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.

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The 17-Year Turning Point

Seventeen years ago today, I was at an Ohio State-Michigan basketball game.  It was the middle of another bleak winter, but there was a little bit of a buzz because the Buckeyes had just named a new head football coach and the rumor was that he might be at the game, where members of Buckeye Nation could get a good look at him.

His name was Jim Tressel.  He’d had good success coaching at Youngstown State, and there was hope that he might be more successful at Ohio State than his predecessor, John Cooper.  Cooper seemed like a nice enough guy, but his record at Ohio State in the games that really counted — that is, the annual fight to the death against Michigan, and then bowl games — was abysmal.  The Cooper era left Ohio State fans feeling beat down and forlorn, like we were in a hole that we could never really dig our way out of.

Could Tressel turn things around, and actually win a few games against the hated Team Up North?  Even more fundamentally, could we be sure he actually understood how important that game was?  There was always a lingering suspicion that Coach Cooper was baffled that, every year, his performance was judged on the basis of that one game.  Of course, native Ohioans and members of Buckeye Nation understood why that was the case — understood it intuitively, in their bones and their blood and their sinew, understood it with a depth of feeling that some might find maniacal but that every true sports fan recognizes.

And then, at halftime of that basketball game 17 years ago, Coach Tressel walked out and made a short little speech that was one of the single most electrifying moments I’ve witnessed in person.  He said:  “I can assure you that you will be proud of our young people in the classroom, in the community and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field.”  It wasn’t quite a guarantee of a win, of course, but it was an Ohio State coach speaking confidently about okaying Michigan.  It was thrilling!  The crowd erupted, and the video of Tressel’s remarks that I’ve posted above really doesn’t capture the explosion of cheers.  Here was a man who clearly . . . understood.  He understood the importance of The Game, and the importance of pride.

And he was right.  Coach Tressel changed things, forever.  The Buckeyes went on a tear against Michigan, and other teams, and they haven’t looked back.  And while Coach Tressel’s career at Ohio State didn’t end the way he hoped, members of Buckeye Nation will never forget him.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 17 years.  Coach Tressel, thank you for that speech!

The Week Of The Game

In most of America, people woke up this morning, rubbed their hands over their sleep-filled eyes, and wondered aloud that it could be Thanksgiving Week already.

Not so in Buckeye Nation.  Sure, we know there is some minor holiday on Thursday featuring turkey, stuffing, family arguments about politics, and appalling overeating — but our real focus is on next Saturday, when Ohio State takes on That Team from Up North in the latest annual incarnation of The Game.

This year’s version of The Game promises to be a humdinger.  Both Ohio State and Michigan have ten wins, both are ranked in the top five nationally, and both harbor hopes of being selected to be one of the four teams in the College Football Playoffs.  The Buckeyes have had an up-and-down season that has seen them crush some teams and squeak by others.  Yesterday’s nail-biter against a rugged Michigan State squad fell into the latter category.  That Team from Up North, on the other hand, has been a lot more consistent in thrashing just about everyone they’ve faced.  Both teams have one loss, but Ohio State’s defeat, to Penn State, means the Buckeyes don’t control their own destiny in their bid to win the Big Ten championship.  Michigan can get to the Big Ten title game by beating the Buckeyes, but if Ohio State wins it has to hope that those same Michigan State Spartans who gave the Buckeyes such a tough time yesterday can beat Penn State.

Regardless of the Big Ten title game implications, this will be the most eagerly anticipated Ohio-State-Michigan showdown since 2006, when the Buckeyes and Wolverines were ranked 1 and 2 going into The Game.  Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh may be quirky — OK, downright weird — but the guy obviously can coach.  In two years, he’s turned around the Michigan program and has Wolverines playing with swagger and toughness, especially on defense.  Ohio State, on the other hand, has to figure out which team will show up on Saturday — the one that has been almost unstoppable offensively, or the one that struggles to score and finds itself trying to hang on by its fingernails come the fourth quarter.  Members of Buckeye Nation are hoping it’s the former.

So bring on The Game.  Oh, and on Thursday throw me a turkey leg, willya?

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.

Trinity’s End

Tomorrow Ohio State plays its first game.  That means it’s almost time to put aside The Trinity.

The Trinity, of course, refers to the last three games that Ohio State played to reel in the first ever college football playoff championship.  The Buckeyes crushed Wisconsin to get into the playoffs, roared back to upset Alabama in the semifinal game, then spanked Oregon in the National Championship Game to bring home the trophy.

For members of Buckeye Nation, this Trinity of games is just this side of heaven.  They are three of the finest games Ohio State has played in my lifetime, and for them to come back-to-back-to-back, with all of the marbles and pressure and SEC jinxes on the line, is just short of incredible.

So, I’ve watched them, and watched them, and watched them.  I’ve seen the 30-minute version of the Buckeyes’ win over Wisconsin so many times that I’ve pretty much memorized dvery Cardale Jones completion and every catch phrase in Gus Johnson’s commentary.  I’ve watched Ezekiel Elliot split the Alabama defense and rip away for 85 yards so often that I see it in my dreams — which is a good thing.  And the fourth-and-goal stop of Oregon, following by the relentless ground game that chewed the Ducks into bits, is indelibly carved into my memory banks.

But now, it’s time to put those wonderful things away.  When a new season starts, you’ve got to forget the past and focus on the present.  There’s nothing sadder than football fans who live in the past.  I’m sure there are Michigan and Penn State fans who need to go deep into their history to find happy moments — and that’s pathetic.  I’d rather live and die with this year’s team than revel forever in last year’s glory.  That’s part of the fun of sports.

I’ll always remember The Trinity.  In fact, since we’re still more than 24 hours from kickoff, there’s still time for me to enjoy them — one more time.