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The voice of the Buckeyes, and the soul of college football

What makes college football so important to so many people?

Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images, Graphic by Patrick Mayhorn

It’s a Saturday morning in Columbus, Ohio. It’s fall, which means that a good portion of the city is in one of three places. They could be outside Ohio Stadium enjoying the weather, spending time with friends, eating various grilled foods, and drinking too much; or they could be at home, waiting for the same thing everyone else is: Buckeye football.

It’s become a bit of a religion around here. Every Saturday morning, from early September to late November, the masses gather to prepare for Ohio State football. They sell out the stadium, and more often than not, they’re rewarded with a win. Over the past 20 years or so, those wins have been more frequent than ever before. That means more fans, more excitement, and the furthering of traditions that were established decades before.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Columbus loves Buckeye football so much. It’s hard to pinpoint why any city loves college football so much. It isn’t the highest level of the sport (that distinction unfortunately goes to the NFL), and only about 20 teams have a realistic shot at winning the championship in any given year. There’s no real reason for it to be so popular.

However, it is popular, and beloved by millions. The love of college football is passed down through families, and spread to more and more every single day. The main reason for that, or at least the biggest reason I can see, is because of the traditions, and the connection people can form to a college football team. Alma mater or not, fans form a genuine love for their schools, and will do almost anything to show that love.

That connection comes from the hundreds of things that make each school unique. Every school has a unique story, with unique ways of expressing it. Some have special pregame routines, like Ohio State’s skull session. Some have entrances, like Howard’s rock at Clemson, or ”Enter Sandman” at Virginia Tech. Some have mascots, retired numbers, historic bands, long-standing attendance records, and so many more oddities that make the sport special. It shouldn’t work so well, but it does. Once you’re in, you’re in for life, and no one is immune to the spectacle.

While all these things are generally tied to just one school, there’s a tradition that ties all fan bases together. Every team, no matter how big or small, has a radio broadcaster, which means that each school has a “voice of the program.” From Eli Gold at Alabama, to Justin Allegri at San Jose State, there’s a voice synonymous with the program at every school in the country.

Ohio State’s, as I’m sure almost every Buckeye fan knows, is Paul Keels. He’s been calling Buckeye games since 1998, and he has become as much of a fall Saturday mainstay in Columbus as any other tradition. He’s been the voice of two national titles, two more title appearances, three coaches, 210 total wins. He’s called moments that will go down in Buckeye lore, like Ezekiel Elliott’s 85 yard trot through Alabama’s heart, Cardale Jones’ destruction of Wisconsin, and Ohio State’s incredible upset win over Miami in 2002.

Every big moment in the last 20 years of Buckeye football has been narrated by Paul Keels, and his voice is the first thing that many Buckeye fans associate with Ohio State football games. No one would know the feeling of Saturday mornings in Columbus better than him, and we spent some time talking to him about that feeling, and about what makes college football special.

“All of us as sports fans have these sporting events, you either attend them, or watch them or listen to them, as something that is entertainment for us, it may be an escape from something else, it’s an accompaniment to the rest of our lives” - Paul Keels

College football, college sports, and sports as a whole don’t actually matter, at least not in the traditional sense. Ohio State being good at football, or winning a national title, or losing to Iowa by 31 points is certainly significant to millions of people, but at the core of sports, there’s no actual impact. In the grand scheme of things, they’re games, being played at a far higher level than was ever anticipated by the creators of them. Do you think James Naismith could’ve ever imagined a 6-foot-8, 260-pound tank breaking his sport in every conceivable way? Or that the “father of football” Walter Camp foresaw the rise of the spread offense in football, or even the forward pass?

Sports were never meant to be played at this level. College football was never meant to be a multi-billion dollar industry, bank rolled by shoe companies, donors, and alumnus that will do anything to help their teams win. The level of dominance that we see in modern sports, from people like LeBron James, Mike Trout, Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady, Kevin Durant and so many others was never meant to be possible.

That dominance is part of what makes modern sports so enticing. There’s something special about watching greatness unrivaled by anything we’ve ever seen before. There’s something extraordinary about watching records smashed by teams more transcendent than we’ve ever seen.

That feeling, however, doesn’t match the experience of college sports. It’s not even close.

“It’s not across the board the talent level you see at the professional level but it’s something that allows for more opportunities for the unknown. For the upset that nobody sees coming. For the 16 vs 1 upset that we finally saw in the NCAA tournament this year. I think that college sports really allows people to see some things that, maybe you have a pretty good idea of what’s gonna happen but much more in college sports than in professional sports there’s still the possibility and the atmosphere of a major upset. I think there’s something collegial about it.” - Paul Keels

Every college football season brings hundreds of upsets. Some aren’t massively shocking, like Auburn beating Alabama, Washington State beating USC, or Miami beating Notre Dame. Some are resounding, absurd long shots, that completely shake up the college football universe. Those games are what keep fans coming back. Howard beating UNLV. Liberty beating Baylor. Iowa State and Iowa knocking off Oklahoma and Ohio State, respectively. The chance at the absurd happening only really exists consistently in college sports.

The 0-16 Browns were never going to beat the Patriots, or the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles last season. There’s too much talent all over the field, too much experience for NFL players to make the kind of colossal mistakes (OH HE HAS TROUBLE WITH THE SNAP) we see routinely in college football. The margin for error is so small in professional football that upsets have almost no chance to happen. The more talented team will always find a way to win. They’re just too good.

This is true in other professional sports. A larger sample size, paired with unstoppable players makes the NBA fairly predictable. We know who the best teams are going to be, who the best players are going to be, and that the Warriors are probably going to win a title. Even in the NBA finals, against the best player of all-time, there was little doubt that the Warriors would eventually win. There’s just no way they’d make enough mistakes for the upset.

This doesn’t always hold form in pro sports, but in general, upsets and underdog stories are far less common at the next level. There may be the occasional 2015 Leicester City, or 2014 Atlanta Hawks, but those are the exceptions, not the norm. In college football, bizarre stupidity is the norm, and it’s a big reason for the sport’s popularity.

“Even though college football and college athletics have become such a big business in recent years, I think that people, for the longest time were still able to separate it from professional sports and the business of professional sports. I think there’s certainly, I don’t know if innocence is the right word but there’s a romance that people have with young athletes at the college age that are playing, given an opportunity at an education or scholarships provided, but also playing seemingly for the love of the sport and for the love of their teammates. - Paul Keels

Ohio State’s 2014 title run was an extremely emotional experience for the player, coaches, and of course, fans. The turmoil of that season has been discussed ad nauseam, from the injury to Braxton Miller, the loss to Virginia Tech, the death of Kosta Karageorge, the injury to J.T. Barrett, to the eventual three-game postseason run that brought Ohio State its first title under Urban Meyer.

Championship seasons are always emotional for whatever program and fan base is winning them. No matter how many or how few titles your team has, winning another one is a special, priceless feeling. The joy of watching a team that you’ve invested so much time of your life into win a national title is the pinnacle of fandom. For players and coaches, it means even more.

College football, no matter what the NCAA claims, is a full-time job for all that participate in it. Coaches are working 12-16 hour days all year round to prepare for just 12 regular seasons games. Players spend almost every waking moment practicing, lifting, learning playbooks, or watching film to help their team win. That much time being put into something produces an rivaled level of camaraderie among players.

The best teams are the ones that get along the most. Talent-level matters, certainly, but for a college football team to be successful, they have to be just that: a team. Individuals can’t win an 11-on-11 sport, no matter how hard they try. When teams have great chemistry, it shows in every game, but it specifically shows in big games. The teams that win in big games are the ones in which every player completely trusts his fellow teammates, and is willing to give everything he has to win.

Champions need to be talented, yes, but they also need to be guided by elite leadership, both in the coaching staff, and in their fellow players.

“I think that all of the intangibles that J.T. brought, being the leader, the ability to run and throw the football at the level that he did. J.T. Barrett is in some ways similar to Troy Smith, made others better around him.” - Paul Keels

College football lends itself very well to the creation of legends. Players have just four seasons to establish themselves and develop a legacy, and there’s no real way for them to fade into obscurity, because they leave before it can happen. That leads to players with gaudy stats, incredible records, countless awards, and decades of stories to be told about them.

We’ve seen plenty in just the last decade or so of college football. Reggie Bush, Vince Young, Adrian Peterson, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, J.T. Barrett, Baker Mayfield, all of these guys and so many more have entered the college football lore, and will never leave. Vince Young’s touchdown run in the 2005 national title, Tim Tebow’s jump pass, “the Camback”, Johnny Football, the spot (it was good). These memories will never leave the collective consciousness of college football fans.

Need proof? Just the mention of Doug Flutie brings up memories of his hail mary pass. You know the one. Doug Flutie hasn’t played college football in more than 30 years. I wasn’t alive to see him play. I still know about the hail mary, as does just about every other college football fan.

The same can be said about Tommie Frazier and his run against Florida, or Herschel Walker running directly through a man as a freshman. These are iconic players, with their iconic plays, in a sport that creates iconic moments with ease. College football is all about spectacle, and spectacle spawns legendary moments, legendary players, and legendary teams. The atmosphere at a college football game, whether it’s a massive, prime time top 25 matchup or a MACtion showdown on a Tuesday night that we all lie about watching, is always one of excitement, enjoyment, and in a strange way, importance.

“I think the atmosphere, especially if it’s the Michigan game, or a highly regarded match-up with a non-conference team, those games themselves really carry a lot of the excitement, and a lot of the buildup.” - Paul Keels

Bengals vs. Steelers. Cowboys vs. Washington. Celtics vs. Lakers. Red Sox vs. Yankees. These are all professional sports rivalries that I had to Google, because I couldn’t think of a single pro sports rivalry off the top of my head. NFL rivalries are particularly odd. A lot of them have spawned from the divisions system in the league, because being in a division with a team means that you play them every year. This is the cause of quite a few rivalries, and while some of them, like the ones mentioned, as well as others (like Eagles vs. Cowboys, and Saints vs. Panthers) are quite intense, they aren’t on the level of college rivalries.

However, quite a few pro sports rivalries are manufactured for ratings, based on two teams being good for an extended period of time (e.g. Warriors vs. Cavs, Lakers vs. Celtics), or completely meaningless to everyone outside of the respective fan bases, save for maybe Yankees vs. Red Sox, because that rivalry rocks.

This is not the case in college sports, specifically college football. Anyone with any kind of a rooting interest in college football knows the biggest rivalries in the sport, and has at least a base idea of just how important those rivalries are to the teams and fan bases involved in them.

Those big rivalries, like Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, USC-UCLA, Texas-Oklahoma, Florida State-Miami, and so many more that I just brutally snubbed (sorry, every fan base in the SEC, I know your rivalry with Texas A&M is very important) have been massive for so long, and their significance and hatred has spanned decades.

Periods of hatred that last this long, at least in sport, is exclusive to college football, some soccer leagues, and like, two or three baseball rivalries. College football has been around for so long, and some of these rivalries, like Ohio State-Michigan, Oregon-Oregon State, Army-Navy, Texas-Oklahoma, Clemson-South Carolina, and quite a few more (67 in all) have been played for more than a century. Everyone that started these rivalries has been dead for decades. The disdain and competition lives on, and it will continue to live on until this stupid, beautiful, cruel sport that we all love so much finally dies.

The atmosphere of a rivalry game is indescribable. It’s tense, stressful, and every one of them feels roughly one wrong move away from a fight breaking out, on the field and in the stands. It’s jubilant, and delirious when the home team wins, and somber, with hints of despondence when that same team loses. The struggles, and losses in a season can all be washed away by the joy of beating a rival. A perfect season can be completely ruined by losing to that same rival. It’s the perfect encapsulation of college football. It’s controlled chaos, constantly just one play, one call, or one mistake away from changing forever. The spot was good.

“It’s such a big part of everybody’s life, but it’s also part of an outstanding university and a great environment that has provided livelihoods for people, it’s provided educations for people but it’s provided recreation and entertainment” - Paul Keels

I’ve never hated something that I love more than I hate college football. It’s a devastatingly violent sport, run by largely incompetent, soulless husks, and powered by a workforce of 18-22 year old athletes that sacrifice their time and health for a game, and an education that they may or may not actually be benefiting from.

The vicious, life-changing injuries, the massive amount of pressure being put on people just out of high school, the billions of dollars at stake, the constant undertone of scandals and the grimy underside of college football make this sport so hard to love. In the middle of June, it’s even harder. We’re five months out from the last college football game, and just under two away from the next college football game. All things that can be consumed relating to college football now are either a look ahead, or another depressing reminder of the part of the sport we try to forget.

The questions about if this sport is really worth saving will fade away when Hawaii and Colorado State, or Wyoming and New Mexico State are on television, playing football in two months. We’ll all fall in love with the sport again when Michigan-Notre Dame, Louisville-Alabama, LSU-Miami, and Virginia Tech-Florida State kick off under the lights, on opening weekend, and remind of us what makes this sport so special.

When the spectacle returns, the corruption fades, like it always does, and the sport returns to its core—the core we all fell in love with. And when that happens, on the first Saturday in the fall, when the weather hasn’t quite caught up to the game, the voice of the Buckeyes, and the voices of every other team will be there to carry us back into a new season of college football, and help guide back towards discovering the soul of the sport. Maybe this year, we’ll finally find it.

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