When athletic director Gene Smith was asked if he could see a day when Ohio State will play all of its football games at night, he answered with an emphatic “no.”
“I don’t think you’re ever going to be looking at a total night schedule,” he said.
Perhaps Smith is right. But if former athletic director Rick Bay had been asked in 1985 whether he could foresee when there might be as many as five regular-season night games, which could happen this year, he might have been just as sure as Smith that it wouldn’t happen.
Bay was athletic director when Pittsburgh met Ohio State in the first night game at Ohio Stadium that year, and he wrote about it in his 2012 book From the Buckeyes to the Bronx. The Buckeyes had played several 3:30 p.m. games for the first time in 1984, which some saw as a crisis, and as he wrote, “some fans thought this was far worse.”
“While people initially thought about (the) safety issues, what they were really uncomfortable about was the disruption in their traditional routine,” Bay wrote. “Until 1984, virtually every home game in the annals of Ohio State football had begun at 1:30 p.m. This night contest with Pitt was playing mind games with our fans.”
It seems funny now, but that’s why I asked Smith. The trend is unmistakable. The 2002 season was the last one in which the Buckeyes played only one regular-season night game. They have played 24 in the past eight years, including four last season.
Three night starts have been announced for the 2014 season — Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, at Penn State on Oct. 25 and Illinois on Nov. 1 — but two more could be on the way.
The Big Ten Network could choose to do an Ohio State game at night, and the Michigan State game on Nov. 8 looms as a possible national pick. Because CBS will likely show a game between Alabama and Louisiana State that night, it wouldn’t be a shock if ESPN/ABC decided to go up against it with a rematch of last season’s Big Ten title game.
That would go against the Big Ten’s supposed policy of not scheduling night games in November, but it has come to light that there has never been a real policy against it, and Ohio State-Illinois is going to shatter that barrier anyway.
That alone should tell us that things we once thought would never happen could be announced as soon as next week. So why doesn’t Smith think the trend will just keep going until it reaches its natural conclusion?
“There’s some novelty in playing at night, and you don’t want to reduce that,” Smith said. “There’s a specialness to a night game. I think there’s a number I’m comfortable with, and that operationally we’re comfortable with, and that’s probably three or four night games at home a year.
“Could it get to five? Who knows, it might. But I would think three or four is probably what’s realistic for us. We could have two or maybe three on the road — I could see that happening. That’s my guess of what it might look like.”
So if you do the math, Smith is saying he could see as many as seven night games on the schedule out of 12, and it’s not a huge leap to get to 12 from there. Part of Smith’s thinking is that Ohio State-Michigan will never be a night game, partially because of the weather in late November.
“I just don’t see it,” he said. “The early window has been phenomenal for us. We’ve done 3:30, but I think the last time we did 3:30 might have been ’06. Even that was unbelievable.”
He will get no argument from this Ohio State-Michigan traditionalist, although that’s an argument television probably will win. Ohio State is among a handful of programs that are great TV.
Someday, the word novelty will probably be used when Ohio State plays a day game.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.