It used to be said that when Ohio State University lost a football game the bonds of the City of Columbus plummeted. That was an exaggeration, of course, though it is true that in 1940, the year Ohio State lost to Michigan 40-0, trading in the bonds of the Columbus Railway Power and Light Company actually was suspended on the New York Stock Exchange. But nothing of the sort has happened for a long time. The credit rating of Columbus is Aa in Moody's Municipals; the financial structure stands firm regardless of victories or defeats. And yet in Columbus people are regarding the students at Ohio State more warily than at any time in the past, and they will tell you—sometimes bitterly, sometimes incredulously—that today's students are self-centered, aloof, unresponsive. Why, they don't—alas—so much as know the names of the school's football players. There are even gloomy predictions that the whole Big Ten will break up because high academic standards and the strict enforcement of recruiting regulations are making it increasingly difficult to attract the best athletes. If you learned your history from James Thurber's recollections of his days at Ohio State, it is all too unbelievable.
Academic standards? Grades? You remember Bolenciecwcz, the great Ohio State tackle in Thurber's My Life and Hard Times. Thurber described an economics professor struggling to get Bolenciecwcz to answer just one question so he could give him a grade and thus make Bolenciecwcz eligible to play in the Illinois game.
"Name one means of transportation," the professor begged. "You may choose among steam, horse-drawn or electrically propelled vehicles."
Bolenciecwcz said nothing. He had "the look of a man who is being led into a trap." The profound silence lasted until the professor, in Thurber's words, broke it "in an amazing manner. 'Choo-choo-choo,' he said, and turned instantly scarlet...' How did you come to college this year, Mr. Bolenciecwcz? Chuffa, chuffa, chuffa, chuffa...' "
"M' father sent me," said Bolenciecwcz virtuously. "I git a 'lowance."
Amid the outcries of the students, some imitating train whistles and others pretending to be locomotives, the professor asked, "What did you ride here on?"
"Train," said Bolenciecwcz, thus coming up with the answer that meant Ohio State would be at full strength on Saturday. Such was the legendary hold of football on Ohio State in its golden age, and its allure is still impressive. The beautiful old gray stadium beside the Olentangy River was first sold out for a home game during the days of the administration of that Ohio favorite son, Warren Gamaliel Harding. For the past 13 years attendance at Ohio State games has averaged better than 80,000, a figure the pros cannot match.
But football's dominance on the campus is over. The dissolution of the Big Ten, or even the end of college football, can be discussed as calmly as any other current campus topic: the draft, Vietnam or the question of whether women visitors ought to be compelled to get out of men students' apartments by 2 o'clock in the morning. "The stipulation is patently unenforceable," editorialized The Ohio State Lantern calmly, "unless the dean of women's secret police force is far larger than we imagine."
The fact that almost any question can be discussed with serenity at Ohio State is one reason why the city of Columbus no longer fully understands its university. For half a century the Big Game at Ohio State has been the Greatest Show on Earth for Columbus. Without a flicker of hesitation, residents call Columbus the football capital of the U.S. They are far more proud of that than they are of the status of their home town as the capital of Ohio.
A young Ohio State professor says, "Football here is an important midwestern cultural event. It is not primarily a college matter. It is for the town of Columbus and for adults. You will find a far greater student awareness of football at Alabama or at Texas—in the sense that students know who the players are and what games are coming up—than you will find among the students at Ohio State."