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No place like home: Looking back on nearly 100 years of Ohio Stadium

There’s just really nothing like a college football game at “The Shoe.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Cincinnati at Ohio State Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the recent expansion added permanent seating in the south end of Ohio Stadium, designers were careful not to connect the new stands with the original structure of the stadium. It remained shaped like a horseshoe; it remained “The Shoe.”

As we know, there are larger football stadiums on college campuses and well-known ones not on campuses (USC plays in the L.A. Coliseum, and UCLA plays in the Rose Bowl, for example), but there isn’t any stadium so recognizable and so well associated with its university and team as The Shoe. “The Big House” is, well, big. In South Bend, that gold dome overshadows the stadium as a campus landmark. Bryant-Denny boasts quite a home field advantage, but for many years ‘Bama played its big games (including Auburn every year) at Birmingham’s Legion Field, some fifty miles from campus. I’ve seen games at Bryant-Denny, but I can’t really picture it in my mind.

But The Shoe? How well known is it? Last week, my haircutter, a woman from Florida and not really a follower of football, asked me the seating capacity of Ohio Stadium.

“You like Ohio State,” she said. “How many people does The Shoe hold?”

I wasn’t exactly sure, but I knew that it held more people than its official capacity of 102,780, but more importantly, I was surprised that she knew anything about the stadium — let alone cared. The point is that everyone knows The Horseshoe.

Ohio State Spring Football Game
Game Day at The Shoe
Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

There are a few iconic stadiums around the country. Fenway and Wrigley in baseball, for sure. Cameron Indoor Stadium in college basketball. And in football? In my opinion, there’s Lambeau Field and Ohio Stadium.

Like those other great stadiums, The Shoe goes way back. OSU grad Howard Dwight Smith was the architect for the stadium project. He liked the horseshoe shape of the stadiums at a couple of the Ivy League schools, and he studied classical architecture, borrowing from those ancient Greeks and Romans for The Horseshoe’s famous columns and rotunda.

Western Michigan v Ohio State
The famous dome.

And, man, was the project ambitious. Prior to the stadium’s opening on Oct. 7, 1922, the Buckeyes played at Ohio Field, in front of fewer than 20,000 fans sitting in bleachers. The Shoe, the nation’s first double-decker, poured concrete stadium, had a capacity of 66,210 at that inaugural game against Ohio Wesleyan.

To put this size into perspective, consider that Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium opened in 1917 — five years before Ohio Stadium — with a capacity of 10,000 and was expanded to 33,000 for the 1924 season — two years after Ohio State started playing in The Shoe. In Tuscaloosa, when Denny Stadium opened in September 1929, it held a maximum of 12,000.

The Horseshoe today is one of sport’s most recognizable landmarks. Sure, the university holds its spring commencement in the stadium, other sports occasionally play games there, and some great bands have put on some impressive shows there over the years, but it’s a Saturday tradition, a football palace.

Since 1949, OSU has never ranked lower than fourth in national attendance, and it led in attendance per game for 14 consecutive seasons, 1958-71. Despite the announced capacity of around 102,000, somehow 110,045 watched the 2016 Ohio State-Michigan game in Columbus. Interestingly, the game against Michigan in The Shoe’s first year also attracted an over-capacity crowd: 71,138.

In addition to recognition, The Shoe provides excitement for players and fans — even those watching Script Ohio on TV. And recruiting? With over 50 official visits scheduled for this month, coaches are certain to introduce all of those blue chippers to The Shoe. And, of course, the Bucks love bringing their recruits to campus on game days. Let those high school kids imagine themselves on that field, in front of that crowd. Let them hear the noise, feel the excitement.

Naturally, the Woody Hayes Center has state of the art facilities, and the Buckeyes have a tremendous track record of getting their players media exposure and getting them drafted into the NFL. But I have to think that, for many recruits, The Shoe is the clincher.