“Are you not entertained?” – Maximus
Buckeye Nation has taken on a healthy glow since Terrelle Pryor took a knee in the dying seconds of the Sugar Bowl. The Kong-sized SEC monkey lies dead in the gutter, a demon exorcized in large part by a rampaging bull named Cameron and a plucky great Dane. Dead as a doornail, and it’s easy to see how the faithful can hibernate snugly, which is a nice change from the teeth-chattering, drafty, shivering, huddled winters of our discontent – the icy Januaries of 2007, 2008 and 2009.
With Rose and Sugar Bowl victories the last two years, the Buckeyes have ascended to rarified air on BCS Mountain. A record six BCS wins in a record nine BCS bowl appearances elucidate the success of Ohio State’s football program under The Vest.
Simultaneously, these are wondrous times for our hardwood warriors (brave and bold). On the heels of the conclusion of a Naismith Award winner’s career in Columbus, it is inconceivable that another potential national collegiate player of the year regularly crosses the Oval, yet that’s precisely what has happened. It is unthinkable for a player like Evan Turner to leave and yet for his team to be better the following year, but this has also occurred. These things are taking place largely because of a very large man – freshman Jared Sullinger – who has helped his team start the season better than all but three previous Buckeye hoops teams in 112 years.
So why is it so quiet in Columbus?
In literal and figurative terms, this is the quietest time in memory for OSU’s two highest profile sports teams. Well, that is if you don’t count the occasional booing. Along with the phenomenal recent pairing of success enjoyed by the football and men’s basketball programs has come an unprecedented level of spoilage amongst Buckeye Nation. And it kind of makes me sick. It also legitimizes the use of words like “obnoxious” that fans of other schools’ teams use to describe us.
Let’s start with the simple, mathematical illustration of our spoiled state of being. With a 17-0 basketball team, a potential Naismith Award winner as a freshman (!), the winningest player in OSU history and a senior guard who seems Hell-bent on not only breaking the conference record for career 3-point baskets, but also on setting a nearly inhuman mark, the Buckeye basketball team is averaging 13,208 fans in an arena that holds 19,200. To put that into perspective, that’s a smaller average crowd than those which sold out St. John Arena to watch some average and some good (but not many great) Buckeye teams. The Schottenstein Center was built partly due to the demand for basketball tickets (but mostly it was about money, of course). Several years ago, student demand for tickets at St. John was so fierce that the university instituted a split season ticket, whereby your purchase of a home season ticket only entitled you admission to half the games. That venerable arena holds 13,276 and it was always full and always rocking.
I get that the new place has a dead atmosphere, regardless of where the student section is. I get that several of Ohio State’s home games this season have been against cupcake regional teams from the state of North Carolina. I understand that some of the home games were played during the holiday break. None of that explains why this very special team – and it is very special – is playing to a 2/3-full building. There are not six teams in the Big Ten better than Ohio State, yet six teams are averaging more fans per game. This is ludicrous.
For football, I’ll take you on a more anecdotal route. Owing to financial and geographical reasons, I have attended only two home games in our beloved Horseshoe on the Olentangy River since the mid 90s. At both of these games, I have noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere since the 1995 victory over Notre Dame – the last game I attended prior to the large renovation which added some 15,000 seats. The change is this: the fans seem to wait for the Buckeyes to make something happen so that they can cheer. This is contrary to the practice that fans used to employ: cheering to will the Buckeyes into doing something great. I’ve been to many a game in Ohio Stadium since the 1980s, most of which took place between 1984 and 1990. It was simply a louder, more intimidating and far more proactive crowd than what we have today. It’s easy to get up for the big games (the 2006 Michigan night game, for example), but that old monolithic Horseshoe used to be loud for any opponent (at least until the Buckeyes pulled away).
I considered after a 2007 trip to OSU that perhaps I romanticized the OSU crowd of days gone by. Perhaps I was guilty of the kind of back-in-my-day-ism to which the middle-aged are prone. After all, the opponent that day was a fairly pedestrian Northwestern team, and the game was effectively over by halftime. So I went back this year to visit with college friends and see the Penn State game with an open mind.
If anything, it was worse. Fans mostly sat, except in the student sections. People waited and waited for something good to happen, and there was precious little good in the first half of that game. When the teams left at halftime, boos rang out for the Buckeyes, who trailed 14-3. The last time I remember hearing boos in Ohio Stadium that weren’t directed at the referees, it was when John Cooper agreed to prematurely end a USC game when the Buckeyes – down two scores at the time – failed to recover an onside kick, despite the fact that Cooper still had timeouts in his pocket. It was only in the second half of the Penn State game, when touchdowns were scored and big plays made, that the fans became the boisterous throngs I recalled. As soon as the atmosphere changed, I recognized it instantly for that which I was used to experiencing.
One may try to argue that these are not the very best of times for Ohio State football and basketball. The oldest of these folks will likely bring up the names of Woody Hayes and Fred Taylor and reminisce fondly about the salad days of Hopalong Cassady, Archie Griffin, John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas. No doubt, those were good times. But were they as good as these times?
Jim Tressel’s track record is astonishing. In one decade, The Vest has 106 wins – you can round that up to 11 per season – against only 22 defeats, for a winning percentage of .828. That is by far the best winning percentage in OSU history by any coach who served longer than three seasons. The almighty vested one has compiled a 9-1 record against our most hated rival from up north, which is two more wins than the two previous OSU coaches combined over a 22-year period. It’s also 13 fewer losses (and one less, no-longer-possible tie) against the maize and blue monsters. Have we forgotten this? In 28 seasons, Woody totaled 16 wins against That Team Up North. JT is more than halfway there in about a third of the time.
Woody was undoubtedly one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. His three AP national championships (and two UPI) are legendary, but the road to such championships was not as difficult as it is today. Scholarship limits evened a once-uneven playing field somewhat. The rise of the awful BCS makes even one misstep critical in a quest for a championship in most years. Tressel has only one national title to date, but has put his team in position to win two others, and in back-to-back years. Woody took Ohio State to 11 bowl games. Tressel has been to 10 straight, though there are admittedly many more options in the modern game. Woody was 5-6 in bowl games, Tressel is 6-4. Woody lost three or more games in a season 12 times and had two losing seasons. Tressel has lost three or more games twice. He hasn’t had a losing season to date and I can’t imagine how ugly Buckeye Nation would be if and when he does, because even in these days of wine and (sometimes) roses, there is grumbling at every turn, including much of it regarding the second half of the aforementioned Sugar Bowl.
There are physical differences too. Woody was fiery, while Tressel exudes calm. Woody was a rascal while Tressel is professorial. Woody didn’t mind stomping an opponent, while Tressel takes the air out of the game and grinds the clock into a choking black dust, which may be unhealthy for your lungs and it sometimes allows opponents to crawl back into contention, but rarely does it put the Buckeyes in any real jeopardy of losing the contest. Much is made of Tresselball because it isn’t sexy. There are no style points attached to it. It is, however, successful. You can’t argue statistical success with a man who wears a sweater vest and looks like an accountant because, like 83% of Ohio State’s opponents over the last decade, you’ll lose. The great irony of Tresselball is that Woody would likely have approved of it.
On the basketball side, Thad Matta is 40 games above .500 for his career in conference games. Only Taylor enjoyed that kind of success at Ohio State, and he coached for 18 seasons in Columbus, while Matta is only in his seventh year. Only three OSU men’s hoops coaches have more wins than Matta and all coached for at least nine years. Matta’s teams are winning at a 76% clip whereas Taylor produced wins in 65% of his games. Taylor had six Big Ten titles in his 18 years. Matta had three in his first six. Taylor took his team to the NCAA tournament only five times in 18 seasons, winning that notable championship in 1960. Matta has been to the dance three times and will almost assuredly make his fourth trip this year. But for an abnormal 3-point shooting night in 2007 (seriously, 4-of-23?), he would also have a national championship. With a team that featured three freshmen.
While everything is subjective to the beholder, it is quite possible, even probable, that Ohio State is currently enjoying its most successful football and basketball in school history. At the same time. I remember when people grumbled about “Old 9 and 3 Earle” Bruce and then John Cooper’s futility in The Game and in bowls. Suddenly it seems that even 12-1 is suspect. I recall the hoops teams of Eldon Miller, Gary Williams and Randy Ayers that never seemed to do quite enough. But those coaches often had raucous sellout crowds in the stands. Expectations have never been higher, and that’s ok because success is what raises those expectations. However, that same success can also make one lose sight of the forest due to myopic examination of that one wretched ugly tree. Like a child who gets everything it wants, it spoils us and makes us look petty and petulant in the eyes of fans that would kill for their teams to be as successful as ours.
So let’s make some noise, Columbus. Don’t take these teams for granted. Don’t wait for the gladiators in scarlet and gray to entertain you first. As Earle said, “Cheer your team!” Don’t wait for something good to happen to make you cheer. Cheer to make something good happen. Fill the Schottenstein Center like you fill Ohio Stadium. Treasure what you have now because not only is it the best you’ve ever had, and maybe ever will, but also because history shows that sports success is cyclical. These good times will not last forever. Enjoy them while you can. Embrace them. Savor them.