17 Ohio State traditions that (probably) won’t get anyone fired ... and the stories behind them

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From the August 28, 2014 edition

The Ohio State University Marching Band — otherwise known as The Best Damn Band In The Land — has typically been a source of pride for the Buckeyes, perhaps never more than in recent years as the band’s elaborate halftime productions made national headlines and even made an appearance in an iPad commercial. This offseason, TBDBITL’s sterling reputation was marred significantly when OSU fired marching band director Jon Waters.

After the university’s Office of Compliance and Integrity filed a 23-page report claiming Waters ignored a “sexualized” culture within the organization, controversy proliferated. While some voices heartily concurred with OSU’s zero-tolerance policy, Waters campaigned to be reinstated and myriad band members and alumni spoke out in his favor. The situation got quite messy, and it remains that way with the first football game of the season looming this Saturday.

We can debate for days on end whether justice was served or Waters was an undeserving scapegoat — and many in Columbus and around the world have done just that this summer. Waters has repeatedly insisted he was working to change the band’s culture, but no one has denied that some of TBDBITL’s rituals leaned toward the racy side.

Maybe expunging sexualized nicknames and underwear-only band practices from Buckeye lore represents an improvement, or maybe it’s sucking the fun out of college sports. Either way, we decided to run down some Ohio State traditions that can be safely observed without worrying about facing unemployment (probably) as well as the tales of how they came to be.

(Note: Information from this story was sourced from websites including osumarchingband.com, osu.edu, sgsosu.net, ohiostatebuckeyes.com, elevenwarriors.com, buckeyefansonly.com, Wikipedia and Wiki Answers.)

1. “Carmen Ohio”

“Carmen Ohio” is sung repeatedly on game days — first at Skull Session, then before kickoff, then after the game with the team locking arms and facing the band. It’s the one that goes, “Oh come, let’s sing Ohio’s praise/ And songs to alma mater raise.” The oldest song still in use at Ohio State, “Carmen Ohio” was first performed by the Glee Club in 1903 after freshman four-letter athlete and Glee Club singer Fred Cornell penned the lyrics to the tune of Christian H. Bateman’s hymn "Come Christians, Join To Sing.”

The circumstances of Cornell’s writing are disputed: Some say he wrote “Carmen Ohio” on the bus ride back from Ann Arbor after Michigan crushed Ohio State 86-0 in 1902, while others report he came up with the lyrics at the Glee Club’s request in 1903. The word “carmen” means song or poem in Latin, so “Carmen Ohio” literally means “Ohio Song.” Band director Jack Evans and arranger Richard Heine adapted the song for brass and added the sound of the chimes from the Orton Hall bell tower as an introduction.

2. Senior Tackle

Dating back a full century to 1913, senior football players have lined up to deliver one last ceremonial hit to the blocking sled during the last practice before the Michigan game. For years, senior tackle was open to the public, but Urban Meyer has made it a private team event during his tenure.

3. “Across The Field”

Ohio State undergrad William A. Dougherty, Jr. decided in 1915 that his school needed a more energetic school song to go along with the staid “Carmen Ohio.” He came up with “Across The Field,” the one that goes, “Fight the team across the field/ Show them Ohio's here/ Set the Earth reverberating/ With a mighty cheer.” The original lyrics included the line “So let’s beat Michigan now!” in place of the current words, “So let’s win that conference now!” “Across The Field” made its debut at a pep rally before the game against Illinois in 1915 and was performed again during the game. It’s still going strong a century later.

4. “Buckeye Battle Cry”

In 1919, Frank Crumit entered a contest to find the next Ohio State fight song. His entry was “Buckeye Battle Cry,” the song that goes, “Drive, drive on down the field!/ Men of scarlet and gray!” The song became a marching band staple; it’s the one they play during Script Ohio while the sousaphone player dots the “i.”

Crumit, who was actually an alumnus of Ohio University when he entered the contest, went on to become a vaudeville star. He became the first person to play ukulele on Broadway while appearing in “Betty Be Good” in 1918, scored hit records in the ’20s and ’30s, including "Frankie and Johnny" and “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” and went on to host the popular radio quiz show “The Battle Of The Sexes” with his wife Julia Sanderson throughout the ’30s and early ’40s. Not bad for a guy whose degree was in electrical engineering.

5. Ramp Entrance

The Ramp Entrance signals the beginning of pregame festivities. Although Ohio Stadium opened in 1922, TBDBITL’s iconic entrance to the football field wasn’t initiated until 1928. Band members Bill Knepper and Elvin Donaldson devised the sequence, which begins 20 minutes before kickoff and signifies the beginning of pregame festivities.

The procedure has remained virtually unchanged in the ensuing 86 years: The percussion section descends to field level first while setting a tempo of 180 beats per minute, followed by the rest of the band methodically moving into place in lockstep, two steps apart, instruments at their side. Once everyone has assembled, the intro to “Buckeye Battle Cry” kicks in, and the drum major races down the ramp to the front of the band. There, he leans backward until the tip of his hat touches the ground to the sound of roaring cheers. Then he leads the charge forward as the song kicks into high gear.

6. Skull Sessions

In 1932, marching band director Eugene J. Weigel instituted one last pre-game practice session to refresh the band members’ memories so they could concentrate on marching during the game. Originally held in the old Rehearsal Hall, these “Skull Sessions” became so popular the band had to issue tickets to members to make sure their friends and relatives could get in. In 1957, band director Jack Evans moved the Skull Sessions to the newly opened St. John Arena. Under director Paul Droste, the sessions took on the pep rally atmosphere they maintain today.

The sessions remain open to the public in St. John Arena a few hours before kickoff each home game: The band plays, the team and Urban Meyer stop by in formal attire, and sometimes special guests like LeBron James show up. And if you’re paying close attention you’ll notice a tradition within the tradition, as explained on the marching band’s official site:

“Each week the band’s ‘cheer groups’ perform a song to go along with the football team’s opponent of the week. The cheer groups are selected from their respective sections: Trumpet Cheers (the oldest Cheer Group), Trombone Cheers, Horn Cheers, Baritone Cheers, Stadium Brass (An instrument from every part of the band except percussion), Percussion Cheers and the Tuba-Fours.”

7. Script Ohio

Believe it or not, the first marching band to form the word Ohio on a football field hailed from the University Of Michigan. In 1932, the Wolverines visited Ohio Stadium, and spelled out ‘OHIO’ during their halftime show. According to the Ohio State library website, The Michigan Daily reported, “Probably the most effective single formation was the word “OHIO” spelled out in script diagonally across the field in the double-deck Ohio stadium to the accompaniment of the OSU marching song, ‘Fight the Team.’ Other Michigan band formations were ‘MICH,’ a block ‘O,’ and a block ‘M.’” Though as Michigan band director Jamie Nix later told the Associated Press, Michigan’s “OHIO” formation was “certainly not in the complex form it takes on now with the OSU band.”

The famous Script Ohio made its debut four years later, on Oct. 10, 1936 at Ohio State’s football game against Pittsburgh. Band director Eugene J. Weigel had conceived the formation after seeing the looping script Downtown at Loew’s Ohio Theatre. The band’s official website explains its procedure like so:

“The script is an integrated series of evolutions and formations. The band first forms a triple Block O formation, then slowly unwinds to form the famous letters while playing Robert Planquette’s ‘Le Régiment de Sambre et Meuse.’ The drum major leads the outside O into a peel-off movement around the curves of the script, every musician in continual motion. Slowly the three blocks unfold into a long singular line which loops around, creating the OSUMB’s trademark.”

8. Dotting The “I”

Dotting the “i” in Script Ohio has become such a big deal it merits a separate explanation of its own. At first there was no special emphasis placed on the role of “i”-dotter; when Script Ohio was debuted in 1936, E-flat cornet player John Brungart did the deed. The following year, though, band director Eugene J. Weigel decided on a whim to switch sophomore sousaphone player Glen Johnson into dotting position. Johnson continued to fulfill that role throughout the rest of his TBDBITL career.

Sousaphone players have dotted the “i” ever since 1938, when Johnson infused the young tradition with high-stepping fanfare as a result of a flubbed cue. During halftime on Oct. 23, 1938, the drum major arrived at the top of the “i” a few measures too early, so Johnson used up the extra time by bowing dramatically to the crowd. Since then the bow has become part of the show, and more than 800 sousaphone players have followed in Johnson’s footsteps.

The role of “i”-dotter has become so coveted that these days a different person serves as dotter each game, and only fourth-year sousaphone players are eligible to do it; fifth-year seniors can do it if all the fourth-years have taken a turn. According to the athletic department website, “Woody Hayes and Bob Hope are among the select few non-band members who have had the honor of dotting the ‘i.’ This is considered the greatest honor the band can bestow to any non-band person and is an extremely special (and rare) event.” The marching band is working on a directory of “i”-dotters.

9. The Spring Game

Every April, the football program concludes spring practices with an intrasquad scrimmage that divides the Buckeyes into Scarlet team vs. Gray team. Although the university sells tickets and the game receives media coverage, there’s been surprisingly little documentation of its history. According to the website Eleven Warriors, the earliest footage is from 1998, and the athletic department only has records going back to 1988. That’s especially crazy because newspaper reports date back to at least 1943, when the spring game MVP was Jim Tressel’s father, Lee.

10. Buckeye Grove

Every year, in a ceremony before the spring game, one Buckeye tree is planted at the southwest corner of Ohio Stadium for each All-American the previous season. The grove moved to its current location between Ohio Stadium, Morrill Tower, some nearby tennis courts and the Recreation & Physical Activity Center (RPAC) in 2001 due to Ohio Stadium construction, but the tradition dates back to 1934. As of this past April, the grove contained 186 trees, each one with a plaque honoring a different Buckeye All-American.

This past spring, on the Friday after the spring game, the players, coaches and administrators from the losing Scarlet team in the spring game (including Braxton Miller) had to spruce up the grove. Urban Meyer instituted that extra dimension to the tradition when he came on board in 2012 as a way to raise the stakes in the spring game and accomplish a good deed at the same time.

11. “We Don’t Give A Damn For The Whole State Of Michigan”

Although Waters was fired in part due to the longstanding tradition of distributing foul-mouthed versions of other teams’ fight songs, singing this one probably won’t get anyone dismissed. (Probably.) “We Don’t Give A Damn For The Whole State Of Michigan” appeared in the 1942 film “The Male Animal,” based on a play written in 1940 by Columbus native and Ohio State alumnus James Thurber. In the movie, crowds sang “darn” instead of “damn.” It’s unclear whether the song was written for the movie or if it was in use beforehand.

12. The “O-H! I-O!” Chant

Nowadays you can shout “O-H!” just about anywhere in Columbus and get an “I-O!” in response from some passing stranger. Not so in 1942, when U.S. Navy sailors aboard the USS Lexington in the Pacific Ocean began chanting “O-H-I-O S-T-A-T-E” to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Several of those displaced Buckeye fanatics returned to Ohio and enrolled at OSU in the fall of 1946.

One of them, Matthew Sidley, joined the cheerleading squad the following autumn. On Nov. 1, 1947, during a losing effort against Indiana, Sidley decided to teach the “O-H-I-O S-T-A-T-E” cheer to fans at Ohio Stadium. The full nine-letter chant proved too difficult for the student body to keep up, so they eventually settled on chanting “O-H-I-O” and leaving it at that. Although the Buckeyes lost on that fateful day in 1947, the new cheer was so energizing to the players that linebacker Dick Flanagan called it a turning point in Ohio State football.

(The cheer squad tried to bring back the original “O-H-I-O S-T-A-T-E” chant in 1982, but the same complications arose. O-H!)

13. Forming The O-H-I-O Sign

The sailors who invented the “O-H-I-O” chant also created the hand symbols that have become a global phenomenon. Those Navy boys never could have predicted how far their idea would spread. These days students, staff, alumni and enthusiasts photograph themselves lifting their arms in the air to spell out O-H-I-O all over the world. The university even maintains a user-generated gallery of these photos on its official website at osu.edu/O-H-I-O/ — you can even search it by subject or location. The sailors who invented the “O-H-I-O” chant also created the hand symbols that have become a global phenomenon. Those Navy boys never could have predicted how far their idea would spread. These days students, staff, alumni and enthusiasts photograph themselves lifting their arms in the air to spell out O-H-I-O all over the world. The university even maintains a user-generated gallery of these photos on its official website at — you can even search it by subject or location.

14. The Victory Bell

The graduating classes of 1943, 1944 and 1945 teamed to fund the giant Victory Bell that hangs in the southeast tower of Ohio Stadium. Members of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity ring the bell for 15-30 minutes after each victory, a tradition that dates to Oct. 2, 1954. (Yep, it turns 60 years old this year.) The bell weighs 2,420 pounds and can be heard as far as five miles away.

15. “Hang On Sloopy”

Pro songwriters Wes Farrell (who helped pen “Come A Little Bit Closer”) and Bert Russell, aka Bert Berns (whose credits include “Twist And Shout” and “Piece Of My Heart”), co-wrote a tune called “My Girl Sloopy” in 1964. Although it was originally a top-30 hit for the Vibrations that year, when the teenage Ohio rock band the McCoys released a tweaked version called “Hang On Sloopy” the following year, it went to No. 1. McCoys member Rick Derringer went on to score the 1974 solo hit “Rock And Roll, Hoochie Koo” and collaborated heavily with Steely Dan and Edgar and Johnny Winter.

The Ohio State marching band first performed “Hang On Sloopy” on Oct. 9 of that same year at the urging of band member John Tatgenhorst. Rainfall contributed to a dispassionate audience response, but when the band played “Sloopy” again the following week, the crowd went wild. The Ohio General Assembly named it Ohio’s official rock song in 1985.

16. Pocket Buckeyes

In interviews after his dismissal, Waters, a TBDBITL alumnus himself, said he carries around a lucky Buckeye in his pocket at all times. Some other marching band alumni uphold this practice as well, though it’s less widespread than many other Ohio State traditions and isn’t officially sanctioned. Here’s something all those keepers of the pocket Buckeye might not realize: According to Hoodoo and Wiccan traditions, a Buckeye in your pocket leads to good fortune of the financial and sexual varieties.

17. Mirror Lake

Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones is famous for leading his small band of followers in a mass suicide in 1978. Twelve years later, a different, more benevolent Jim Jones led a different group of followers on a march around Ohio State campus on the Thursday before the Michigan game, culminating with a leap into Mirror Lake, a man-made pond on the Oval.

Although fewer than 100 people participated in the original 1990 jump, by 2009 that number had swelled to 12,000. It became so popular that when the Big Ten schedule was revised so that the Ohio State-Michigan game would fall on Thanksgiving weekend — significantly complicating the prospect of getting students together on the Thursday before — the jump was moved to Tuesday night of Michigan week, where it remains to this day.

The Mirror Lake jump is not sanctioned by OSU, and in fact the university discourages students from participating due to legal and health risks. Still, it’s one truly wild tradition that you can participate in without suffering a loss of reputation or livelihood — at least until the Office of Compliance and Integrity decides to issue a report on Mirror Lake etiquette.