Ohio University alumni Joe Donatelli recalls the dark days of the Ohio University football program from the mid-1990s.
Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Ohio Today.
To see just how far the Ohio football program has come, one must travel back in time to 1994. My freshman year the football team failed to win a game. It didn’t just lose. It invented new and exciting ways to lose. The first game I attended at Peden Stadium was a 5-0 loss to Utah State. For you non-football fans, 5-0 is an unusual football score. It’s like losing a baseball game .7 to 0.
I seem to recall the Utah State game being played under dark skies, but perhaps that’s because it felt like every game that season was played in a Tim Burton movie. It was always windy, always dark, always raining. If the field had split in half during the second quarter and 10,000 specters leapt into the gray sky, it would’ve surprised no one. It would have explained things. Ah, we would have said, the stadium’s haunted. That’s why we can’t get past the 50.
True story: I got my ticket by purchasing a hamburger at the Wendy’s on Court Street. Attendance was 5,940. Most fans left after the 110 performed at halftime, as was tradition at the time.
The rest of the season was a disaster. Ohio lost by an average of 16 points a game. Greg Graziano, who hosted the “Coach’s Corner” TV show, was forced to show highlights of short runs by running back Lakarlos Townsend. For you non-football fans, this would be like showing “American Idol” highlights of singers not falling off the stage.
After one particularly bad outing, head coach Tom Lichtenberg went on the radio and said something along the lines of, “We played like Cliffy and the Clowns, and I’m Cliffy.” The quote made its way into sports reporter Rob Demovsky’s story in The Athens Messenger, and it summed up the season.
It should be noted that the players, many of whom were talented, took all this losing hard. I got to know a few of them when I covered the men’s track team for The Post. I asked why they played two sports, and their response was, “We want to win something.” To their credit, on the track, they usually did.
Lichtenberg was fired at the end of the season, and a new coach, Jim Grobe, was hired for the 1995 campaign.
In Grobe’s first home game, Ohio snapped its 12-game losing streak against Illinois State. A few hundred students stormed the field and tore down the goalpost, probably more out of irony than joy. Depending who you ask, the goalpost was either carried uptown to the bars or dumped in the Hocking. Or possibly both. The athletic department hilariously warned students not to tear down the goalposts again, which was not a problem, as Ohio wouldn’t win another home game for almost a year.
But the team had turned a corner. In 1996 and 1997 Ohio won more games than it lost, and what we now know as Ohio football was born. It was during the Grobe years that students started attending games again, and not just for the 110, which it should be noted has never had a bad season.
And that’s where I left things when I graduated. We were winless my freshman year. We were winners my senior year.
Last fall, my wife and I returned to Athens for a semester. (You can read all about that adventure here.) When we went to the New Mexico State game last season, it didn’t feel—what’s the word?—real.
During the 1997 season, the tailgate section was wherever my friend Jim parked his Chevy Celebrity (actual photo above), plus whoever else then happened to park around us. There were no tents. No bouncy castles for the kids. No double-wide bathrooms. Or fancy alumni tents. Or bands. Or families. It was mainly people who bled green and white and who liked drinking in the morning, which are probably two sides of the same coin.
Back in the 1990s, the game-day experience was bare-bones. You had the band and the cheerleaders and the mascot, and tiny football promoting the local realty company and that was about it. Now, besides often being televised, the stadium has Victory Hill and a video scoreboard and contests and other fun things to distract fans during TV timeouts.
Probably the biggest change is that there are so many fans. My wife and I had no idea that by going to the New Mexico State game we’d be part of the largest crowd in school history (25,893). Demand is such that ticket cost is not based on price elasticity (meaning price rises with demand), which is a vast departure from the old burger-based pricing scheme.
It was an exciting season, which kicked off with the school and town still buzzing about Ohio’s appearance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Utah State. The Bobcats won 24-23, which is a fine football score.
Joe Donatelli ’98 was managing editor of The Post in 1997-98. He is the author of The Marching Band Refused to Yield: The True Story of the Time the Ohio University Alumni Band Fought the Miami of Ohio Football Team.