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Columbus Dispatch sportswriter Bob Hunter introduces his “interpretive history” of Ohio State (OSU) football with the argument that the program warrants study because its uniquely charismatic fans’ obsession with success is “emblematic of what is occurring in the sport in many other places . . . [as] college football has become a huge business and perspective is in increasingly short supply” (p. xi). Hunter supports this claim with the compelling observation that at the same time pressure to win allegedly led Buckeye coach Jim Tressel to avoid reporting violations by players who exchanged memorabilia for tattoos and ironically created “the program’s most serious setbacks in the past fifty years,” (p. ix) at least twelve other institutions’ alleged scandals trumped that of the Buckeyes, with transgressions ranging from thousands of impermissible benefits (University of Miami) to sexual abuse (Penn State).
Thirty short essay-like chapters in Hunter’s historical account describe key elements of the foundation for success of and devotion to Buckeye football: defining games and rivalries; influential coaches and staff; OSU players, revered or fallen from grace; rival players considered Satans; a cathedral-like stadium and unifying rituals; fans seeking the Holy Grail of perfection; and benefactors and reporters. Each chapter incorporates full-length secondary sources, primary sources from the OSU archives, resources from the Columbus Dispatch library and reasonably balanced or corroborative anecdotal accounts from newspaper writers, former players, and coaches to provide some insightful perspectives to a popular audience ranging from the casual to the diehard Buckeye fan and outsiders interested in how the program has become simultaneously revered and reviled.
Readers must infer how the elements eventually converged to create the “monstrous” storm of fan interest and pressure for coaches and players or how the moral of the Buckeye [End Page 347] story becomes redemptive or preventative in the current arena of college football since Hunter does little to develop these themes directly. The subtitles inconsistently convey the religious overtones Hunter wants to establish and similarly fail to contribute cohesion from chapter to chapter. Some chapters such as “The Rituals and “The Flock” lack depth of insight or achieve it through stereotype. Nonetheless, some points in the less satisfying chapters and many in the better developed chapters (especially those on games, coaches, key players, and the unsung) do enlighten or challenge lore, assumptions, and mindsets.
Given its title, one might assume much of this work is devoted to lauding Woody Hayes. However, Hunter’s “corrective” scheme assigns “The Messiah” role to All-American player “Chic” Harley who in 1916–1919 catapulted Buckeye football “to the [national] level that today’s athletes chatter endlessly about” (p. 25). Harley’s offensive play inclusive of passing, running, and kicking and defensive play characterized by four interceptions in one Michigan game not only drove ticket sales to levels that initiated construction of Ohio Stadium but inspired an unthinkable congratulatory visit from Michigan coach Fielding Yost and accolades from John Heisman for whom the Heisman trophy was named. Hunter further challenges readers to consider homage due Bill Willis, “a racial pioneer, forerunner of the middle linebacker . . . and [for Hunter] maybe even the best Ohio State player ever” (p. 96), while more predictably affirming Archie Griffin is deservedly the most beloved Buckeye among many quality players.
Coach Hayes’s story, respectful of his attributes, also elucidates his flaws. It is appropriately circumscribed by influences on his successes as well as his influence on others on and off the field. Hunter notes Hayes’s role in Earle Bruce’s awareness and Bruce’s role in Jim Tressel’s and Urban Meyer’s awareness that Michigan vs. Ohio State, in Bruce’s words and cadence, “is the game” (p. 133). Conversely, through discussions of Francis Schmidt’s intricately designed multiple offense that yielded big scores in the 1930s, Paul Brown’s visionary scheme of open-style passing that fell short of promise only because war and school rules intervened, Hayes’s obsessive short list of Smashmouth offensive plays that set a major...