A few weeks ago, rumors started to fly that this year's Ohio State-Michigan game might be at night, thanks to some countdown clocks set up by folks who probably don't follow the football team all too closely. The university shot everything down quickly enough, but not before many Buckeye fans loudly proclaimed their dislike for the idea. "It breaks tradition!", some cry. "It'll be too cold!" "It's inconvenient!"
Look. I'm as much a sucker for tradition as the next midwest born, Big Ten educated football fan. But this is barely a tradition. And if it is, it's one that the school shouldn't think twice about discarding if it makes sense in the future. The Game would be awesome at night.
First, let's remember that Ohio State and Michigan playing at noon wasn't exactly written in stone tablets and passed down from Moses. Over the course of history, it's been played at 1 PM, 1:30, and most recently in 2006, at 3:30, a game that ultimately ended under the lights. The No 1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes beat the No 2 Michigan Wolverines 42-39, and I don't remember anybody complaining that the experience had been irredeemably sullied because the sun went down at some point, or that scared tradition had been broken. For a program and a school that is so rich in tradition, it's difficult to imagine that the specific start time of The Game would crack the top five for any fan.
You know what my favorite Ohio State tradition is? Winning lots and lots of football games. The best way to do that is to make sure that you have lots of elite athletes, and playing major opponents at night is great way to give yourselves an upper hand in recruiting. You don't have to take my word for it though. Ask Urban Meyer what he thinks about Ohio State playing night games.
Meyer's words Thursday came on The Bishop & Rothman Show on 97.1 The Fan in Columbus, but they were spurred by what Meyer first said Wednesday. He wants more night games at Ohio Stadium, primarily because it creates a better recruiting atmosphere. He especially doesn't like noon kickoffs, because it makes it difficult for recruits to get there for the game.
Meyer's pushing was a major reason why Ohio State played three home games at night this season, against Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Illinois (the Buckeyes also faced Penn State and Michigan State at night, on the road). The Big Ten had traditionally been hesitant to play night games later into the year, given concerns about temperature, but the cold didn't make Ohio State-Michigan State any less of a great game, and even against a throughly lackluster opponent in Illinois, Ohio State still found people to attend that game, even though it was a November night game. If playing Cincinnati and Illinois at night is good for the program, imagine the jaw-dropping atmosphere that can be produced for recruits attending a night Ohio State-Michigan game.
Would it be cold? Sure, but that doesn't mean a night game would be impossible. Ohio State played at East Lansing on November 8th. The Spartans played a night game at Maryland (which sure, is a little bit warmer), on November 15th. Are we to believe that a primetime game on November 8th or 15th is acceptable in Big Ten country, but that November 29th would always be completely unacceptable? Seems a little arbitrary to me.
The fact is, Columbus is often cold in late November. It can be cold at noon. It can be cold at 3:30. I've gone to this game when it was snowing, and more than 100,000 people joined me, and they're going to show up when these two teams are playing, even if it's snowing AND in the dark. This is a fanbase where tens of thousands of fans jump in a freezing cold lake, at mightnight, just a few days before. And suddenly now we're too cold to sit in a stadium with a coat and a hot chocolate? C'mon.
When the university is looking to make a change in a previous policy that impacts the football team, they ought to be guided by two main principles. The first is "does this help the football team win, and does the team like it?" While Ohio State administrators have not been supportive of moving the Michigan game to the evening, Gene Smith in particular, there's nothing to indicate that the football program, from Urban Meyer to the players, is against it. Given the program's emphasis on recruiting, and night games in general, it seems like they'd think quite the opposite. Sportswriters may not love staying up late on deadline because of a night game, but the players love it.
The other principle ought to be, "does this improve the student fan experience?" College football should ultimately belong to the students, and policies, from ticket pricing, to seating charts, to game locations, ought to prioritize their needs above other fan groups, even if that means taking a little less money. I can't think of a reason why an extra night game would be worse for college students. This is a group that can stay up later, it turns this game into more of an all-day event that allows for more campus programming, events, and yes, parties, and students aren't as impacted by traffic issues. I don't know any Ohio State fan who bemoaned the night game experience while an undergraduate. Why not give them another game to really remember? It'd be a nice thank you for charging them to see Kent State.
Is it perfect for everybody? No. Traffic could be an issue, along with public safety, but the school would have a long time to prepare for both, and they manage to figure out solutions for other night games. It might mean that the population for an Ohio State-Michigan night game may skew a little younger than for other games, or a little less family-friendly, but that may not be the worst thing in the world. Beat writers will probably also complain, but in case you haven't noticed, sportswriters complain more than almost everybody. They'll be fine.
This isn't something that should be done every year either. This year, with Michigan struggling to even make a bowl, and with Ohio State already playing nearly half of their games at night, it would be a waste. But having that option in their back pocket, when Ohio State's home schedule is a little lacking, or when both teams are highly regarded, makes sense for everybody.
Is it "tradition"? No, not exactly, but it would be good for the students, and good for the football team. And a good football team beating the crap out of Michigan is the best tradition at all, no matter what time it happens.