Buried Alive

By Ramzy Nasrallah on June 12, 2012 at 1:00p
Miami football on the cover of Sports Illustrated for what would surely be the final time.USC ended up winning the fight. So close, SI. So close.

You might not realize it, but the chiseled musculature of Ohio State football is being picked clean from the university's skeleton right before your eyes.

Vultures are already circling the Horseshoe, with predators like academics, the economy, recruiting regulations, growing apathy amidst too many imperfect seasons, war and - perhaps worst of all, a predictable and boring offense - all to blame for the Buckeyes' demise.

With campus interest in football rapidly shriveling, the scavengers have descended to fatten themselves up at the program's expense: Sports like hockey and golf stand to benefit from football's downfall.

Slowly but irreversibly, Buckeye football is not burning out: It's fading away. That's much worse.

The year is 1967.

Sportswriting is equal parts historical storytelling and fortune telling. At the dawn of Woody Hayes' 17th season in Columbus, Sports Illustrated sent noted critic and novelist Robert Emmett Cantwell to Columbus to profile the state of Buckeye football for its season preview issue.

The mid-1960s were unkind to Ohio State. The Buckeyes entered 1967 having failed to win the Big Ten crown in five consecutive seasons. The 1966 campaign was especially brutal: A dismal 4-5 record that included three home losses, among them a 17-3 loss to one of Bump Elliot's typically mediocre Michigan teams. 

A half-decade without a conference title should have resulted a pink slip; Hayes' predecessors were drummed out of Columbus for lesser crimes. There was not a single bowl bid during that span. A 3-2 record against Michigan and three second-place conference finishes were the "highlights."

Cantwell descended onto campus commissioned to pen the eulogy for Brutus while his body was still warm. Almost 45 years later, his farewell to Buckeye football is among the worst sports predictions of all time.

He matter-of-factly reported that archery, cricket and rugby pushing football out of Ohio Stadium was all but a reality as widening student interests and the stern demands of modern academics signify the passing of a frenzied football era at Ohio State.

Harsh, isn't it. That was just the teaser.

While it doesn't take much deliberation or daring to print ridiculous stories for the sake of magazine sales, this happened 45 years ago. Ohio State wasn't even the cover story. SI could have paid a less-respected author than Cantwell (even the late Ernest Hemingway had been an active member of his fan club) to script the eulogy for Buckeye football.

It's got a touchscreen!AT&T's 1967 PicturePhone of the future: NAILED IT.

If you believe that, you also have to believe Cantwell's tone was serious. Reading it line by line you'll uncover expert prose and storytelling wrapped around a fatally flawed, paradoxical premise: College football - in the land of college football-as-religion - was about to slip away.

What makes the piece all the more fascinating is that he supplies all of the evidence that his premise is wrong right in the column but still fails to convince himself of it.

It's as though he intended to write a story with a conclusion he had already predetermined, then hunted around campus for support of that narrative but was unable to construct a convincing enough argument which led to the pathetic inclusion of an absurd 30-year old football camp raffle rumor that added, um...what was I saying...

Anyway, Cantwell is not the last writer to come to Columbus to sensationalize Buckeye football. But this is probably the best time you'll ever have reading such a piece. It is absolutely loaded with unintentional humor. To wit:

The credit rating of Columbus is Aa in Moody's Municipals; the financial structure stands firm regardless of victories or defeats.

Hopefully Cantwell is referring to Ohio State football's victories and defeats, since Columbus' credit rating definitely hinges on its success with finances. Anyway, the city of Columbus has had an upgraded Aaa rating for quite some time now. 

This allows the city to borrow money at significantly lower rates than an Aa rating would merit, saving Franklin County millions every year. It's a really weird statement to make and an even weirder factoid to include in a story about the demise of Ohio State football.

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.

Yes, the entire conference could have gone the way of the University of Chicago, but the thought of all those gigantic, empty stadiums hosting science fairs just seemed silly.

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.

Remember, the Big Ten is on the verge of breaking up while Ohio State is pulling in paying customers in numbers professional teams envy. Also, with that unsolicited Warren G mention we can now confirm Cantwell is DJ's long lost great uncle.

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.

Despite booming business and systemic sunk costs like giant riverside stadia, college football - which is on the cover of the magazine you're reading and is explicitly the reason for your purchase - is coming to an end. Welcome to the grand illusion. Population: The author.

On a game day 35,000 cars converge on the stadium…. They park over some 50 acres of intramural playing fields—including 24 for football—on the giant pastures of the agricultural college across Olentangy River and at the base of the two new dormitories beside the stadium.  

Crowds on foot move out High Street and Neil Avenue, cross the Oval, and wander down the narrow one-way streets past Mirror Lake, where grass-lined banks are favored for campus romances.

A windowless future: So you can take your shitty cubicle home with you!Monsanto's House of the Future, 1967: EXACTLY RIGHT.

The more things change, my friends. The only flaw is the low number of automobiles, and we should have had flying cars by now anyway so Cantwell gets a pass.

Also, herein lies the reason you commission classic prose merchants for the odd sports column: The poetry.

Skillfully implanting imagery into otherwise bland bits like stadium attendance figures and parking lots is how writers have maintained job security since Aristophanes was writing dirty jokes with serpent's blood and a carob branch.

So Cantwell has established that Buckeye football is still a hot ticket, even as Woody's boys have failed to bring any rings or roses home recently.

Through the historical gloom you get such football scores as one from the 1892 season: Oberlin 50, Ohio State 0. Or 1902: Michigan 86, Ohio State 0.


That loss to Michigan directly resulted in the creation of the university alma mater, making it the only loss to Michigan in history that resulted in something worthwhile. Curiously, Cantwell found it relevant to include Columbus' credit rating but felt compelled to leave out the birth of Carmen Ohio following The Game in 1902? MEDIA BIAS, YOU GUYS.

Ohio State first played Michigan in 1897, losing 34-0, and except for two ties it lost every Michigan game until 1919. Ohio State's first touchdown against Michigan was not made until 1904. The next came in 1908.

There was a 3-3 tie in 1910, which was hailed as a great victory until the undergraduates drank to celebrate it and were roundly censured in Columbus. The first Ohio State success against Michigan did not come until 1919.

Important: Gordon Gee was all over those celebrations of 1910. Also, that multi-decade stretch of futility is singlehandedly responsible for the current margin of wins in the Michigan series. It's the same reason Satch Sullinger has a winning record over Jared in driveway basketball: Jared spent the first ten years of his life losing to his old man.

Sometimes visitors could hardly get out of town fast enough. "No team of mine will ever again play Ohio State," said a Wisconsin coach once.

It's unconfirmed, but that coach is believed to have been Millard Jebediah Bielema, ancestor of a certain corpulent appletini drinker known to show up at Big Ten Media Days smelling like Taco Bell and Drakkar Noir.

Each football season Columbus has grown a little quieter. They no longer bother to take the furniture out of the hotel lobbies for a big-game weekend. It is even possible to find a room in Columbus on a football Saturday. Things have changed. Perhaps the lack of student interest has proved infectious.

In exactly one school year, Ohio State will go on a 27-2 run to end the decade. But fortune telling is an art, not a science.

At press time, American casualties from the Vietnam War were rapidly climbing and totaled near 20,000. Perhaps that, coupled with Ohio State's flirtation with merely being in the top half of the conference contributed to Cantwell's perception of declining interest. 

The average age of the Vietnam combat soldier was 19. Paul Hardcastle taught me this and I have never forgotten it.

There is the contention that the entire Big Ten (bear in mind that the Big Ten is an athletic conference, not a confederation of academic institutions) is breaking up...Ohio State's stadium is still filled, but the crowd now comes from Columbus and Cleveland, not from the student body.

They lived in interesting times: Disposable income dollars from non-students was apparently more valuable than that same money from students. Pound of feathers; pound of bricks.

It gets worse for the apathetic student body:

Including all 16 Ohio State intercollegiate sports, one of every eight varsity athletes is an honor student.

Arnie Chonko, Ohio State's 1964 All-America, made Phi Beta Kappa with a 3.6 accum. Last year's quarterback, Don Unverferth, has an accum of 3.4. Ray Pryor, last year's All-America center, was a premed honor student.

Steve Arlin, who pitched Ohio State to two Big Ten baseball championships and was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies for more than 5100,000, was an honor student. Bill Hosket, the starting center on the basketball team, has a 3.6 accum.

Gary McDavid, a guard on the basketball team and a walk-on—that is, he was not recruited—arrived at Ohio State unknown, made the varsity and happens to have the highest college entrance board test ever recorded by an Ohio State athlete: 30 of a possible 36 on the American College Test measure.

Go ahead and say it. You want to.

Surely academic and athletic prowess could coexist in Cantwell's world view. Granted, a program that only recruits Ray Small and Duron Carter-caliber academics might march unencumbered to multiple football titles, but there's only so much pride a school can take in being XBox 360 champions.

Which leads us to the best passage in the entire 45-year old masterpiece:

There is a theory proposed by the hardcore of Columbus football fanatics that Woody Hayes is responsible for the student disinterest in football, that 16 years of his three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust game made football an unbearable campus bore: hence low student attendance, the decrease in the number turning out for pep rallies and the fact that so many of the students hurrying across the Oval would not know the team's quarterback if he dropped a football at their feet.

Jim Tressel knew back in 2001 that this proposed theory of hardcore Columbus football fanatics was ABSOLUTELY TRUE. His sinister plot to play home games in an empty stadium mercifully failed.

It's time for the grand finale, Mr. Cantwell. Say something even crazier. We challenge you - it's can't be done!

With each grant-in-aid awarded for hockey, each golfer lauded, each crack of a cricket bat on ball, one can almost feel Columbus—the town of stadium builders—flinch.


/holds up lighter in appreciation

/checks to see if Ohio State's giant athletic department includes varsity cricket. Nope. Football is saved!

Yay! More room for cricket!Ohio Stadium being disassembled (artist rendering)

If there's a lesson to be learned from Cantwell, it's that you should never predict anything unless you enjoy being ridiculed decades later.

Or more conservatively: Don't cling to the ending to your story if the beginning and middle don't support it. The world already has one too many George Dohrmanns.

Cantwell passed away in 1978, exactly three weeks before Woody punched his retirement ticket against Clemson. Buckeye football - and the Big Ten - are still somehow around, clinging to life and barely sustaining on infusions of Rotel and multi billion-dollar checks.

But remember: It's only a matter of time before widening student interests and the stern demands of modern academics signify the passing of a frenzied football era at Ohio State.



hodge's picture

From the comments of the Buckshot where this first appeared:

"...anxiously awaiting ramzy's review..."

Well played, SHARKVSGHOST, well played.

sharkvsghost's picture

it didn't disappoint. it never does.

swing hard in case you hit it.

highestlaw's picture

The average age of the Vietnam combat soldier was 19. Paul Hardcastle taught me this and I have never forgotten it.

That's a myth.

Myth: The common belief is the average age of an infantryman fighting in Vietnam was 19.

Fact: Assuming KIAs accurately represented age groups serving in Vietnam, the average age of an infantryman (MOS 11B) serving in Vietnam to be 19 years old is a myth, it is actually 22. None of the enlisted grades have an average age of less than 20.


anchorman's picture

1967 was a very interesting yet sadly a forgotten season of the Buckeyes. The season started out with an embarassing 14-7 loss to Arizona. Which by todays standards, would have been like losing to Kent or Akron. Zona wasn't even in the pac10.
Then the humiliating loss to Purude 41-6. Couple weeks later, a loss to Illinois I believe that was 17-13 in the Shoe. Woody told his guys they would have to win out or they would fire him. They beat a tough Sparty squad. Wisconsin in a tight one. Then finished out beating SCum 24-14.
Worse yet, the last couple of games at the Shoe, the attendance was barely in the 70,000. Even the first couple of games in 68 the attendance was barely over 70,000.
The seniors and juniors on this 67 squad are often overlooked, but they really helped catapult the team in the 68 season!
Thanks for posting!

AltaBuck's picture

My mother saved a Purdue fan from being murdered at that game. My old man almost threw a Purdue fan/engineer off of C-Deck due to the fact that every time Purdue scored a TD, he would say "How you like that....Buckeye!" He was Japanese so I'm sure you can interpret what that sounded like with a heavy Japanese accent. My mother stepped in to save him. Family is still convinced he would have been acquited in a Ohio court if he had superman'd the guy.

I am Groot - Groot

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Thanks to the women in our lives!
A better solution would have been for your father to find out where the engineer worked and then send him a postcard the next year, after Ohio State upset #1 Purdue on the way to the NC - "How you like that . . . Boyermaker." Then, send him another card every fall for the next decade or so.  

Pam's picture

Your mom is a better woman than me. I would have helped your dad toss that guy over the railing

AltaBuck's picture

I think she did it since the guy was there with his wife and kids. I don't think she gave a crap about him....she just did not want his family to witness their father's demise.
Nowadays, everytime tOSU loses, my dad's phone will ring like clockwork with his friends shouting "how you like that...Buckeye!" It rang too frequently last year.

I am Groot - Groot

Pam's picture

Ok, well there is that to consider.

Buckeye414's picture

For those that are curious, Ann Arbor has a Moody's rating of Aa2, which is two slots lower than Aaa.


-Go Bucks!

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I'd speculate on why AA has "earned" an Aa2, but I might get into trouble for veering into politics again. But perhaps AA is aiming to become part of California?  

hodge's picture

I see what you did there...

timdogdad's picture

too many students sitting on campus playing guitar and smoking green leafy substances and not going to the game.  but jefferson airplane is at st johns tonight.  lets go to that man...   tickets are $4.00...      

Maestro's picture

The world is also going to end on 12/22/12 or some crap like that.

vacuuming sucks

Abe Froman's picture

12/21/2012 to be exact according to the Mayan Long count.

Basking in the wake of mediocrity.....

sir rickithda3rd's picture

Little tidbit of marion news warren g hardings dog's collar (laddie boy) was stolen! lol

mark may wins douchebag of the year... again

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Fido is incensed by that villainy! My great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother was Laddie Boy's bitch.

BoFuquel's picture

I was in Nam in 67 & early 68.I was 18. I came home and enroled at TOSU for the next nine years.It didn't cost me one red cent, thanks to my Uncle Sam and my employer.The American way.GO BUCKS!

I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

Pam's picture

Thank you for your service. 

Poison nuts's picture

I commented a bit on this story in Buckshots. I'm glad you did a full article about it. Seems that SI has a history of getting it wrong when it comes to Ohio State...because of that I will take all future stories in that magazine with a grain of salt. Unless they say we are the greatest school & team during any particular year, in which case I will agree wholeheartedly.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

45buckshot's picture

i'm still mad about the story they ran on Kazenmoyer. that thing was b@llsh!t.
but wow, this is one is really bad. thanks for the photos though, those are great. my check is in the mail for my flying car and my iphone looks subtely different than the one pictured...

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
—G.K. Chesterton

Bucksfan's picture

Don't forget about Rick Reilly's scathing indictment of the Fiesta Bowl pass interference call that was printed as the last article in this issue.
I didn't know that article was in there until I got the issue as a Christmas present a couple of years ago.

painterlad's picture

I read the entire article and it was well written, but the best line belongs to Ramzy:
"...exactly three weeks before Woody Hayes punched his retirement ticket against Clemson."
If you didn't steal that, well done. Well done indeed.

To err is human. Really sucking requires having yellow stripes on your helmet.