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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.
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