worst teams in the BCS in passing and scoring offense and not much better at running the ball.  Their once-promising quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, remains a run-pass threat, but he hasn’t had much help.  Last week, against Indiana, he was sacked seven times.  Today, the Buckeyes also will try to put pressure on Scheelhaase and force him into bad decisions.

This is a game that Ohio State should win, but also one that the Buckeyes can’t afford to take for granted.  Ohio State hasn’t exactly been overwhelming, and in many games the Buckeyes experienced offensive or defensive breakdowns that kept the outcome in doubt until late the fourth quarter.  And those of us, myself included, who went to the Purdue game only two weeks ago remember what happened the last time a winless Big Ten team came to Ohio Stadium for a match-up that Buckeye fans thought would be an easy win.  As exciting as the Purdue finish was, I don’t want to see today’s game hanging in the balance as the clock ticks down.

Ohio State needs to execute on offense, score early and often against an Illinois defense that has given up a lot of points this season, take advantage of an Illinois offense that has struggled to score, and show a killer instinct in putting this game away as early as possible.  There will be time enough to reflect on the season so far next weekend, when Ohio State has a bye.

Under The Lights At The Horseshoe

It’s a special day today, because the Nebraska Cornhuskers visit Ohio Stadium for the first time since the Big Red became members of the Big Ten.

What will make the game extra special is that it is under the lights at the Old Horseshoe.  Ohio Stadium is a classic, storied college football venue — you can’t walk into the Stadium without feeling the history sunk deep into the turf, the concrete rows and ramps up to B and C decks, and the pillars with their Block O capstones — but it becomes an especially spectacular place for a football game under the lights.  The Stadium itself is brightly lit, and the crowd is lit, too.

The tailgaters will have been out for hours, guzzling beers, spanking down tailgate food, and getting pumped for the game.  That additional tailgating time, and fact that the night games usually are big games against ranked teams, means that the Ohio Stadium crowd is much more raucous when darkness falls.  It’s a lot easier to scream your brains out when you’ve lubricated those vocal cords with a six-pack or a few warming toddies.  I’m hoping that tonight’s crowd is in full-throated frenzy and geared up to give Nebraska an especially loud and proud Ohio Stadium welcome to the Big Ten.

It should be an interesting match-up on the field, too.  Last year, Ohio State jumped out to a surprisingly large lead in Lincoln, then Nebraska shredded the Buckeye defense in the second half and pulled off an historic comeback.  It was an embarrassing performance by the Ohio State defense.  I’m hoping that the D uses last year’s game as motivation and comes out ready to play, because Nebraska has a powerful offense led by the arm and feet of quarterback Taylor Martinez.  If Ohio State is going to win this game, its defense needs to control the line of scrimmage and control Martinez’s scrambling.  Of course, the Buckeye defense has been used to facing Braxton Miller in practice, so they presumably should be well drilled in containment.

When I came back to Columbus yesterday, I saw a Nebraska fan in full regalia at Port Columbus.  I said hello, welcomed him to the Big Ten, wished him a fun time during his visit to Columbus, and then said I hoped the Buckeyes stomped the Cornhuskers tonight.  I meant every word.

The View From The Press Box

When I visited Ohio Stadium last week, I not only got to go out onto the field, I also got to go up to the press box.  It is an impressive facility with tons of electrical outlets, cubbies for the bags and belongings of intrepid sports reporters, hundreds of seats, multiple decks — and a stunning view of the field.  It wouldn’t be too much of a sacrifice to watch a game from up there.

Sacred Ground

Tonight a friend invited me to a function that allowed me to visit Ohio Stadium, see the recruit lounge and the press box, and walk out onto the field.  (Thanks, Shaun!)

To stand at the 50-yard line, on the one little patch of the Earth’s surface where the Griffins and the Spielmans and the Georges and the Parkers and the other great Buckeyes have played for the last 90 years, to walk the sidelines where once Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel prowled, to look up at the huge bowl of the stadium from field level, was some kind of awesome.

 

Horseshoe Hotbox (II)

As predicated, the Ohio State-Akron game was a hotbox.  The game featured blazing sunshine and temperatures that reached near the century mark.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that medics treated dozens of people for heat-related conditions, and University officials opened up cooler areas of the Stadium, including the band room, for people suffering from the effects of the heat.  As for the band itself, members received bags of ice to place on their baking noggins, as shown in the Cleveland Plain Dealer photo at left.  The TV report on the game showed that a huge number of alumni band members fled for shaded areas and ice water rather than endure the cruel heat and sun in the stands.

As bad as the spectator seating was, the field was worse.  One official had to leave the game, and the trainers were working overtime to keep players hydrated and cooled off.  Normally temperatures in the 80s at game time produce lots of cramps, but there didn’t seem to be many yesterday.  Perhaps that is a sign that this year’s Buckeye squad is particularly well-conditioned.

It will be good to get into true football weather — for fans, players, bandies, and officials alike.

Thank You, Andy Geiger

Thad Matta has coached the Buckeye basketball team to Big Ten championships, NCAA tournament bids, and the NCAA championship game, and this year’s team is the last undefeated team in major college basketball.  Jim Tressel has coached the Ohio State football team to another Big Ten championship and another win in a BCS bowl game and has won a national championship during his tenure as the Buckeyes’ head coach.  Both of these fine coaches are working at Ohio State thanks, in part, to a man named Andy Geiger.

Andy Geiger was the Ohio State Athletic Director from 1994 to 2005.  He presided over some momentous and controversial times for the Buckeyes. Geiger’s biography on the official OSU athletics website focuses principally on his work on Ohio State’s facilities.  He expanded Ohio Stadium, built Bill Davis Stadium for the baseball team, built Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center for the basketball teams, and added the Jesse Owens track to the complex of  Ohio State athletic facilities.  During his tenure Ohio State went from a school with aging facilities to one with new, updated facilities in virtually every sport.

The Buckeye Nation might argue about the modifications of Ohio Stadium and the merit of the Schott as a basketball facility, but there can be no dispute about the merit of two of Geiger’s decisions.  He hired Jim Tressel, and he hired Thad Matta.  It may be difficult to preside over capital campaigns to expand facilities, but that job is child’s play compared to selecting a head football coach and a head basketball coach at a major university that has legions of rabid, unforgiving fans.  Deciding whether an individual will have the unique combination of class, character, coaching and recruiting ability, organizational skill, and public relations savvy necessary to be successful in such high-profile jobs is no easy task, and countless universities have stumbled badly in making those decisions.

On that crucial task, however, Geiger twice succeeded beyond any and all expectations.  Thanks to his selections, Ohio State has in Coach Tressel and Coach Matta the best tandem of college football and basketball coaches in the nation.  Was Andy Geiger an extraordinarily good judge of people or was he wildly, improbably lucky — not once but twice?  Either way, the Buckeye Nation should be forever grateful that Geiger was at the helm to make those decisions.

Please, Don’t Mess With The Game!

The post-expansion rumblings from Big Ten headquarters are troubling because they indicate that conference officials may decide to mess with The Game.  The latest article quotes Michigan’s Athletic Director as making comments that raise serious questions about whether Ohio State and Michigan will continue to play their end-of-season showdown game.   Michigan’s AD says he would not place Ohio State and Michigan in the same conference, because if they are in different divisions they could play, again, in the conference championship game.  If that happens, he argues that the teams logically should not play in the last game of the regular season, because then they could conceivably have to play back-to-back games.

My concern about Big Ten expansion all along has been that it will wreck Big Ten traditions like The Game.  The Ohio State-Michigan game is generally recognized as the single greatest rivalry game in all of sports.  It is hard for me to believe that Big Ten officials would be so idiotic as to tinker with their annual marquee match-up, but the comments of Michigan’s AD certainly suggest that possibility.

Big Ten officials and others need to realize that a Big Ten championship game played at a neutral site cannot possibly supplant The Game.  Sure, the winner of the Big Ten championship game will go on to the BCS, but that game will be missing what makes the Ohio State-Michigan game so special.

Much of what makes college football the greatest sport of all is the history underlying the match-ups, the storied venues like The Horsehoe and The Big House where the games have been played for decades, the home field traditions, and the collective memories of the joys and heartbreaks that true fans have experienced in the games against their arch-rivals.  Sports fans elsewhere understand the deep feelings at play in these rivalry games.  They watch the Ohio State-Michigan game because they recognize the strong emotions, they appreciate that the players on both teams are playing their guts out because they so desperately want to beat their despised (yet respected) opponents, and they identify with heavenly highs experienced by the fans of the winners and the crushing despair inflicted on the fans of the losers.  The Big Ten Championship Game will have none of that.

Rather than messing with The Game, Big Ten officials should be doing whatever they can to avoid making The Game into just another game.