Note: This story has been corrected from the original version to reflect Ohio State football's one-year ban from competitive play. The original version incorrectly cited a two-year ban.
"When you are born and raised in Columbus, you were born a Buckeye fan, no matter what," the caller says over the line, his voice pocketed in static. "Now, the reason why we see it so big up this way, and even the whole state, is because it's The Ohio State University. There is no other university that is better than Ohio State out there, period.
Inside the booth at AM 850-WKNR, there's a beat or two of dead air. It's the last hour of The Really Big Show. Co-host Aaron Goldhammer has his eyes pinched shut, his head shaking from side to side.
"Wh ... Wha ... What?" he says, cranking out the word bit by bit, lacquering on another layer of sarcasm with each syllable. "What do you mean by that? There's no university that's better than Ohio State? I went to a university that's pretty good, it's NYU. I liked it."
"And you like that," the caller says. "But to me, I am The Ohio State University."
"Yeeaaaaaaaah!" host Tony Rizzo cuts in. "What's your name?"
"Mike," the caller says.
"Mike: O-H!" Rizzo shouts.
"I-O!" the voice on the line chants back as those familiar tom-tom hits come in and the ridiculously ill-fitting fight song "Hang On Sloopy" fills the airwaves.
The topic on the table is Ohio State University fans and what makes them so damned passionate. Or, as Rizzo put it moments earlier: "Why are OSU fans freaks?"
Or: Why are so many of them such myopic assholes?
The phone lines are jammed, and e-mails are clogging the KNR inboxes. The hosts say it's the usual: When conversation hovers around anything OSU, no volume of response is a surprise.
In broadcasting talk, Buckeye fans "move the needle" — they drive up ratings on game day, open their wallets for tickets and swag, and burn fuel or buy plane tickets to support their teams far and wide. But the passion cuts both ways: They're also more likely to blow a blood vessel if the ball doesn't bounce their way.
The school has a longtime reputation for producing a class of fan that patrols the school's legacy like a rottweiler circling a junkyard, teeth bared for the most harmless of insult or lack of proper respect. And though every big university has its intense fans, Buckeye fans have a rare gift for pissing off everybody else, including members of their own tribe.
"I've got an email for you," Rizz pipes in. "Dear Rizz: I'm a huge Ohio State fan. However, I'm not blind or deaf. I will never wear it on my sleeve, I will never answer an O-H-I-O cheer, because Ohio State fans are obnoxious, annoying, and arrogant."
And this week it will happen all over again: Co-champs of the Big Ten, the Buckeyes have earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament and a path to the championship that experts say is way easier than the one they faced last year. So they will probably win: two, maybe three or more tournament games, and their fans will go ballistic and make sure you know about it. The rest of the world that surrounds Buckeye Nation on all sides will roll its eyes, forced to deal with another bout of idiocy from the most obnoxious band of sports fans this side of the Duke student section.
How then could something so insidious rise from the joyful heartland of America?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BUCKNUTTERY
Peering back through the shifting mists of time, it all starts with Woody.
Ohio State teams were buoyed by passionate crowds before legendary football coach Woody Hayes took command in 1951. But many say it was Hayes' tenure that set the pace for the blitzkrieg Buckeye fandom has become.
"It's almost as though Ohio State football began with Woody Hayes," says veteran sportswriter Dan Coughlin. "Woody began history. He was Adam and Eve combined."
To fully appreciate it, you must deliver yourself back to the days of pre-BCS football, before computers determined national bragging rights. For decades, regional rivalries ruled the day, with one granddaddy of a bowl game eyed from afar — and only one team that got to play in it.
No one grabbed hold of those stakes like the fiery Hayes. Over the course of his career, the Ohio-born coach went 205–61–10, including five national championships — a track record that elevated OSU among the biggest of the big-time programs.
It was also Hayes who powered the beef that defines the school now more than ever. Between 1969 and 1978, known in Buckeye history books as the "Ten Years War," Hayes blew the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry into epic proportions, famously rebranding Michigan as "that school up north" — even openly refusing to buy gas in the state. Never mind that Michigan's coach was a former Hayes protégé.
"Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler took the intensity of the Ohio State-Michigan game and moved it from the sports page to the front page," Coughlin says.
Fittingly, Hayes' career crash-landed when he attacked an opposing player in the 1978 Gator Bowl. But his flameout only sealed his fate as the patron saint of OSU athletics. Not only did he hand future Buckeye generations a winning tradition; he passed along an attitude. Today, when fans manage to put words to their intensity, they nod to Hayes' white-knuckled, hippie-hating fury, whether or not they actually ever witnessed it.
After Hayes got the boot, subsequent Buckeye coaches led teams through seasons that failed to match that high standard. National titles disappeared. And John Cooper, a fine coach by most measures between 1988 and 2000, amassed a 2-10-1 record against the Wolverines. Rather than defuse the fervor of Buckeye nation, Cooper's foibles seemed only to galvanize fan hatred for those who doubted OSU supremacy.
"This is your team, your love, your passion, and now you got to put up with national people on TV, talk shows, Jim Rome: 'Ohio State can't win. They choke. They suck.' You've got to listen to that every day," says Duane Risko. The former host of WKNR's Inside the Buckeyes program, he doesn't softpedal his love for the scarlet and gray — and he still gets riled up thinking back on the negativity he endured. "We suffered, we were taunted and laughed at. 'You guys suck, you blow, you can't even beat friggin' Michigan!"
The program's savior proved to be a mild-mannered straight arrow in a sweater vest. Jim Tressel took over the program in 2001 and quickly reestablished Buckeye swagger with an unlikely national championship at the end of the 2002 season. Tressel would go on to collect six Big Ten titles, five bowl wins, and an 8-1 record against the school up north. In the Buckeye pantheon, he sat right next to Hayes.
The rekindled sense of pride isn't lost on Risko.
"When it was our turn finally to stick it in their ass, Jim Tressel comes up and breaks one off in theirs, then they say, 'Oh it was luck,'" he says, still relishing the conquests of years ago. "Then he turns around and does it again, and again.
"Tressel had us back in the hunt again. And now, all these fans around us who were breaking it off in our asses for years, now we were able to say, 'Yeah, who sucks? Who blows now, huh? Take your urination-stained helmets and go beat it.' Well, we got revenge. We were celebrating.
"Look at Tressel's run. That's why he was loved, because he restored the fan base to where old men could wear their hats and their jackets, they could pull them out of the closet. You could go down to Uniontown, Youngstown, Marion, Ohio, Rio Grande, Ohio — wherever you went, people were wearing Ohio State stuff once again. Why? Because Jim Tressel beat Michigan and restored the proud, rich tradition."
The recaptured glory was also enough to knock some fans a few notches down the evolutionary ladder, to a subspecies of douche: the Bucknut.
THE FREAK FACTION
It was in January of 2008 that sports blogger Spencer Hall found himself sitting amid a thicket of OSU fans at the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans, with No. 1 Ohio State squaring off against No. 2 Louisiana State. In the first half, LSU's All-American safety Craig Steltz went down with a shoulder injury. About ten OSU fans surrounding Hall stood up in unison, with their index and middle fingers bent together into a mushed "O" shape.
Hall figured he knew what was up, but he asked what the gesture meant anyway. A nearby fan grabbed his fingers together into the shape.
"Pussy," he said.
The pussies went on to win, 38-24.
"It's really hard to get over the anecdotal evidence," Hall says today. He writes about college football for SB Nation, a gig that lets him see up close each big program's fan base — and the stereotypes rivals throw at one another. He's mocked up a vivid profile of the Buckeye Everyman.
"It's everything negative and easily mockable about the Midwest compressed in a single entity," he deadpans. And it's more than just a vibe. The classic Bucknut has a defining set of traits all his own.
"The stereotype is angry, probably has a goatee, probably watches MMA and wrestling on the side, may live with his mother — may. And also, he's perpetually defensive about Ohio State's struggles.
"They wear jerseys," he adds. "People don't wear the jersey in the SEC. It's not something adults do."
And Buckeye Nation has earned the appropriate national accolades for it. According to the Bleacher Report's list of the 25 rudest fan bases in all of college athletics, Ohio State came in fourth — the highest ranking of any Big Ten program. (The top 3 spots were held down by West Virginia, Alabama, and LSU, making OSU the No. 1 rudest team among civilized cultures.)
"They don't live in the real world. They live in a world where they see everything in the world of sports, with these scarlet-and-gray glasses they have on," says WKNR's Goldhammer. Born and raised in Colorado, he delights in riling up listeners by putting a finger in the eye of Brutus Buckeye.
"I've seen Yankee fans, [Colorado] fans, Bronco fans, University of Wisconsin in Madison — nothing is like Ohio State that I've seen. Nothing even belongs in the same conversation."
Bruce Hooley is Goldhammer's stationmate at WKNR, an OSU graduate who wrote about Buckeye sports for The Plain Dealer for years. In exchange for his effort, he sometimes received death threats.
According to Hooley's math, 20 percent of Buckeye fans are passionate alumni. Another 40 percent are simply sports fans with an even keel. But the remaining 40 percent have repackaged whatever personal insecurity complexes they're hefting around into a superiority complex about OSU football.
"For the 40 percent freak faction, really, their quality of life is tied to how the football team did on Saturday," he says. "There's a reason why they say a few bad apples can spoil the bunch."
Most observers agree that Buckeye fanatics hit their most rabid just as Jim Tressel began his belly-flop from grace over failing to report the free swag his players were stockpiling like Halloween candy. An NCAA probe has resulted in a one-year ban from competitive play. Sadly, college basketball's governing body has no authority to rein in Ohio State fans in any similar fashion.
Naturally, Bucknuts responded by calling BS or blaming the media — ESPN in particular. Many believe the broadcasting empire went after Tressel because it felt threatened by OSU's influence among fans. Even now that Tressel has resigned from the program, a bad aftertaste lingers.
"It hurt, because I knew Michigan fans were just waiting for this, they were going to urinate all over us," says Risko. "There are those who don't like Ohio State, so naturally they hate and pile up. But Bill Clinton can sleep with more women than anyone in the White House, and everybody loves him and they forgive him. But Jim Tressel? They don't want to forgive, except for us loyalists. We look and say he paid a heavy price."
Perhaps nobody has felt Buckeye Nation's misplaced wrath more than former quarterback Kirk Herbstreit.
Now an acclaimed analyst on ESPN's GameDay, Herbstreit sits in the penthouse of college football broadcasting: the smooth-talking nice guy called upon to handle the network's biggest games. But along with that job goes a need to speak objectively. When he believes his alma mater is overmatched, he says so. When their coach screws up mightily, he calls for his resignation.
Of course, Buckeye douchebags have no use for such genuine expression. And so they abuse Herbstreit at the slightest provocation.
"Five times a day, there would be a car parked at a stop sign, people knocked on the door, they'd ask for autographs at the front door, they'd drive by real slow, 12:30 at night," Herbstreit told the sports blog Outkick the Coverage last November, referring to the mobs that would form outside his Columbus home. "I was getting up in the middle of the night to see cars outside in the street. I had no idea what they were doing there. The thought that in this crazy world we live in, somebody's driving by your house five times a day or more, that starts to work on you emotionally. But we dealt with that for four or five years." (ESPN didn't respond to Scene's request for an interview with Herbstreit.)
The Columbus Dispatch didn't help matters when, in the summer of 2009, it published Herbstreit's home address and included a handy map to his place on the front page.
But the levee broke with the Tressel scandal.
"When your own puts the dagger in Tressel's back, I think that's where Herby made his one big mistake," Risko says. "For him to call for his head, I think people looked at him as a Judas. That's where he should have let somebody else do the dirty work."
A year ago, Herbstreit moved his family to Nashville. In an interview with The Dispatch, the former Buckeye golden boy was blunt about the reasoning.
"I don't like moving. I love living here. I don't want to leave. But I just can't do this anymore. I really can't keep going like this. Eighty to 90 percent of the Ohio State fans are great. It's the vocal minority that make it rough. They probably represent only 5 to 10 percent of the fan base, but they are relentless."
LEAVE ROOM FOR PITY
People who study this kind of depravity — and yes, those people are out there — are quick to offer explanations.
"Let's just say someone very publicly berated your brother. How would you feel?" says Dr. Adam Earnheardt, a communications professor who has watched the Buckeye bandwagon from his perch at Youngstown State.
"Any time someone is hypercritical about your favorite team — a team you identify with with your whole heart and soul — your immediate reaction is defensive. You are attacking the very core of my being, so I'm going to do everything in my power to preserve that, and part of that preservation is denial."
A lot of extreme fan love isn't so much about welding your personality to the team, Earnheardt says, but playing up to how others think extreme fans should act. They get huge tattoos, for instance, or maybe egg the home of a prominent ESPN analyst, not out of honest compulsion alone, but because that's what superfans do. It's the difference between Oh, that's Brutus, he likes OSU and Holy shit, Brutus is the most insane Buckeye fan out there!
"You're creating your identity as an extreme sports fan. This is the level of sports fandom people want to think you're at," he says. "It's all about self-performance." Once you're Brutus the holy-shit guy, you are personally validated. You're a standout. And you're a moron.
Earnheardt adds that Ohio State's reputation has bloated its fan ranks beyond all reasonable proportions.
"For the most part, when you look at Ohio State and some of the other large programs, there is a lengthy history of winning traditions that will solidify the fan bases for a long time," he says.
In study-speak, researchers call it "champ followers." It's the main draw for fans who have never stepped near the OSU campus, much less walked out with a diploma. "What ends up happening is that passion for Ohio State kind of trickles down to other people who may have been on the fringes, may have been mere spectators before, but because of the passion the extreme fans have, it almost infects other people."
Ohio State's ubiquity across the state also plays a role in its fan following. Football hotbeds like Texas and Florida have multiple teams that vie for the hearts, minds, and foam fingers of fans. Ohio has no shortage of Division I programs, but none that specialize in athletic conquest the way Ohio State does. No matter how hard you look, you will not find Zips Nation.
And around these parts, any whiff of victory is bound to engender admiration.
"A lot of it has to do with the Browns, Indians, and Cavs not being all that good over the last 40 years," says WKNR's Tony Rizzo. "The Browns had one run in the '80s, the Indians had their runs in the '90s, the Cavs had their run in the 2000s. We've never seen all three teams that good. We've never seen any of the teams win a championship in 45 years. And we've never seen a team sustain being good for six, seven years."
Anthony Lima of 92.3 The Fan paints with a somewhat broader brush.
"In our area, the pro teams are garbage, the industry is dying, there's brain drain, the weather is shitty," he says. "Ohio State is the one thing in this state that a lot of people can latch onto and actually puff their chest out about."
A FRESH WAVE OF SMUGNESS
"Let me tell you something buddy," a new caller chimes in, striking back at Goldhammer. "Your selective outrage kills me ... You've got Cam Newton's daddy trying to sell him for a quarter of a million dollars ..."
With that, the caller has been cut off, but his comment lingers briefly in the air. He's suggesting that OSU haters — at WKNR, at ESPN, and everywhere else — take joy in piling on Tressel and other scapegoats, but tiptoe around other schools' more serious infractions, like when Newton, the former phenom quarterback at Auburn University, was caught up in a pay-to-play scandal engineered by his father.
The calls continue to come in, and although March Madness is a week away, The Really Big Show never steers away from the pigskin — never mind that the first kickoff is still half a year away.
At the moment OSU had slumped to its knees in the wake of Tressel's disgrace, and a rare season of middling football, and — gasp — a loss to that team up north, news surfaced that Urban Meyer was headed to Columbus. The man who had twice delivered national championships as the head coach of Florida is back in his native Ohio, poised to return the Buckeyes to the top of the rankings just as soon as the NCAA will let them back in.
Bucknuts have tentatively scheduled the BCS Championship parade for January 2014 — the very moment they will be bowl-eligible again.
In the meantime, any talk about OSU rapidly devolves into an echo chamber for Bucklove of all shapes and sizes.
"The colors: Is there any better?" a caller to WKNR waxes poetic. "We bleed red. Everybody bleeds red. So isn't everybody an Ohio State fan?"
"We could do another six hours of this," Goldhammer says during a commercial break.