By Ramzy Nasrallah on July 28, 2021 at 1:15 pm
The Ohio State Buckeyes sing "Carmen Ohio" following a 48-3 win over the Michigan State Spartans during Saturday's NCAA Division I football game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on November 11, 2017. [Barbara J. Perenic/Dispatch]
© Barbara J. Perenic/Dispatch

Everyone should see ancient Rome at least once.

Italy's capital delivers a marvelous (and relatively inexpensive!) European holiday that does everything at least as well as every other city on the continent, from culinary excellence to classic art. Rome's shopping and sightseeing are also quite literally world class.

While you're exploring the city, inevitably you cross the Tiber river and enter the east side of town where you're met with the remains of one of the world's greatest civilizations. The Roman Empire spanned 13 centuries, and the rubble - some of it patched up and rehabilitated - is all that physically remains.

Majestic buildings - the Forum, the Colosseum, countless others along with some ruins that look suspiciously like the football cathedral in Columbus - capture your imagination for what ancient Rome might have been like at its peak.

Several visits ago I had an intrusive thought, while standing in the middle of what used to be the bustling center of western civilization: How did something so magnificent and powerful collapse? If anything was positioned to last forever, it had to be this. What the hell happened?

You have reached the series finale of Fear Itself. Our premise:

Buckeye football nightmares are justified anxiety for the simple fact that they're syndicated. These terrible events have actually happened - numerous times - so we know they can and will exist.

Previously we visited Purdue Harbor, the replay booth, That Team and scandals, all Buckeye nightmares. We'll end this offseason series today contemplating the decline and demise of the Buckeye football program as we know it.

When was the last time Ohio State had a mediocre hire running its flagship program?

We’ve cautiously passed the danger zone of Ryan Day atrophying into a bearded Larry Coker. Urban Meyer was and is a coaching prodigy. Jim Tressel arrived in Columbus with four national championships and proceeded to violate every tenet of rivalry equilibrium.

So, John Cooper then? He built the foundation for the modern version of the Ohio State football machine. Coop is also in the College Football Hall of Fame (2008) along with his predecessor Earle Bruce (2002) Tressel (2015) and sometime this decade, Meyer.

That takes us back to Woody Hayes, for whom the practice facility is named. That’s 71 years of exclusively Hall of Fame coaches, plus Urban and Day. Not a single catastrophic emperor fiddling while Columbus burned in the bunch.

We're going on a century of gilded eras and golden ages in Columbus. There isn't another football program that can match that.

Perfection is an unfair standard for the legendary - none of those emperors were without flaws. Perfect is the enemy of great. All of those coaches overdelivered results versus the rest of the college football landscape and fellow blue bloods.

Their empire might have slipped briefly, but it never crumbled or ceded its position in the world. Ohio State has quickly recovered from every one of its setbacks going back several decades and world wars.

Try to name another program with that kind of longevity without any significant dips or monumental setbacks. But not right now - we're not quite finished with our historical tour of Buckeye emperors just yet.

Woody replaced Wes Fesler (CFB Hall of Fame, 1954), who came in after Paul Bixler served a single Luke Fickell-ish season term following the end of WWII. Carroll Widdoes won a national championship with Paul Brown's players in 1944 after Brown left to join the military fight.

Also, Paul Brown. Him. He coached the Ohio State Buckeyes. Not in the CFB Hall of Fame.

Brown succeeded Francis Schmidt (CFB Hall of Fame, 1971) the father of the Gold Pants tradition and the first coach to tilt the rivalry to the south. Objectively, Ohio State has not had a significant downturn or anything approaching a Lost in the Wilderness era since John Wilce (CFB Hall of Fame, 1954) was hired in 1913.

We're going on a century of gilded eras and golden ages in Columbus. There isn't a football program that can match that. The sport has only been played for 151 seasons.

Every link in the chain from Wilce's Buckeyes prior to the Great War to the Buckeyes reporting for camp this week includes productive and important upgrades to what we see and expect today. One hundred years in college football is a millennium.

Now think about what's happened in Ann Arbor since prior to Lloyd Carr's retirement. Consider Tennessee, which has been lost in the wilderness for at least that long. Alabama lost 13 times during Ohio State's two consecutive BCS title game finishes in 2006 and 2007. The Crimson Tide, however historically great, have mortgaged entire decades to mediocrity.

Notre Dame, Nebraska, ancient powers like Minnesota - every one of them go through periods where their perch is threatened. Michigan’s current condition, however enjoyable from our current position would be far more valuable if viewed through the lens of a cautionary tale where hubris, silos and nepotism bring down an empire from within.

Imagine not feeling love or hate for Ohio State football, but instead - crippling indifference. Attaching yourself to basketball or fencing or perhaps losing interest in college sports altogether because investing yourself in the football team just isn't worth the emotional investment. Or worse, it's not interesting enough for your time.

After 100 years it might feel safe to say Ohio State football is in the clear. Every defunct empire that has spanned centuries has foolishly believed this.

The Buckeye emperors can barely contain the sport's existential crises around brain health and the rapidly evolving definition of amateurism. They and their athletic directors can only manage the program's health and performance. And for the past 100 years, Ohio State has eluded any significant blows to its empire.

But it's always possible. Peacetime is an illusion. Firing and hiring are the two most important exercises in any organization, and Ohio State's graveyard of coaches exists because the program's health has always ceded importance to no single coach.

If the Buckeyes are going to enjoy another century of gilded results, the university cannot take anything for granted. Unfortunately, history tells us that all empires eventually meet their demise.

Maybe that will happen in your lifetime, as it has for fans of so many other football empires. If it does, our anxiety about the upcoming seasons will be replaced by reminiscing about how great things used to be.

But there’s no reason to occupy yourself with that nightmare. This series stole its title from FDR, and his wisdom applies to all of this. Paranoia - whether it’s a trip to West Lafayette, a replay review, The Game, a “scandal” or what’s yet to come - will suck the joy out of you. Your enthusiasm isn’t just voluntary, the empire demands it.

So here’s to the best Ohio State football season ever, which should always be the next one.

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