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.