Ohio Stadium history: Great, odd and downright screwball moments (2024)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Stadium turns 100 this week, and there’s reason to pay homage. It is so much more than just a building of concrete and turf and lights and noise where Ohio State plays football, and almost always wins. It is also something about love.

Look at the endless masses through the rolling years who have posed for pictures by the rotunda on the north end of the stadium, a feature that is an echo from ancient Rome. Some, it has been said, are buried with those photos.

Watch the man who now runs the stadium pull out the folder of the century-old notes and drawings of the guy who designed it — pages from the past so he can once again hear the architect’s voice. Especially this year.

Listen to the football historian who has not missed a Michigan game in Ohio Stadium in 72 years — except the 2020 COVID season — describing the time he attended only because his terminally ill wife insisted he go. She might not survive, but his streak certainly would.

Ohio Stadium history: Great, odd and downright screwball moments (1)

To appreciate Ohio Stadium on its 100th birthday, we should remember how and why it started. World War I had just ended and Ohio State needed a new football home. The old field a half-mile east was so small, fans were climbing trees and sawing off parts of the fence to get a look at their Buckeyes. The school, driven by the big-stadium visions of athletics-minded engineering professor Thomas French, turned to an alum for ideas. That was an architect from Dayton named Howard Dwight Smith, who had grown up not far from the bicycle shop of Orville and Wilbur Wright.

How’d that turn out? Don Patko reached into the lower right drawer of his desk this week for Smith’s drawings and notes from back then. Officially, Patko is the assistant athletics director for facilities and capital building projects. He’s been here 33 years. In reality, he’s the keeper of the flame at Ohio State; the man who watches over, tends to — and treasures — Ohio Stadium.

"It’s our crown jewel, it’s our monument, it’s our responsibility during our time period (to take care of it)," he said. "Every boss before me and every boss after me has to have that feeling."

"I walk this place most of the time when it’s empty. To look at the construction and how they did that, I’ve never done anything this good in my life and I’ve done a lot of very nice modern buildings. But to build an all-concrete reinforced stadium in 1921..."

Patko’s collection includes this thoughtful line that Howard Dwight Smith wrote more than a century ago after studying the Ohio State situation: "The popularity of football during the recent season has shown that great crowds will have to be accommodated at the game.”

More than 100 years later, nothing has changed about that. Ohio State was so determined to fund the project that parades were held on downtown streets. Officials were hoping for public donations to reach $600,000. They passed $1 million in three months. Among Smith’s thinking was a unique horseshoe-shape for the stadium, an upper deck and more than 60,000 seats. If put end-to-end, the wooden bleacher seats would have stretched 21 miles. Critics thought such a size was silly and extravagant, but not for long.

"It’s probably maybe the most recognized structure in the state of Ohio," said Jack Park, a CPA by training who has made a lifetime of writing and talking about the history of Ohio State football. He has seen maybe 400 games in Ohio Stadium, the first in 1949.

To mark the special birthday, and with the help of Patko and Park, here are 11 things big and small to know about Ohio Stadium. Or The ‘Shoe to its friends:

  • The first game was a 5-0 win over Ohio Wesleyan on Oct. 7, 1922. The 605th was a 49-10 romp over Rutgers last Saturday. Overall, Ohio State is 475-111-19 in its stadium, with 21 of those 111 defeats —19 percent — coming against Michigan. That included the dedication game in 1922 that ended with a 19-0 thud. But there have been no Ohio Stadium losses to the Wolverines the past 21 years.
  • When it comes to football stadia, the Big Ten is a senior citizens’ community. Wisconsin’s Camp Randall is 105 years old. Nebraska’s Memorial, Illinois’ Memorial and Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium turn 100 next season, and Purdue’s Ross-Ade the year after. At that school up north, Michigan Stadium won’t turn 100 until 2027.
  • Smith picked farmland near the Olentangy River for his new creation. “They had to wait for the crops to be cleared that year,” Patko said. Once the project began in late summer of 1921, the work was feverish. Smith designed a railroad spur to bring in materials, and workers labored through the night beneath huge lights. The irony is that it would be 64 years before the Buckeyes played a night game in Ohio Stadium.
  • About the Olentangy. It flooded the place in the 1950s. The field sits low and needs protecting, and there is now something called a slurry wall, and also a pumping system. "Without that wall and the pumping station,"Patko said, “we’d be six feet under water.”
  • Patko’s favorite point in Ohio Stadium is the 70-foot high rotunda on the north end, with three stained glass windows. It is the go-to spot for pictures. There are also the signature arches, some original, some emulated in later renovation. Patko had visited Rome and left with several inspirations eventually seen in his Ohio Stadium drawings. The rotunda comes from the Pantheon and the arches from the Colosseum and Roman aqueducts. Smith was awarded a gold medal from the American Institute of Architects for his stadium design, with raves about the upper deck and horseshoe. He was often there to watch his alma mater play. His season tickets were near those of Orville Wight.
  • So why did the original horseshoe design bend inward at the open south end? One reason was Smith’s wish to give every fan a better view of the field. Another had something to do with the demand of a certain sport. And it wasn’t football. “Track was as important as football back then. They wanted the 220s running out the end of the horseshoe, so that set your two horseshoe bends,” Patko said. Twelve years after Ohio Stadium opened, a Buckeye phenom sprinter took to its track. Jesse Owens. The four Olympic gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics made him one of the faces of 20th century American sport, and when the 1985 Jesse Owens Classic was held in Ohio Stadium, 38 Olympians competed. The track was removed during the 1998-2001 renovations.
  • For more than 60 years, there were dorm rooms on the stadium’s west side for students in a work-study program. Their advantage was obvious for sold-out games. They were already in the house, sort of. “We had emergency doors onto our ramps from their rooms,” Patko said. “When we heard those go off on game days, we knew it was the students (slipping into the game). We never caught them. For Michigan games, you’d hear them more often.”
  • CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! A 2,420-pound Victory Bell was placed in the southeast tower of the stadium in 1954 and rung after Ohio State beat California. It’s still there, and it’s the responsibility of the Alpha Phi Omega co-ed fraternity to ring the ball after every win. Legend has it if conditions are right, the bell can be heard five miles away. “I know you ring it a little longer if you beat Michigan,” Patko said. “One’s for 15 minutes, I think, and one’s 30.”
  • There has been soccer in Ohio Stadium. Lacrosse. The Rolling Stones. Also commencement speeches by four U.S. presidents and Neil Armstrong, two years after he landed on the moon.
  • Ohio Stadium was put on the list of National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Few college sports venues are on that list. P.S. The Big House isn’t one of them.
  • With Park's help, here are some of the days in the life of Ohio Stadium:

Nov. 2, 1935. This clash of unbeatens was the first time Ohio State played Notre Dame, and also the first time anybody called something the Game of the Century, even if the century was only 36 years old. When the Irish arrived in town, the Columbus mayor gave them the key to the city, but he might have wanted it back after they scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally past the Buckeyes 18-13.

Newspapers.com Ohio Stadium history: Great, odd and downright screwball moments (2)

“Mr. (Lynn) St. John, who was director of athletics at that time, is supposed to have said he could have sold 200,000 tickets to that game, in the middle of the Great Depression,” Park said. “The winning touchdown came on a pass in the last minute from William Shakespeare to Wayne Millner. Shakespeare was Presbyterian, Millner was Jewish. And that’s how Notre Dame won the football game.”

Oct. 10, 1936. Pitt shutout Ohio State 6-0, but the score wasn’t the thing that would impact future games in Ohio Stadium. Someone came up with the idea of the band spelling out Ohio in script on the field. It became rather popular. Park could always appreciate Script Ohio. His father was in the Ohio State band.

Nov. 25, 1950. This is the epicenter of Ohio Stadium history. A blizzard hit before and during the Michigan game, with blowing snow and winds at 30 miles an hour. Vision was impossible, offense hopeless. Michigan won 9-3 without getting a first down. The two teams combined for 45 punts.

“It was a game that probably should never have been played,” Park said. “Fans drove in from Springfield and Dayton and it was like until the next Monday or Tuesday before they got home. They were stuck along the way and some of them stayed with farmers who put them up.

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“Somewhere in my home I have three tickets in a scrapbook; we had tickets to the game and it was so bad my dad said we’re not going to go. He was afraid of not being able to get home.”

With the exception of 2020 when COVID kept the crowds out, Park has not missed a Michigan game in Ohio Stadium since then. In 2012, his wife had returned home from the hospital, fighting the cancer that would soon take her life. “I went to the first half of the Michigan game. And then at halftime I got out of there and got in the car and came home and watched the second half with her,” he said. “She wanted me to do that. She told me, you need to keep that string going.”

Sept. 29, 1951. Ohio State beat SMU 7-0 with a new man in charge. His name was Woody Hayes.

Nov. 23, 1968. Ohio State mashed Michigan 50-14, and went for a two-point PAT after the last touchdown. Legend has it that Hayes was later asked why he’d go for two in a blowout, and his answer framed a classic and bitter rivalry: “Because I couldn’t go for three.” There’s no evidence he actually said that following the game, but it made a great line in a lot of his after-dinner talks later. Bo Schembechler arrived at Michigan for the next season. The Ten Year War was dawning, with Ohio Stadium its Gettysburg.

Sept. 30, 1972. Two weeks earlier in the season opener, freshman running back Archie Griffin got the ball once, and fumbled. Hayes hated fumbles nearly as much as he hated Michigan and Griffin would later say he wondered if he would ever see the ball again in his career. He was listed as fifth string for the North Carolina game. But with the Buckeyes’ offense sputtering early, Hayes followed the advice of assistant coach Rudy Hubbard and gave Griffin another chance. Griffin rushed for 239 yards and a star was born. A half-century later, he remains college football’s only two-time Heisman winner.

Park: “What they did at that time is Hayes would take the first three teams to a hotel off campus on Friday night before a game. If you weren’t on the first three teams, you just stayed in your dorm room or your apartment and then you joined the team at the stadium Saturday morning. And that’s what Archie did.”

Nov. 18, 2006. The only time Ohio State has ever played Michigan in a 1-2 match, and the top-ranked Buckeyes won a 42-39 classic that was tinged with mourning. Schembechler had died the day before. Patko remembers something else about that game. There had been trouble with the natural grass turf that season, requiring it to be replaced twice. “That field they ran on as No. 1 vs. No 2 was two-weeks old,” he said.

archive.org Ohio Stadium history: Great, odd and downright screwball moments (3)ESPN.com preview for Ohio State vs. Michigan in 2006

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Nov. 26, 2016. No. 2 Ohio State over No. 3 Michigan 30-27, in the only overtime game in the history of the series.

Now the crown jewel turns 100. Smith died in 1958 and is buried six miles south of the creation that made him a legend at Ohio State. It was not his only work. He also designed St. John Arena, where the 1960 national champion Buckeyes played their basketball.

Ohio Stadium is not the same place as the one in the drawings in Patko's desk. A three-year renovation in 1998-2001 included lowering the field 14 ½ feet and massive improvements to the infrastructure. The landmark that was built for $1.3 million cost roughly $200 million to refurbish. Patko said architects told him the life of the stadium had been extended at least 75 years by the project. But he was quick to add the main shell of the original remains today. “The Howard Dwight Smith stadium still exists,” he said.

So, happy birthday. It opened before Yankee Stadium, before Augusta National, three weeks before the Rose Bowl. The ‘Shoe lives on, in so many ways the beating heart of Ohio State.

Ohio Stadium history: Great, odd and downright screwball moments (2024)


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