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Iconic Horseshoe has grown with, become synonymous with the Ohio State football program

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Editor's note: How did Ohio State football become a Buckeye Nation of true believers? In a 14-part series, we explore aspects that shaped OSU's evolution from Saturday afternoon diversion to near-religious experience. Today: The Horseshoe.

Ohio Stadium was born a century ago as a leap of faith.

It now stands as an iconic structure, the home and symbol of Ohio State football. The program and its stadium are inseparable, each making the other stronger.

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Built for $1.5 million, it has almost certainly outlived everyone present at its opening in 1922. After a $207 million renovation two decades ago, it’s also true to say that the stadium will be around longer than most people alive today.

Ohio Stadium, which was built for $1.5 million and opened in 1922, has become more than just a place where Ohio State plays football. It's a iconic structure revered in Ohio and recognized far and wide.

It is arguably the most famous structure in Ohio. If you fly over Columbus, your eyes inevitably search for the Horseshoe as a marker of something distinctive and familiar.

Those who’ve never seen it before marvel at its architecture and history. Those who see it regularly don’t lose their wonder for what it is and represents.

“Sometimes when I just go to campus, I'll just purposely drive by the stadium before I go to where I have to go,” said Jim Lachey, an All-American Buckeyes offensive lineman in the 1980s who is now the color analyst on OSU radio broadcasts.

“I'll stop by the Shoe, just to drive by, because that (stadium) is what it's all about. When I pull up and get out of the west parking lot and just stand there and look, you're like, ‘Wow.’ ”

This week, though, the Horseshoe will host a game like it never has before. Ohio State opens its season Saturday against Nebraska, and it will be more than 100,000 short of its 102,780 capacity. Only about 1,600 people, mostly players’ relatives, will be allowed in the stadium because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The history of Ohio Stadium

Ohio State football was mostly an afterthought until Charles "Chic" Harley arrived on campus in 1916. Harley’s dashing style made the Buckeyes a major attraction and also Big Ten champions for the first time. Ohio State played then at Ohio Field, which squeezed 20,000 into its bleachers. Harley’s success showed the Buckeyes’ potential. Led by engineering professor Thomas French, some began clamoring for a stadium.

In 1919, university trustees designated a spot east of the Olentangy River for a stadium and dedicated 92 acres for it. The project was a massive undertaking. All 88 counties in Ohio were tasked with raising a total of $1 million. When a county hit its fundraising target, a light bulb representing it on the outside of the Armory was turned on. It took only seven months to reach $1 million, though cost overruns of $500,000 required the athletic department to go into debt.

The university hired OSU graduate Howard Dwight Smith as the stadium’s architect. He had designed mansions in New York, but this would be his crowning achievement, starting with its audacious ambition.

He designed a stadium to hold 66,000, more than most could envision attending games. The horseshoe design was inspired by stadiums at Yale and Harvard. Ohio Stadium was the first double-deck, poured-concrete (around steel wires) stadium in the country, and the largest of any type west of the Appalachian Mountains.

But Smith was not content to build a utilitarian structure. Smith studied the Colosseum and Pantheon in Rome. The former inspired the stadium’s arches. The latter’s domes were the model for the half-dome design of the rotunda. Smith’s design earned him the American Institute of Architects gold medal in public architecture.

Ohio Stadium during construction in 1921 or 1922.

“It's an architectural marvel, and it was ahead of its time,” said Don Patko, who was OSU’s longtime assistant athletic director for facilities before becoming head of capital projects two years ago.

For a while, the stadium was maybe too far ahead of its time. Ohio Stadium opened in 1922, and the Buckeyes had three straight losing seasons. The Buckeyes were mediocre in many of the ensuing years, not winning another Big Ten title until 1935 under coach Francis Schmidt.

Attendance lagged. In 1923, the Buckeyes averaged fewer than 30,000 fans in their five home games. Critics dubbed the stadium “Smith’s Folly.”

“Everybody thought they were completely out of their mind,” former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “To think of the foresight of Ohio State and Columbus and the state of Ohio: ‘Let's build this monster.’ Imagine the criticism they faced. And they said, ‘We're doing it.’ ”

Ohio Stadium grew with the program

As Ohio State’s program grew into being the most consistent winner in college football history, what some viewed as unrealistic ambition proved prescient. The on-field success and the stadium became a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg proposition:

Did the program become successful in part because of the stadium, or did the stadium become revered because of the winning?

The answer doesn’t really matter. The stadium and the program go hand-in-hand. The stadium has undergone expansions and renovations. The most extensive was a $207 million project 20 years ago. That renovation included adding 19 rows to the upper level C deck, lowering the field, removing the track surrounding the field, and bringing the stadium to the current building code.

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“We pretty much touched every element of Ohio Stadium,” Patko said. “We rebuilt all the infrastructure.”

All that was done, he said, while taking care to maintain the stadium’s fundamental character. That was also taken into account with the most recent major addition — the permanent section in the south stands.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said the new section does not touch the rest of the stadium so that, at least technically, it remains a horseshoe.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Why didn't you connect that?’ ” Smith said. “Because the Shoe is the historic unit, and the south stands are not. We went through great care" to leave it unattached.

'One of the great venues in college football'

Football stadiums typically aren’t revered as much as baseball stadiums. In the Big Ten, only a few are distinctive. Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium is special, and Michigan Stadium — “The Big House” — is also famous, mostly because for a long time it had the largest capacity.

But Ohio Stadium just fits the Buckeyes’ program.

“One of the great venues in college football,” said Ralph Russo, a national college football writer for the Associated Press. “There are a few stadiums that might be louder, that might hold the sound in a little better, or maybe the fans are a bit closer to the action.

“But a packed Horseshoe has always, to me, felt very much like the physical embodiment of Ohio State football: Large and imposing, with the potential to unleash a powerful surge of energy with the potential to be pretty intimidating.”

That adrenaline rush affects the players, too. Lachey remembers his first time playing in the Horseshoe as a freshman against Duke in 1981. He’d been to games as a recruit and practiced in the stadium. This was different.

“Just that feeling of running out of the locker room into the stadium, at that time 90,000 fans, screaming,” Lachey said, “you just felt like there's no other place in the world that had a stadium like that.

“Certainly, the team up north has a big one, but it's completely different than the Horseshoe. You just think, ‘Wow, this is what it's all about. I made a good decision coming to Ohio State because they really care about their football here.’ ”

Mark Pantoni, who leads the Buckeyes’ recruiting operation, said recruits have committed on the spot because they were so blown away by the game atmosphere inside the stadium. Would the majesty of Script Ohio or “Carmen Ohio” or so many other traditions feel as special in another stadium?

It’s not a question that will have to be answered anytime soon. Patko said that after the renovation 20 years ago, the stadium was projected to last 75 years if properly maintained.

An aerial photos shows the traditional block O section, where students hold up cards to support the team and deliver messages to the rest of the fans in the stadium.

At a time when stadiums for professional teams often last only one generation, it would be a vast understatement to say that Ohio Stadium stands the test of time.

“I'm very biased, but it’s No. 1,” Meyer said. “I've told people that Penn State's the hardest place to play. I put LSU, Alabama, and obviously the Swamp (at Florida) when we had that thing going (on the list). But as an Ohio kid, growing up in the ’70s, there’s no place like the Horseshoe.”

Even if this year, almost nobody will be inside of it.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch