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Anatomy of a Powerhouse: In a divided state, Ohio State football is a unifier

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Fans in Ohio Stadium cheer for a Buckeyes touchdown against Florida Atlantic in the 2019 season opener.

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: Unity

Like the country as a whole, Ohio is pretty divided these days.

We seem to live in separate silos based on politics, geography, religion and wealth, among other markers.

Ohio has always been viewed as representative of the country. Until the most recent election cycles, it has been a purple state politically. But there have always been clear factions — urban and rural, the northeast part of the state dominated by Cleveland and the southwest with Cincinnati, and Columbus the anchor in the middle.

In sports, the lines of demarcation were clear. The Browns, Indians (and Cavaliers) are on one side of Ohio and the Bengals and Reds on the other. Columbus’ Blue Jackets and Crew haven’t had widespread statewide support because they are newer, haven’t had consistent success and compete in sports that are considered more niche.

But one entity rises among the thicket — Ohio State football. If one thing unites Ohioans, it is their love and devotion to the Buckeyes.

“I've actually thought about that over the years,” legendary Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman said. “First of all, Ohio is a football state, right? Whether it’s high school, little league or whatever, there’s a love for football. I think it’s our favorite sport.

“We can see that on Friday nights, in normal years, around high schools in the small towns and towns like (my hometown of) Massillon. We’re football fans, and we don’t make apologies for that. That’s just part of our Ohio culture. And Ohio State doesn’t compete with anybody else (in the state).”

Spielman then noted the success the University of Cincinnati is having with former Ohio State player and coach Luke Fickell as its head coach. The undefeated Bearcats are No. 7 in the current College Football Playoff rankings, three spots below Ohio State.

But UC plays in the American Athletic Conference, not the Big Ten. The Bearcats don’t go toe-to-toe for elite recruits with Ohio State. No other football program in the state is even close to being at the Buckeyes’ level the way several in-state men’s basketball programs often are.

Decades in the making 

Ohio State emerged as the state’s dominant program a century ago. Chic Harley’s success inspired the construction of Ohio Stadium, which opened in 1922.

Even the financing of the Horseshoe contributed to loyalty to the Buckeyes. All 88 counties in the state were charged with contributing to the $1 million fundraising goal. That gave people in all parts of the state a vested interest in the program.

Since 1924, Ohio State has not had consecutive losing seasons, and it reached new success under Francis Schmidt in the 1930s. But it was under Paul Brown that the Buckeyes won their first national title, in 1942.

Ohio has been instrumental in the growth of football at all levels, and Brown led the way, starting at Massillon High School and, after Ohio State, with his founding of the Browns and then the Bengals. His success in his brief time in Columbus helped the Buckeyes take the next step in prominence.

A decade later Woody Hayes arrived, and the Buckeyes truly became a behemoth. Every successive coach appreciates, understands and sometimes bemoans the responsibility that entails.

Former coach Urban Meyer was born in Toledo to parents from Cincinnati, grew up in Ashtabula in far northeastern Ohio and attended UC before starting a coaching career that included two national titles at Florida and one at Ohio State.

“When I was at Florida, you had one third of the state were (Miami) Hurricanes,” he said. “One third of the state were (Florida State) Seminoles and one third of the state were the Gators. The one thing about Ohio State, it’s all Buckeye. Yes, it does rally the state, and it’s a heavy burden.”

Meyer said that particularly in tough times like the current COVID-19 crisis, the Buckeyes provide a needed salve.

“It’s a cathartic experience for people that are really struggling, that are going through some difficult times, to watch their beloved Buckeyes play,” he said. “That’s something you need to accept when you come to Ohio State. I would share that with our players.

“I know Ryan Day has. There’s a responsibility in how you behave, how you act, how you play. This whole state loves you.”

'Something everybody can rally around'

Ohio State football truly is a passion in all areas of the state. The Cincinnati area has often been considered a bit of a holdout to Buckeye fervor, but that’s open to question.

Meyer said he was told when he took the Ohio State job that he would have trouble recruiting Cincinnati. That proved inaccurate. Adolphus Washington and Sam Hubbard are among the Cincinnati natives who’ve been key players in the Buckeyes’ recent success.

The other part of the state that would seem to be a tougher sell is northwest Ohio. Downtown Toledo is less than an hour south of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and 2½ hours from Columbus.

But proximity apparently doesn’t outweigh state pride.

“Michigan is right up the road, but you can go a long time without running into a Michigan fan,” said Dave Hackenberg, retired sports columnist for The Blade. “I mean it’s different than Ohio State, without question. This is an Ohio State area. With respect to Michigan’s fans, there’s a lot of them. I know that. but they’ve been a fairly silent minority lately.”

Hackenberg said emails and letters were far more numerous from Buckeyes fans than Wolverines backers, whether it was for a critical or complimentary column. Hackenberg also said that Notre Dame also has a sizable following, considering South Bend, Indiana, is only two hours away and Toledo is a largely Catholic city. Then there are also local programs at the University of Toledo and Bowling Green. But Ohio State is clearly No. 1 in popularity, Hackenberg said.

Around the rest of the state, there’s no question about it. The Browns and Bengals may have a heated rivalry, but the fans who are enemies on Sundays are allies on Saturdays.

“When you look at Ohio State,” Spielman said, “the name and the tradition and the brand and the players, the university itself, the brand of Ohio State itself, it is something that everybody can rally around, no matter your gender, religion, politics. It doesn’t matter.

“We all can agree on Ohio State — a lot of people can agree on Ohio State — and root for them.”

Spielman travels regularly as network football analyst. Every weekend, no matter where he is, he sees people in airports wearing Ohio State shirts. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that say, ‘Oh, I wish my so-and-so was here. He’s the biggest Buckeye fan ever,’ ” Spielman said. “I’ve met probably thousands of 'biggest Buckeye fans ever' over my years. And I love it.”

At a time when unity is hard to find, the bond that is Ohio State football is a powerful one.

“Some people will say sports aren’t important,” Spielman said. “There are so many benefits to sports. Any unifier is a good thing, in my opinion. I love the fact that nobody apologizes for being passionate about the Buckeyes in our state.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and his son, Nate, are surrounded by fans as they celebrate a 62-39 win over Michigan in 2018.