My friend Matt and I turned off of I-670 E and looked upon the city of Columbus, Ohio.
“Is this bigger than Indianapolis?” I asked Matt.
“I don’t know,” he responded. “It might be.”
In fact, the two cities are quite similar: Indianapolis has a population of 829,000 and 1.76 million people in its metro area while 797,000 people live in the city of Columbus with 1.86 million in the metro area.
I was surprised the two cities were of similar size. I had met Matt in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka (yes, The League is filmed there) and passed Indianapolis while getting on I-70 after taking I-65 through Indiana. It was the first time I had seen Indianapolis and the city was smaller than I had expected.
People had compared Indy to Minneapolis, but while the City of Lakes may only have 382,000 living in the city, its metro area (3.3 million) is significantly larger.
Indianapolis was gone in a flash as soon as we got on I-70.
The Columbus skyline is impressive—all the buildings are lit up in red. Ohio Stadium is tucked in the back while the Main Street Bridge, which traverses the Scioto River, is placed prominently in the forefront.
The first thing I noticed was that the university buildings read The Ohio State University. I had heard football players from OSU say they were from The Ohio State University when introducing themselves on television, but did not know that it was officially endorsed.
Ohio State really could eschew the “The” in their name. First of all, it irks my father, a loyal Notre Dame fan, so much so that he complains about it every time we watch Monday Night Football. More pertinently, it almost goes unsaid.
As soon as I descended into the Ohio State campus I knew I was someplace special.
A group of people is playing a game of pickup basketball outside of the dormitories in the 50-degree weather. On High Street, a mass of students socializing at The Big Bar & Grill, grabbing a meal at Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers or watching the game at Buffalo Wild Wings. And without locals in the residential areas, students are free to blast Flo Rida, Katy Perry and Kid Cudi from their indoor speakers and allow the party to spill into the front yard.
And everybody, I mean everybody, is decked out in scarlet.
During my sophomore year at Santa Clara University I wrote a piece about the lack of school pride at my alma mater. I couldn’t help but to notice that many of my classmates wore attire from other colleges. Some represented where they were from (University of Washington, Oregon and California-Berkeley) while others seemed to be making a statement about where they wanted to go (Notre Dame, Georgetown, University of Southern California).
Of course, I was acutely aware of this. I had wanted to go to Notre Dame my whole life, but did not get in and despite being thousands of miles away from South Bend, Ind., I was constantly reminded of my shortcoming.
With ND off the table, my college selection then had winnowed to Santa Clara, Marquette and Gonzaga. Marquette and Gonzaga had nationally recognized basketball teams, therefore were name brand schools, and they had alums that raved about the experience there.
Santa Clara’s basketball team became irrelevant shortly after Steve Nash left for the NBA in 1996—I didn’t even know the school existed until my sophomore year. I found it online while I was looking up information on Marquette and Gonzaga and found it under “similar schools.”
My decision looked like a no-brainer. San Jose, Calif. is certainly more inviting than rainy, remote Spokane, Wash. (known colloquially as “Spokompton”) and dicey South Milwaukee.
Furthermore, the school was in California so the girls had to be good looking. And the San Jose Sharks were nearby so I could get my hockey fix—the Milwaukee Admirals and Spokane Chiefs just wouldn’t do.
But I missed the game day atmosphere, I didn’t like the divided campus and I wanted our basketball team to be relevant.
It comes as no shock to me that I found those three things at Ohio State.
When Matt and I got in on Friday, just about everyone we saw had Ohio State attire on. There was a person wearing a Texas A&M sweatshirt, but she was the exception, not the norm. The bar we went to had a giant Fathead of Brutus Buckeye, the team mascot, and my friend who I was visiting, Chris, had a giant Ohio State sticker on his apartment wall.
By comparison, as my friend and fellow FanMan colleague once wrote, the only thing you’ll find on the walls of a Santa Clara bar are urine and conjunctivitis.
The house party I attended on Friday was similar to what you’d experience at a college campus anywhere in the country—deafening music, intense of body heat and floors stickier than a Post-It note.
The most drastic difference was how homogenous the student is. The gathering featured a lot white guys wearing button down shirts. The girl-to-guy ratio was about 5:1 in favor of dudes, meaning that I used the few girls there were at the party to navigate through the sea of popped collars to get from room to room.
It helped that it was a costume party and that while most of the guys must have missed the memo, many of the girls were dressed as something unique. One had a Santa suit that you wouldn’t find in a children’s store. As I hoisted her up for a keg stand I was reminded of how much I miss college. After doing a keg stand of my own that lasted a measly six seconds, which merited an immediate drop to the glutinous floor, I was hastily reminded that I my college days were over.
Sometime during that night I went to get my ticket to Saturday’s game against Illinois. I was expecting to pick it up from someone at the party, but I had to go to another house to find the man with the goods. The place was empty save for the person with the ticket and an acquaintance that had brought my friend and I over.
The man with the ticket stood in an unlit room in the back of the house. From his shadow I could tell he had popped his collar. I was half expecting him to offer me cocaine, half expecting him to ask me to tattoo his arm in exchange for the ticket.
“You got the cash?” he said in a voice lower than the thumping bass across the street.
I hand him the cash. He reaches to hand me the ticket, only to have it drop to the floor.
I look at him…he looks at me. I look down at the floor. A single beam of light traveling through the window shone on the ticket, which read OSU ID REQUIRED.
“Can I touch it?” I asked the man in the shadows.
I picked it up and scampered out of the building back to the party.
The transaction had gone smoothly and, to top things off, Ms. Claus wanted to do another keg stand.
On Saturday everyone was wearing scarlet. Anyone that was wearing a football jersey seemed to have a different number on it. Because there are rows a houses owned by students parties begin before ten, music is turned up to eleven and the cops don’t shut anything down until game time—which was 3:30 that day.
Unbeknownst to Matt and I, Chris was attending the local high school track meet and left us with his housemates.
Like Chris, three of them were from Cleveland. The other was from New Jersey.
At a state school you’d expect that a majority of the student body would be from Ohio. What I found interesting is that friend groups were not divided by high school, but rather by city.
In short, people came together as Clevelanders, and ultimately as Ohio State fans, rather than ensconcing themselves among their high school friends.
The idea that people from various parts of Cleveland seem to bond over a common background was similar to my experience at Santa Clara. While I have many friends from the West Coast, I felt an instant bond with people from the Midwest—especially Minnesota. My roommate senior year was from St. Louis and Matt, the guy I went to Columbus with, is from the Chicago area.
Matt and I instantly got along with Chris’ housemates. Day drinking at Ohio State isn’t much different than day drinking at Santa
Clara. There were subtle differences: Natural Light (i.e. Cheap Budweiser) replaced Keystone Light (i.e. Cheap Coors)*, cups are immediately pulled during beer pong and because student housing surrounded us none of the parties were broken up.
*A quick list of things that taste better than Keystone/Natty: my urine, gasoline, battery acid, your urine, lighter fluid and bath water.
The biggest difference is that at a Santa Clara day party people wore jerseys or tank tops that represented where they were from where at the pre-game festivities everyone was wearing scarlet.
It’s fair to say that comparing Santa Clara and Ohio State is comparing apples and oranges, one is a small, private school on the West Coast. The other is a large, public school in the Midwest. The common denominator, however, is that perspective students are given a choice of where they want to go.
There certainly were advantages of going to Santa Clara: nice weather, small class sizes, West Coast lifestyle, etc.
The major downfall is that it did not feel uniting. For me, specifically, it became sort of a stepping-stone. You went in, had a fun time, got your degree and got out. In fact, as my friend and colleague Kurt Wagner wrote, 25 percent of students at Santa Clara graduated early.
The sports teams hardly created any incentives for students to stick around. I covered the basketball team because it was the biggest sport and I aspired to be a sports journalist, but it was difficult to watch the team go 0-fer in the pitiful West Coast Conference.
Many freshmen go to games expecting the same kind of excitement they experienced in high school, only to become disappointed and fail to return as upperclassmen except for the three marquee games—Gonzaga, Brigham Young and Saint Mary’s.
The Gonzaga rivalry is pretty one-sided—Santa Clara beat them at home my junior year for the first time in ten years.
BYU has an Honor Code that enforces abstinence from alcohol and sex and doesn’t allow Mormon students to change their religion. At Santa Clara the unwritten code of conduct is: If you’re going to do drugs, stick to weed. If you’re going to have sex, at least wear a condom. And if you’re going to change your religion, steer clear of Mormonism.
In short, there’s no sense in picking on a BYU. They are more square than a Rubik’s cube.
The team tries to push a rivalry with the University of San Francisco and while Rex Walters is slowly building a program there, the Dons haven’t been relevant since Bill Russell wore green and yellow.
Santa Clara hasn’t had football since 1993 and there’s a notion that the return of the pigskin would galvanize school pride. And yes, standing in Ohio Stadium with 100,000 fans and all the National Championship plaques is quite spectacular.
Still it’s hard to forget the tattoo scandal under Jim Tressel when you see the plaque for the 2002 title and football’s concussion problem comes to mind when the students chant, “Tear his fucking head off” after every kickoff.
All in all, though, students still support a team that is ineligible for a bowl game and also support various other sports teams—basketball, hockey, baseball, etc.
In reality, Santa Clara can develop school pride and put itself on the map with a good basketball team. Other small schools have done it by becoming Giant Killers during March Madness—Butler, Richmond and WCC rival Gonzaga. There’s even a history of it at the school: Santa Clara is one of four teams to beat a No. 2 seed in the first round of the tournament when they knocked off Arizona in the Steve Nash years.
The atmosphere for the rivalry games is improving. Before their abysmal season last year, upperclassmen made the walk from their off-campus housing, locals decided to make the drive a couple minutes out of the city and a couple alums that remained in the Bay Area make the drive to see the game.
A culture of mediocrity has kept the fans away, however, and Stanford continues dominates the Bay Area college sports scene. It didn’t help that during my time there, our star player, Kevin Foster, was arrested for a DUI.
Until Santa Clara can compete with the Zags, Cougars and Gaels, they will remain in Stanford’s shadow and fail to bring alumni back to campus.
Things are looking a little better.
After years of playing non-conference games against obscure schools from around the country—Wagner (New York), Houston Baptist (Texas) and Bethune-Cookman (Florida) were my three favorites*—while eschewing matchups against reputable Californian programs, this year’s schedule features Saint Louis University and Duke. Sure, it would be nice to see Santa Clara schedule Cal, Stanford or UCLA, but it’s a step in the right direction.
*We actually lost to some of these teams. That’s the real tragedy.
It was a 26-hour round trip for me to get from Minnesota to Columbus. I was about four hours into my drive to Illinois when it hit me: This is a long drive, it better be worth it.
On a list of reasons to stay home—it’s raining outside, you are young and life is long and there is time to kill today—“I have to drive 13 hours through the rural Midwest” is a pretty damn good excuse to stay home. Still, as I passed cities like Richmond, Ind. and Pewaukee, Wis. on my way back to Minnesota there was no doubt in my mind it was worth the trip.
When I got home, every time I told someone that I had been to Columbus, they asked, “How was Ohio State?”
Conversely, since coming back from college in July, I’ve frequently been asked, “Where did you go to school?”
“Santa Clara,” I always respond.
There’s usually a brief moment of silence. I let it linger, just to see if the name registers.
“It’s in California,” I’ll offer.
“Oh,” they usually say. “That’s awful far away.”
Tom Schreier writes for TheFanManifesto. He can followed on Twitter at @tschreier3. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.