My wife often describes me to friends as an "Ohio Evangelist", and I don't think that's wrong. Even if my work for Land-Grant doesn't come up, it isn't uncommon for me to find a way to sing the praises of Cedar Point at a party, extoll the virtues of a changing Columbus, or maybe even snap at somebody who tries to claim that Cleveland only, in fact, has two buildings. I am often quick to defend the perceived cultural deficiencies of the region to my coastal friends, who erroneously believe anything west of Philadelphia is barren flyover country, populated exclusively by cows, corn, and salt of the earth types. Between a few holdovers from my college days, and a growing HOMAGE shirt collection, I can probably point to at least a quarter of my casual clothing collection being at least tangentially Ohio related. This is somewhat remarkable, since I haven't lived in Ohio since 2009, and probably won't return anytime soon.
I'm proud of where I grew up (Licking County Pride, y'all), and I'm proud to plug Ohio State football whenever I can (perhaps to the occasional chagrin of my wife), but I suspect a large part of this evangelism comes from being tired of seeing my roots kicked around. It's fine when us Buckeyes pass around the "We're Not Detroit" video, but when other people make fun of rivers catching on fire, or LeBron leaving, or anything involving Youngstown, it's a little less funny
In case you hadn't noticed, now is probably not the best time to be a Midwesterner, in sports, or otherwise. In real life, Chicago has been beset with stories about gun violence and ugly school labor disputes. According to this list, four of the top 10, and three of the top four most dangerous cities are in the midwest.The national narrative of the region is of one beset by high unemployment, high foreclosure rates, high crime and of cities past their prime, fleeing bad neighborhoods and worse weather for sunnier climates. When a reporter asked Brady Hoke about Michigan's reaction to Detroit filing for bankruptcy, most of the assembled media laughed, including myself. Looking back on it though, I'm starting to see where he might have been coming from.
The college football landscape for the region isn't much better. Truckloads of digital ink have been spilled over reasons for the demise of the Big Ten (I've written about it a few times myself), with similar reasons brought out each time. Most of the league has fallen behind in recruiting, particularly in regards to finding fast athletes. The league has rested on its laurels and failed to remove poor quality coaches, or failed to innovate schematically. The league has cravenly spent its time looking for illusive NY market television gold, instead of cultivating their football product. I don't want to say the popular opinion is that the Big Ten necessarily fiddled while Rome burnt, but they probably were chanting something about the Rose Bowl while the first embers ignited.
That could potentially change this season, as Ohio State is a legitimate national title contender. It's too bad that instead of marveling at Braxton Miller's elusiveness in the open field, or the sudden proliferation of young skill position talent, or the exploits of Ryan Damn Shazier, we're going to hear every week about how Ohio State's exploits should be marked with an asterisk, given that they play a weak schedule. The O/U on "Little Sister's of the Poor" references to Ohio State is set charitably at six for the first month of the season.
If Ohio State wins a national title, or even if they trip up but beat a major school in a bowl game (like say, Oregon in the Rose), that narrative, and some of those perceptions will change. That's a tangible benefit to everybody in the Big Ten. If everybody would benefit from Ohio State's success, is it time for fans of other conference schools to embrace conference solidarity?
It isn't hard to imagine why this might be hard for other B1G schools to stomach. It may be hard for our Columbus bros to realize this, but for a lot of people, Ohio State isn't exactly easy to root for. In a culture that lionizes the scrappy underdog, the Buckeyes are a big budget Goliath, wielding outsized influence in the conference, inspiring potshots and allegations of cheating on the regular. If you're from Ohio or otherwise connected, rooting for Ohio State (or Michigan) to succeed carries the weight of being overly deferential to authority and history, like being a college football fan version of David Brooks or George Will. Nobody likes those people.
There is also the fact that us midwesterns have traditionally poked fun at our southern brethren in the SEC for this sort of behavior. It seems...well, ridiculous, for say, a Kentucky or Mississippi State fan to chant S-E-C, S-E-C, doesn't it? After all, Alabama's dominance doesn't make you any less 3-9. Part of the Big Ten's central identity is our smugness, our feeling of superiority against the unwashed southerners, who debase higher learning with their uncouth emphasis on football. How can we reconcile that with debasing ourselves to cheer for the success of other schools?
I dunno, we're supposed to be the smart conference, we should be able to figure it out. Is it ridiculous when Kentucky or whatever the other SEC also-ran of the year does it? Of course it is. But from their perspective, can you blame them? Being associated with a powerful, well-thought of organization certainly benefits even the dregs of the conference, and if you live in a state like Kentucky or Mississippi, where the national media is going to run mostly negative stories about you all year, why not grab the chance at "being #1" where you can? We sort of already do the same thing with the AAU, so we can throw our alma maters in the same breath as Harvard and Yale.
I'm not insinuating that other Big Ten fans ought to cheer for Ohio State *instead* of their chosen teams. Only the most vapid self righteous national media types would be that craven and cynical. By all means, during our week, unleash your finest Ohio State hate at us. Pour an entire season of resentment into those four quarters. But once the game is over, should the Buckeyes win and continue their march towards national recognition, consider muting your disdain for a while. When Miller, Meyer and company crush somebody in a January Bowl Game, it's okay to smile. And when sportswriters rip up their "same ol' slow Big Ten" templates, know that that may change how people see you as well.
Will XBRAX360's speed run towards a national title suddenly change the midwestern narrative away from unemployment and crime? In a world where sports perfectly meets narrative, sure, but that isn't real life. It would change the perception of the Big Ten though, and it might help drive some of that bad news off the front page for a day or two. And at the end of the day, isn't that a major reason we watch college football at all?
To paraphrase former secretary of defense Charles Erwin Wilson, what's good for Ohio State this year is good for the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are going to lead the charge for the north to rise again. It won't kill you to enjoy the ride with us.