Paging Dr. Ohio State ... Buckeyes ease fan pain over Ohio's NFL franchises | Rob Oller

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch

This week I witnessed a crestfallen Cleveland Browns fan commiserate with a crushed Cincinnati Bengals fan. It was like watching two jilted girlfriends who don’t like each other connect over shared heartbreak.

Joining the two dumped-her fires was an Ohio State fan whose quizzical expression reminded me of a dog tilting its head while its owner gives commands. 

What are you saying? I don’t understand this word: “lose.”

The OSU fan wanted to appear compassionate, but caring comes off phony when your team is on top of the world and theirs is, well, six feet under. The Browns (1-1) lost to the New York Jets after blowing a 13-point lead in the final 1:22. The Bengals lost to Dallas on a walk-off field goal after having rallied to tie with a touchdown and two-point conversion.

Bengals fans are cheering a team that has gone 166-210-4 (.440) since 1999.

These are heady times for citizens of Buckeye Nation. Your team is 3-0, ranked No. 3 in the polls and coming off a 56-point beatdown of Toledo. Your quarterback is a top candidate to win the Heisman Trophy, your coach is considered among the best in college football and you can “Wear Black” on Saturday against Wisconsin without feeling like you’re attending a funeral, the way Browns fans have felt for two decades.

Ditto the Bengals, who while having enjoyed more success than their in-state rival, just became the first team in the Super Bowl era to begin 0-2 despite being favored by at least seven points in each of their first two games. Teams that have started 0-2 since the merger in 1970 have made the playoffs just 9.5% of the time.

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So you’re saying there’s a chance? Yes, but not as much as there is of Ohio State making the College Football Playoff, which oddsmakers put at about 85%; and +300 to win the national championship.

As theories go, I like mine: A big reason Ohio State football is so popular across the state − even in Cincinnati, which only kind of considers itself part of Ohio − is because after games, fans want to feel good about their teams, and themselves. The Browns and Bengals are struggling to facilitate that self-approval. 

Certainly, Cincinnati making the Super Bowl last season provided a Queen City pick-me-up, but that was last year, which is the point. Ohio State gets fans close almost every year.

Browns fans support a team that has gone 122-251 (.327) since returning to Cleveland in 1999.

The Browns are 122-251 (.327) since returning to Cleveland in 1999. The Bengals are 166-210-4 (.440) over that same period. The Buckeyes are 234-52 (.818), which includes a 0-1 record in 2010 that was 12-1 before NCAA sanctions hit. With two national titles.

Robert Carrothers, a sociology professor at Ohio Northern University, has studied the emotional side of sports enough to know that game outcomes impact mood. For hours. Sometimes days. And a steady barrage of basement finishes breeds a fatalistic fan perspective, which in the case of Cincinnati and Cleveland can be described as cautiously pessimistic.

“There’s a lot of expectation of what you’re going to see,” Carrothers said. “The Bengals have been so bad for so long, you expect them to lose. They played in the Super Bowl and fans were thinking during the first weeks that hope springs eternal, but they weren’t able to pull it off. And the Browns sold their soul hoping for a Super Bowl win this year, but so far have just been the Browns. They invent ways to lose games. They’re up 13 points with 90 seconds left and, ‘No way they blow this.’ Then it’s, ‘Hold my beer,’ they turn around and do it.”

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Winning may not solve world hunger, but it takes some of the sting out of Browns' and Bengals' losses for those who also follow Ohio State. If those fans earned a nickel every time they said, “Well, at least we have the Buckeyes,” they could probably pay for a ticket to the Horseshoe.

“But it can work in the other direction, too,” Carrothers said. “Expectations are so high that you assume the Buckeyes will beat everybody 100 to 3. When they don’t, it dampens the mood.”

True, but even the assumption that Ohio State will win big is built on a kind of arrogance that only comes from sustained success. New York Yankees fans have it. Pittsburgh Steelers fans have it. So do Ohio State fans, who outside their own camp, often are seen as obnoxiously overconfident. 

Ohio State football fans are rooting for a team that has gone 304-52 (.854) since 1999.

You’re not an OSU fan? Fine. The Buckeyes are still there for you, bringing mostly positive attention to the state. It’s like Cleveland having the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. You may not like the city, may prefer Mozart to Metallica, but nonetheless are happy the hall is in Ohio and not California.

Anyway, would you rather Ohio State be Rutgers, where arrogance is pronounced errorgance? Better to be called the Luckeyes, as OSU was in 2002, than the Scarlet Nots, which appears on Rutgers’ birth certificate.  

Some will say, “Let’s see how smug Ohio State fans are after losing.” Fair enough, but that also proves the point. The Buckeyes don’t lose much. Their fans have suffered through a losing record only once in the past 33 years (2011).

The Buckeyes put a bounce in the step of their fans. It’s not that they don’t ever disappoint; every loss feels like a hot poker, especially when Jim Harbaugh does the jabbing. But compare that occasional discomfort to the chronic pain experienced in Cleveland and Cincinnati. Ohio State offers its fans real hope, in the short term and over the long haul. Ohio’s NFL teams cannot say the same.


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