In the year 1922 there came to be built in Columbus, Ohio a vast structure 752 feet 6 inches long, 598 feet 8 inches wide and 98 feet 3 inches high, which immediately became filled with crazy people. This was only a first impression, however, later discovered to be erroneous. As 10 million others followed them inside during the next 35 years, it was accepted that the occupants, although they persisted in acting exceedingly strange, were not unhinged after all. They were Ohio State football fans, which is not exactly the same thing.
As a result of their enthusiasm, which is a polite if somewhat sniveling word for what happens in Columbus on fall Saturday afternoons, the great stadium on the banks of the Olentangy—an old Indian word meaning first down—has long been known as the spiritual mecca of several million football-loving Americans, and Columbus itself as the football capital of the U.S. This is not to imply that the game fails to attract attention in South Bend, Ind. or Norman, Okla. or Tuscaloosa, Ala. or Pittsburgh, Pa. It is just that the reaction in Columbus is more energetic.
There were indications as far back as 1914, long before the new stadium was built, that something like this was going to happen. Incensed one day by the behavior of a visiting team from Penn State, an Ohio State rooter leaped from the stands, doused the blue-and-white-wrapped Penn State goalposts with kerosene and set fire to the whole thing. Should one question what the fellow was doing with a can of kerosene in the stands in the first place, Ohioans merely shrug and suggest that all sections of the country have their little idiosyncracies.
There was a time when it was unsafe to roam the downtown streets the night after a game. If the shower of radios and plate glass mirrors which came hurtling out of hotel windows failed to render one prone in a pool of blood, the visitor was certain to be gathered up in a long and violent snake dance which whooped its way down the streets and sidewalks, in and out of hotel lobbies and movie houses, stopping only occasionally to tip over an automobile or smash a lamppost.
Bill Dunn, assistant manager of the big but otherwise defenseless Deshler-Hilton Hotel at the corner of Broad and High streets, remembers when it was standard practice to roll up the carpets and remove all items of a collapsible nature from the lobby long before the crowds began to arrive. "The night crew always tried to get things cleared out on Thursday," he says, "but if they didn't we always got it done first thing on Friday morning. Otherwise it would be too late."
As might be expected, Columbus decided it not only wanted football but winning football, too, and this led to the hasty and unhappy departure of a number of Ohio State coaches. Each resident, it is said, has two jobs: his own and coaching the Ohio State football team. The pressure was so great, as a matter of fact, that except for the present incumbent the only man able to stand the gaff for more than a few years after 1928 was the legendary Francis Schmidt, a rather excitable individual himself who seemed hand-tooled for the job. His single-minded devotion to the game matched even that of the citizens and was never more clearly demonstrated than the day he drove his car onto the grease rack of a service station and decided to stay inside, puzzling over a new play, while the work was done. Moments later Schmidt shouted "Eureka, I've got it," opened the car door and plummeted eight feet to the earth. Eventually, the wolves got Schmidt, too.
Sadly enough, however, time has a way of changing all things, and Columbus, like Tombstone before it, has been tamed—at least on the surface. Modern transportation methods whisk the big crowds in and out of town on game day, and gone are the rowdy old three-day weekends. The new and booming populace is more sophisticated, and Midwest football's accepted stature leaves no real excuse for trying to knock oneself out to prove anything to the decadent East. It is also a good deal more difficult to work up the proper spirit sipping Martinis in a plush bar than it used to be guzzling home brew and bathtub gin in the back of a model A Ford. All these things have contributed to smother the physical and psychic quirks which once made Columbus what it was.
There are no more snake dances, and radios remain statically at rest on table tops where they belong. The hotel lobby is a place where a man can safely leave his wife—assuming, of course, that he can think of a good excuse—and automobiles remain unprotected on the streets all night, firmly on their own four wheels. Finally—and this the natives admit only with a twinge of shame—they have even had the same coach for the last seven years.
It is quite likely that the coach—he doesn't look at all like Wyatt Earp and his name is Wayne Woodrow Hayes—has contributed more to the metamorphosis of Columbus than anyone else. With the hide of a rhinoceros and a tongue of silver, Woody Hayes turned out to be just the man for the job. He has refused to be intimidated by the Columbus wolves ("I'm just a little bit meaner than they are") and has, in fact, seldom had any trouble with them at all. For one thing, he so charmed them with a speech his first day in town that the spell has never been completely broken. "If he can coach as well as he can talk," an alumnus said, "we're going to have a whale of a team."
As it turned out, Hayes could coach even better, and it was this that finally stopped all the noise. If the No. 1 football city in America has the No. 1 team and the No. 1 coach, both of which it could claim at the end of last year, there just isn't much left to do but be happy.
If Columbus exhibits today a less explosive atmosphere than in years past, however, it certainly admits to a no less fanatic preoccupation with the game itself. Football, in ceasing to be a wild party, has become a way of life. In a dozen postwar seasons the average attendance for home games has been well over 70,000; in the last four it has been above 80,000, and this in a stadium which admits to only 79,618 seats. This year the Ohio State season advance sale was 67,000 for each game, a figure never before even considered by any other school. And last Saturday 83,113 people presented rather dramatic proof that there was no recession in football interest in Columbus by pouring into Ohio Stadium to watch the Buckeyes open the 1958 season against SMU. Except for the 1926 Michigan game, when the crowd broke down all the gates and overran the field and nobody could get around to counting them anyway, it was the biggest crowd in Ohio Stadium history.
If a Columbus fan can't squeeze into the game, he can hear it on any of five local stations—the sixth is a traitor which carries Notre Dame—and, should he miss both game and broadcast, he can always go to the Quarterback Club on Wednesday and listen to Hayes tell a now-docile group of ex-experts how it was done. That is, he can if he is a member; the Quarterback Club numbers 700 now and has a waiting list even longer because the big ballroom of the Southern Hotel, where it meets, just won't hold any more.
In Columbus they still agree with what an Ohio State president said, only half in jest, some years ago: "We want to have a university of which the football team can be proud."
The game the big crowd saw on Saturday was a corker. Ohio State won 23-20 by the margin of three successful conversions, one by kick and two by pass, and in so doing the Buckeyes convinced almost everyone in sight that they were just as good as had been foretold. The line is the biggest this side of the Chicago Bears, with an average weight of 225 pounds; there are three very fine running backs in Don Clark, Bob White and Dick LeBeau, and a smart, experienced quarterback in Frank Kremblas. Together they make of Hayes's unexciting style of attack, which he calls "plain vanilla," an exciting demonstration in power and precision. If Kremblas' shoulder, which was dislocated late in the fourth quarter, heals within two weeks as expected, Ohio State is going to roll over a lot of teams before the year is out.
As part of Hayes's attention to detail, Ohio State just doesn't beat itself. A fumble in practice is a calamity; in a game it is a major disgrace. As a result, Ohio State does not fumble. A Buckeye punt is blocked about once in seven years, and Ohio State passes are just not intercepted. This is partly because they do not throw very often, of course ("I hope I never have a great passer," Woody has said. "A team with a great passer may score some spectacular victories but it never wins the championship, and we're after championships here. When you get fancy, you get beat") but, just the same, when his teams do throw, it is usually a completion. Neither are the Bucks killed by penalties, despite their tough brand of play. One reason is they keep a Big Ten official on hand at practice and by game time it has been impressed upon them at some length that they should not incur his displeasure.
But the best thing Hayes had going for him Saturday was another stout pass defense—and without it Ohio State would have been dead. Only once has one of his teams lost to a great passer (Stanford's John Brodie by 6-0 in 1955), and in seven years they have faced some of the best: Fred Benners of SMU in '51 (he had defeated another Ohio State team the year before 32-27), Tommy O'Connell of Illinois in '52, Paul Larson of California in '53, Lenny Dawson of Purdue in '54, Brodie in '56 and Jack Crabtree of Oregon in the 1958 Rose Bowl game. Last weekend, however, they ran into a boy who was probably the best.
Southern Methodist's Don Meredith is a big (6 feet 3, 190 pounds), deceptively quick 20-year-old junior from the little town of Mount Vernon, Texas, and last year, playing in only six games as a regular, he set a national collegiate accuracy record by completing almost 70% of the passes he threw. Almost never do his passes fall out of range. Even more startling is the manner in which he unloads, fast, when pursued or in trouble. Pressure does not seem to bother him a bit, and on Saturday he completed 19 out of 28 attempts for 213 yards, much of the time with Ohio State linemen waving their large hands in his face or draped around various parts of his anatomy. Once he led SMU 75 yards to a touchdown with six straight completions from a spread formation. What he will do some Saturday afternoon against a lesser team is enough to make anyone want to see more.
But Ohio State, with its relentless pressure from the line and alert ball-hawking in the secondary, stopped him just enough. Twice in the first half they intercepted his passes, once when LeBeau cut in front of a receiver and picked the ball off in the end zone, again when End Jim Houston batted a pass into the air just as it left Meredith's hands and Center Dan Fronk gathered it in. And particularly on two of SMU's conversion attempts did the Ohio State pass defense earn its keep, blanketing receivers so well that first Sub Quarterback Billy Dunn and then Meredith had nowhere to throw. In the end, that turned out to be the ball game.
While Ohio State was beating SMU, various other Big Ten members were busy at work pounding home the old lesson that right here is the part of the country where they do this sort of thing best.
Wisconsin beat perhaps the best team in the South, Miami, by three touchdowns on Friday night. Iowa humiliated a TCU team which only the week before had rolled up 31 first downs in whacking Kansas 42-0 and was generally expected to be the class of the Southwest. Michigan State and Purdue breezed past California and Nebraska, while even a pair of this year's Big Ten have-nots had a pleasant afternoon at the expense of the Pacific Coast—Michigan over Southern Cal and Northwestern over Washington State, each by the margin of one point. Saving a bit of face for the Coast were UCLA, which managed to shade Illinois, and Washington, which had a bit of trouble beating toothless Minnesota. Even Indiana put up quite a fight before losing to Notre Dame, which wasn't anything to be ashamed of in itself.
But of course all of the good football wasn't found in one spot, and to prove it Auburn's mighty defenses stopped Tennessee without a first down; Oklahoma produced a dizzy array of new tactics to overwhelm West Virginia, thereby giving Bud Wilkinson his 100th regular-season victory; Army tried a little razzle-dazzle of its own, to the amazement of almost everyone, and slaughtered South Carolina; Pitt rolled on over Holy Cross; and Mississippi stopped Kentucky.
After two weeks, it appears that the best college football teams of 1958 will be Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Auburn, Oklahoma, Army, Mississippi and Pitt. And incidentally, it might be wise to keep an eye on little College of the Pacific and its mercurial Dick Bass. Last week the Tigers followed up on their first-week upset of California by bursting the Arizona State bubble 34-16.
While controversy was swirling in print long before the season began about the new two-point conversion rule, the coaches themselves were registering much greater dismay over the other big rule change of 1958, which limited blockers to the use of only one arm (SI, Sept. 22).
They need not have worried. Officials all across the land have apparently decided that the two-arm block (so long as it is not used with excessive violence) is here to stay. Anyway, so far the new blocking rule is not being applied.