Ohio State vs. the world: How the Buckeyes and their fans feed off perceived slights

  • Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
  • 2-time Sports Emmy winner
  • 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year

Don’t look now, but the Ohio State Buckeyes and their fan base are feeling disrespected. They are agitated, irritated and aggravated. They are taking inventory of all the names of those who have attempted to diminish the Buckeyes’ College Football Playoff invite, from sportswriters and Dabo Swinney to sports radio jocks and Dabo Swinney, as well as the line-setters in the desert and Dabo Swinney.

Yes, here in the rapidly dwindling number of minutes that exist between now and kickoff of Ohio State’s CFP semifinal showdown with Clemson (and Dabo Swinney) on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), they are circling the wagons around Columbus, Ohio. They are frustrated, activated and their anger is elevated because they don’t feel venerated.

The good people of the 17th of these United States, from head coach Ryan Day to the guys who dress up like former head coach Woody Hayes, will all tell you that they hate that feeling. They try to convince us that they are SO over what they have long perceived as perpetual dissing. But after all these years of watching Ohio State football win so many games (928) and so many national championships (eight), we know better.

Buckeyes don’t hate the hate. They live for it. And if you’re a true college football fan, it’s hard to hate that kind of love for one’s team, even if that love causes them to hate you in return.

I feel like I need to pause here and give you some personal background on this topic. Over the past decade-plus, my relationship with Ohio State fans has been, shall we say, tumultuous. I have been grabbed by a man in an oversized Eddie George jersey at the Dane County Regional Airport demanding to know why my “ESPN SEC-loving ass” would dare be in Madison, Wisconsin, for an Ohio State-Wisconsin game.

One morning, as I was shadowing the Buckeyes during their traditional walk from the Skull Session to the Horseshoe, I had a Crown Royal bottle hurled at me by a tailgater, who thankfully had already consumed the contents of the bottle and thus missed me by about 30 yards.

One night a friend of mine who lived in Columbus went on a Match.com date, and when the couple moved into the “What do you do for a living?” portion of the conversation, she said she was in sports marketing. Soon my name came up as someone she worked with, and her date promptly stormed out. Why? Because of an ESPN The Magazine story I’d written a year earlier that included a passage about “Tattoo Gate.” (Hey, I didn’t design that cover — the Mag artists did.)

I suppose I should feel angry about all of that, or maybe even unsafe. But I don’t. While no one is condoning the idea of liquor bottles as projectiles, I do appreciate the passion behind the arm behind the throw. I also appreciate the history behind that passion, the very DNA that courses through the veins of every Ohioan, producing that pride in their home state and their deep-down digging of the dissing.

When it was revealed that Dabo Swinney had Ohio State ranked 11th on his final regular-season coaches’ poll ballot … or that arguably the three biggest SEC head coaches — Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher — all had OSU outside of their top four … or when Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and, yes, Dabo Swinney gave impassioned speeches both before AND after the ACC championship game as to why a team that has played only six games (Ohio State) doesn’t deserve the same shot at a national title that they do … to Buckeye Nation, all of the above is like a rubber mallet striking one’s knee in just the right place. But that reaction isn’t so much knee jerk as it is instinctual, built into one’s physiology over hundreds of years.

Ohio has hosted wars since the early 1600s, from the Beaver War to the War of 1812 to the Toledo War boundary dispute against, of course, Michigan. This is a state that was founded by Rufus Putnam, a Massachusetts man who was so angered by the British march into Lexington and Concord that he joined the Continental Army the very next day and rose to become one of George Washington’s right-hand men.

This is the state that got so fed up with the federal government in the early 19th century that it said, “We’re out of here,” and it moved to secede in 1820, a full four decades ahead of Fort Sumter.

This is the state that has birthed eight presidents, more than any other, including Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union to victory in the Civil War. Not to mention, Grant’s sword that cut through the South, William Tecumseh Sherman. From the Wright Brothers, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Jack Nicklaus, Paul Newman and Steven Spielberg to Gloria Steinem, Toni Morrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Annie Oakley … you think this state is going to produce people who are going to sit back and take lip out of Paul Finebaum and that damnable Dabo Swinney?!

“It’s pride, pure and simple. There is something about this land that it just becomes a part of who you are, so you are going to love it and you are going to defend it if you feel like it’s being disrespected by someone outside of Ohio,” explains Columbus attorney Alex Hastie, producer and host of the “Ohio V. The World” history podcast.

How deep do Hastie’s Buckeyes roots run? His great uncle, Wilmer Isabel, scored the first-ever touchdown in Ohio Stadium on Oct. 14, 1922.

“I think Ohio is unique among what some call ‘flyover country’ because of the people who have come from here and everything this state has contributed to the world. And that goes way back,” Hastie explained. “This was the original California. People settled here when they were moving through other places in this region. It was like, ‘OK, Jebediah, it’s time to keep moving out west,’ but he said, ‘Nah, you know what? I’m good here. There’s just something about this place.’ That’s the root of what I think is a real sense of pride. That’s where that ‘circling of the wagons’ you speak of, that’s where that comes from.”

“Ohio V. The World” isn’t just the name of a podcast. It’s a phrase that has been defiantly worn on clothing and waved from flags throughout the Buckeye State for years. The phrase itself has been around for years, but it was made famous nationally when a pair of Ohio State fans (and soon-to-be apparel peddlers) wore it on their sweatshirts at the 2015 Sugar Bowl, when OSU upset top-ranked Alabama in the heart of the Deep South. It was the Buckeyes’ first win over the Tide in four tries and sent them to the inaugural CFP title game, where they won their first national championship in a dozen years.

“We weren’t respected going into that Alabama game and we weren’t respected when we went into the championship game against Oregon,” running back Ezekiel Elliott recalled earlier this year, still remembering that the Ducks, like the Tide, were favored by a touchdown.

“We didn’t have to go looking for disrespect — it was right there. You want to motivate Ohio State? That’s how you do it.”

More than a half-decade later, Elliott’s voice still sharpens when he talks about it. Same for any member of any Ohio State team, all 131 of them, whether they won a championship or were denied one. That same edge has increasingly crept into the tones of this year’s Buckeyes as this contest with Clemson has gotten closer. Just this week All-American offensive lineman Wyatt Davis said, “We’re going into this game not respected at all.”

Are those claims of universal Buckeyes disrespect true? Maybe. Maybe not. The truth of the matter at hand is that the truth of that question is irrelevant. What’s relevant is the comfort found in the mere asking of the question.

Call it disrespect. Call it bulletin board material. You can call it whatever you want. In Columbus, they call it fuel. And that fuel has served them well in the Horseshoe and everywhere else since the day Jebediah decided to circle the family wagons, plant his flag and stay put in the land that became Ohio.

I’m pretty sure that flag read “Ohio V. The World.” And I’m 100 percent sure he didn’t name his firstborn son Dabo.

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