In professional wrestling, a ‘heel’ is someone who portrays the antagonist or a villain, directly opposing the ‘face’ which is viewed as the protagonist or the hero. The heel exists to provide a foil for the face characters, and it gives the audience someone to root against. This wrestler generally displays a kind of arrogance about him and an overall attitude that makes him deliberately unlikeable.
Every good hero needs a villain, and for many years, that heel for Ohio State fans was none other than an ESPN analyst by the name of Mark May.
Growing up in Oneonta, NY, May played college football at Pittsburgh from 1977-80, earning unanimous All-American honors as a senior and winning the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman. Over his four years with the Panthers, he helped lead the team to a 39-8-1 record including three top-10 finishes, and would later have his jersey retired by the school in 2001.
May went on to have a rather successful NFL career, being drafted by the Washington Redskins with the No. 20 overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft. He played guard for the Skins from 1981-90, starting 115 games and helping lead the team to two Super Bowl victories. May would later have short stints with the San Diego Chargers and the Pheonix Cardinals before retiring in 1993.
May then began his broadcasting career, which is where his feud with the Ohio State fanbase would eventually unfold. The former offensive lineman worked for both TNT and CBS Sports before landing at ESPN in 2001 as a football analyst and college football commentator, and quickly became a regular on the network’s popular CFB shows like College Football Scoreboard and College Football Final.
This is where our saga comes into the public light, but for context of where this rivalry is believed to be rooted, we have to go back to one fateful afternoon in September of 1996.
Long removed from his college football playing days, May’s alma matter traveled to Columbus to take on the No. 7-ranked Buckeyes. Beginning the season 1-2, there weren’t many hopes among Pitt fans that their team would escape victorious, but nobody could have predicted what ensued that afternoon.
In what was the worst defeat in school history, Ohio State absolutely demolished the Panthers 72-0. Pepe Pearson had three TD runs and Joe Germaine threw a pair of TD passes as the Bucks were able to bench their starters at halftime with a 52-0 lead. After the game, Pitt coach Johnny Majors was quoted as saying, “They made an effort to keep it under 70 points and we wouldn’t let them do it. I’m not being sarcastic, that’s a fact.”
May never quite let this loss go, and almost seven years later, he let that Ohio State hate flow publicly for the very first time. On the day of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, the famed BCS Championship Game between OSU and Miami, May predicted the Buckeyes to lose 42-10. While he was certainly not the only one to choose the Hurricanes that afternoon, it was at that moment he realized that he had pushed a button.
In an interview with The Blade back in December, May explained how his negative comments about Ohio State would always bring with them several nasty calls and letters to ESPN directed at him. Realizing how he was getting under the skin of one of college football’s most rabid fanbases, May leaned into his new role as a villain, and from there on out, continued to stick it to Buckeye Nation at any given opportunity.
These jabs by May continued for the remainder of his broadcasting career at ESPN. After Ohio State’s first win under Urban Meyer, during a 2012 campaign in which the team was bowl banned, May discredited the Buckeyes’ opening victory against Miami (OH), saying they struggled early — despite winning the game 56-10 — and comparing the team to liverwurst in that they weren’t one of the more desirable meats at the deli.
The next season, after that “very average football team” finished the season 12-0, May refused to put Ohio State in his preseason top 10, with the argument that they ‘should’ve’ lost four games that season and that they would lose at least four games if they played in the SEC.
I am still not putting Ohio St in my preseason top 10 they should've lost 4 games last yr and if they played in... http://t.co/1HENw2DzMS— Mark May (@mark_may) May 22, 2013
We then move forward to 2014, where May insisted that Ohio State did not deserve to be in the College Football Playoff despite having three wins over Top 10 opponents, choosing instead to put Penn State in the No. 4 spot (whom the Buckeyes defeated head-to-head at Beaver Stadium).
Urban Meyer responded by knocking off big bad Alabama, the king of the SEC, right in their own backyard, and preceded to shoot daggers directly into May’s soul in the postgame.
Ohio State fans also got their revenge shortly thereafter during the pregame to the National Championship against Oregon, giving May the treatment now given to Michigan Man Desmond Howard on ESPN’s College Gameday.
It wasn’t a long run at ESPN thereafter for May, as he was replaced on College Football Final in June 2015 by Joey Galloway — ironically, a Buckeye — and would eventually be laid off by the network in 2017.
In the end, May was just playing up his heel character. In that same interview with The Blade, he admitted that he would at times pick against Ohio State even when he knew they would win just to get a rise out of the fanbase. Outside of his schtick, May does actually respect the Buckeyes. He is friends with a few of the alumni as well, with Keith Byars and Pete Johnson both playing in his annual charity golf event.
In the world of sports entertainment, everyone loves a good little back and forth. May has no actual ill will towards Ohio State — at least that he would openly admit — and played the perfect foil as a villain that Buckeye Nation loved to hate.