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Rob Oller | Buckeyes face 'crazy times' looking to make their own nutty history

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
  • Buckeyes also faced schedule upheaval in 1918 and 1942

Boy, are you in luck — if historic events are your thing. After eight months of bizarre turning into business as usual, the 130th Ohio State football season begins during a pandemic that feels like it will last forever.

The Buckeyes open on Saturday against Nebraska in the 'Shoe, which if not for piped-in crowd noise would be renamed the Slipper. A gathering — one can hardly call it a crowd — of about 1,000 guests of player and coaches, with an additional sprinkling of media and game operations crew, will be surrounded by about 4,300 cutouts of fake fans whose impact on the game will be thinner than the cardboard they’re printed on.

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Weird does not begin to describe it. But it is not the first time chaos and confusion cold-cocked fall football. It also happened about 100 years ago and again about 25 years later.

In 1918, as now, college football fans rooted for a vaccine as well as for their favorite team. Ohio State opened on Oct. 5 against Ohio Wesleyan and played back-to-back weeks before taking a month-long break because of the worldwide Spanish flu pandemic that killed nearly 675,000 Americans.

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown off the natural rhythms of all aspects of Ohio State coach Ryan Day's life, including the preparation for his late-starting football team.

The Buckeyes resumed Nov. 9 against Case School of Applied Science (now known as Case Western Reserve University) and played their last three games without interruption, including a season-ending loss to Michigan — a precursor to The Game becoming the annual regular-season finale in 1935. 

If anything, 1918 might have felt more out of sorts than 2020, if only because the country was at the tail end of World War I in Europe, where “Over There” served as the team fight song. Many college-aged players, including Ohio State halfback Chic Harley, were still serving when the ’18 season began. Harley was training in Texas to be an Army pilot when the war ended. He returned for the 1919 season.

Fred Norton and Hap Courtney were not so fortunate. Norton, a recent graduate who played on the 1916 Buckeyes, was mortally wounded in an air battle over France. Courtney, who had been selected captain of the 1918 team, died at sea in September of '18.

More war-torn upheaval occurred in 1942 when the United States' entry into World War II turned college football rosters into a mishmash of players in various states of military service uncertainty. Season schedules took a hit. The 1942 and ’44 games between Ohio State and Illinois were played as Illini home games at Cleveland Municipal Stadium because restricted travel due to gas rationing was hurting Illinois attendance.

Playing football during wartime made for small crowds because of travel restrictions and strange bedfellows. In this 1942 photo, Ohio State's Paul Sarringhaus breaks a long run against the Iowa Seahawks, a U.S. Navy pre-flight program.

Germany and Japan altered everything. Consider the comments in 1942 of Wisconsin coach Harry Stuhldreher, who 20 years earlier had played quarterback at Notre Dame as one of the Four Horsemen in the Irish backfield.

“There’s a real parallel between football and modern warfare. And don’t think the boys themselves don’t realize it,” Stuhldreher said. “There’s a different attitude this fall over anything I’ve seen either as a player or coach.”

Sound familiar? Ohio State coach Ryan Day is not preparing the Buckeyes for battle — not even close, as war analogies are out of place in sports —- but 2020 certainly is different from anything he has seen as a player or coach. 

I wondered how COVID-19 has most impacted Day, who makes no bones about the virus having delivered a vicious, blindside hit. After saying that not being around his family enough the past few weeks has been the hardest part, Day explained how lack of routine has been the biggest adjustment.

“Not knowing what’s coming next. We’re so used to knowing what’s coming next, from a day-to-day basis, and in our world, specifically, in football,” he said. “It’s the season, then it’s spring. It’s recruiting, preseason, summer vacation and then work weeks.”

North Carolina coach Mack Brown also mentioned loss of routine, but veered more toward struggling to navigate the uncertainty and loss of control that accompanies the coronavirus.

“Will you have spring practice? Will you have official recruiting visits? Will we play?” Brown said. “It’s totally the unanswered questions for people who are creatures of routine. Can we work out? Can we practice? Can we meet in person? What about the dressing room? How do we eat? How will virtual classes work?”

Brown, who started in college coaching in 1973, ended the conversation with two words: “Crazy times.”

Yet the times also will be memorable. In the same way that a world event of towering importance should not, and really cannot, be forgotten, so the fall of 2020 becomes a historical marker not to be missed.

Of course, Ohio State wants to top off the year by making history of its own. As 2020 gives way to 2021, few things would give Buckeye Nation a shot in the arm more than a vaccine victory over the virus, coupled with a win in the College Football Playoff championship game.

That would make for crazy times, indeed. 

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD