Cracking the Bucknut

How Ohio State fans came to be so obnoxious, and who we should blame for it

"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?


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.

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