If you’re an Ohio State fan, you get it.
You understand that the end of season match against That Team Up North is the measuring stick by which the program is defined.
You know that going out for groceries in many towns in Ohio during The Game is an exercise in futility; a lot of places are closed for the sacred observance of the annual clash.
If you’re a younger fan, you may wonder what the big deal is, though- last year was but a blip in the 10 year domination that Ohio State has had over their vaunted rivals. Growing up during the Cooper administration, though, you have a different perspective: 2-10-1 burns deep into your psyche. Before him, Coach Bruce managed 5-4 in his tenure; a winning record, but not enough to allow him to keep his job.
And even yet today, both Coaches Bruce and Cooper still spend time in the athletic center named for the coach that made The Game what it is; their legacy and leadership helping ensure that the significance of this event is passed down to the next generation of Buckeyes.
While always significant, it was Coach Woody Hayes, who would not even say the name of That School or buy gasoline in That State, who made the rivalry what it truly is. While the “Ten Year War” between the schools is well documented, what’s less remembered is the second victory Coach Hayes had over the Wolverines and what it meant for him and the rest of the program.
Ohio State would never be the same after November 20, 1954… especially for a group of optometry students.
When the final gun sounded on the Buckeyes’ 21-7 win over Michigan, it left Ohio State undefeated and#1 in the nation, headed for a Rose Bowl matchup with Southern Cal; a game that they would win for Coach Hayes’ first National Title. You may remember learning about that team a couple of years ago as Ohio State again prepared for a trip to Pasadena.
That January looked remarkably different than the previous one that saw students and alumni wondering if Woody was the right man for the job. Having struggled in his first two years in Columbus, the tide of emotions soon changed as the undefeated season progressed- funny how that happens, isn’t it? And then, in a game that featured an incredible goal line stand followed by a 99 yard scoring drive, the emotions and excitement overflowed onto the field- fans from all walks of life joining in to tear down the goalpost in celebration.
Doing so was significantly different than it is today- modern supports, strengthened bracing, enhanced security have limited both the university’s liability should someone get hurt and also taken away the fun for excited fans. In 1954, though, tearing down the goalpost was only the beginning of an interesting journey.
As the crowds tore apart their trophy, one of the uprights left the stadium with a group of fans that included optometry students Richard Ball, Richard Britton, Lowell Hone, James King, Will Stamp, and Rod Thorp- classmates who went from being peripheral to the crowd carrying the pole to taking the burden of its’ transportation as it moved across campus.
After it crossed over the Oval and began to head down High Street, it passed the Union and ultimately was taken by the students to the Epsilon Psy Epsilon house; the fraternity for optometry students. There, the “top” was cut off as a permanent memento of the day- you can see the red ball on the peak of the uprights in the photos above. Once removed, this “top” sat on the mantle at the E.Y.E. house for numerous years, until it finally was put away by folks looking to make their own legacies at Ohio State.
But this was far from a “lost” relic, although finding it years later turned into a challenge. Once the five members of the original group realized that it was not around during an alumni visit to the fraternity, it became somewhat of a mystery- none of the students who were currently in the house when it went missing knew anything about it’s whereabouts, and the search went on for nearly half a century. In 2012, James King published an article in the Optometry Alumni Magazine retelling the story and asking for help in locating this sacred piece of Ohio State history.
Luckily, another Buckeye graduate remembered the “top” from his days at the E.Y.E. House, and connected with the remaining guardians to let them know that he had rescued it from being discarded. Phil Keller presented it to the three remaining guardians earlier this year, and a part of Buckeye heritage was finally home.
The story of the “Toppled Top” is a fascinating one, and one that’s reached a bit of a crossroads. This is an important part of the School of Optometry’s deep legacy at Ohio State, but in many ways it should be much more than that. Fans know Woody’s hat, glasses, and short sleeved shirt. We’re aware of Earle’s fedora and Tress’ sweater vest. And, if you’re like many OSU fans, you’ve got your own family traditions and stories; on several occasions we’ve had readers share tales with us on the way that Buckeye football brings and keeps their families and friends together.
But shouldn’t there be some more acknowledgement for this relic from the beginning of one of the defining moments for Ohio State sports? As we’ve looked into this story, our friend Julia Megchelsen has been very open with us about her and others’ desire to see the “Toppled Top” be acknowledged by the Athletic Department and Buckeye Nation as a whole.
And, I can’t say that I disagree with her- Ohio State some times does a great job at honoring our championship teams (this year’s tribute to the 2002 team, for instance), and other times drops the ball. Should the only memory current Buckeye fans have of that 1954 team be “inspired” uniforms that Nike created for reasons that are somewhat debatable?
Or should we remember the friendship created by that Saturday in November, reminding us that the scoreboard is not the only way to measure the impact of football game? Hopefully the University will soon come up with a way to acknowledge and include this memento in a way that helps people engage that bigger picture.
UPDATE: We’ve just been informed that there will finally be a moment of recognition for this artifact and it’s guardians during The Game this year! What that will look like is still being determined, but it’s a step in the right direction.
So now what? Fifty eight years later, Ohio State finds itself again undefeated, led by a coach looking for his first win in The Game- the beginning of yet another chapter in the long, shared history of Buckeye Nation.
And while the chances that OSU students will ever have the opportunity to experience what those 1954 students did due to changes in University protocol regarding post game behavior, the fact is that current students are “guardians” in their own way. When you enroll at Ohio State, when you put on that scarlet and gray, you’re a part of something much richer and deeper than just the immediate moment in time.
How firm thy friendship…