Traveling into Athens, OH from the west along Route 33 -- or from any direction for that matter -- is a bleak drive. It's a town set in the middle of nowhere, founded with big dreams of becoming a gateway into the Northwest Territory. The trip in takes you through a series of towns that inspire ideas for novels about the downtrodden -- Donald Ray Pollack's forlorn, bestselling novel Knockemstiff
was based on the experiences of the inhabitants of a village an hour west of Athens.
Right when one starts thinking that they must have taken a very wrong turn, Ohio University appears out of nowhere. The first thing a visitor sees when entering town is the Convocation Center, a mammoth 14,000-seat dome, home the home of the Bobcats.
As an out of state student from a small private school, I had no ties to Ohio University, no friends at the school. Ever since the first time I ever made that long and uncertain trip in, the sight of the half-century-old basketball palace gives me a feeling of home. That feeling is shared, no doubt, by generations of Ohio students who return to their alma mater.
Ohio University has been playing basketball for over a century, and the program has taken a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. The program toiled in anonymity before bursting onto the national scene in 1941. Led by All-American Frankie Baumholtz, the 'Cats finished second to Long Island in the NIT; the Blackbirds were a powerhouse back then, and that tournament was the premier competition in college hoops.
The Jim Snyder era lasted for 25 years, and took the program to levels it never had been before. In 1960, Ohio reached number 6 in the national poll. The 1964 squad reached the Elite Eight, the school's longest-ever run in the NCAA Tournament. The 1972 team defeated both Indiana and Ohio State when each were ranked in the top 15. It's never really reached those levels since.
After a transition period that saw very little success, Larry Hunter took the reins and steered the school back on the road towards the promised land. Gary Trent ("The Shaq of the MAC"ť) won the conference Player of the Year three times, and led the team to an NCAA berth and a preseason NIT title. Hunter couldn't maintain that level of play after Trent left, however, and was out the door by the turn of the new millennium.
The most recent NCAA tournament appearance came in the Tim O'Shea era, on Leon Williams' overtime tip-in in the 2005 title game against Buffalo that follwed an improbable second-half comeback. Between Williams and high-scoring guard Jeremy Fears, both of whom were freshmen, a conference powerhouse looked to be building. But the team fell apart, O'Shea left, and now it's up to second year coach Jim Groce to bring the program back to glory.
The Convo can be seen from almost anywhere on campus. When the Bobcats have a good record and the game falls on a weekend, it feels like Ohio U.'s center. The students pour in from the residence halls, the locals fill up the season ticket sections. On nights like this, an Ohio run can electrify the old building; there is no better atmosphere in the MAC. The old-timers give the team's efforts a standing ovation while the Ozone provides the extra noise. The team noticeably gets a lift from playing at home.
The Convo ranks first in the conference in attendance nearly every year. Ohio students are one of the few student populations in the MAC that even makes the effort to create a student section, and at its peak, the Ozone ranks up there with anyone in the nation on creativity and noise. The team's home record has reflected that enthusiasm over the years.This video
shows the section during the 2005-06 season. The "Winning Team-Losing Team"ť chant, as the legend goes, originated in Athens in the 1960s. The chant is always the icing on the cake to a big conference victory, and one the students can't wait to unleash.
MAC basketball contains a wealth of material for taunting opposing teams -- from "J Crew U"ť at Miami to "Kent Read, Kent Write, Kent State"ť when the Flashes come to town, the festive atmosphere during home games gives the Convo a feeling unique in mid-major basketball.
Two schools separated by over three hours seem like unlikely rivals, and Ohio and the rival Miami RedHawks have faced off in basketball 184 times over the years. The Bobcats holding a 94-89 advance in the all time series. The Battle of the Bricks (named for the similar architecture that makes up both schools' campuses) is a heated one, on and off the court.
Both are similar sized schools in rural towns with a similar athletic history. The difference lies in the makeup of the student bodies. Miami students consider Ohio a poor man's version of themselves; Ohio undergrads, in turn, think Miami leads the MAC in pretentiousness. (In Athens, very rarely might you see a student in a BMW wearing a Lacoste polo on the way to class!) The old saying goes that you go to Ohio to make something of yourself... and to Miami if you have already been handed everything you need for life, via inheritance.
Our ideological differences result in classics on the hardwood. From Geno Ford managing the court for the Bobcats in the early 90's, to Wally Szczerbiak's dominance of the series in the later portion of that decade to the close battles of the 00's, the teams always bring out the best in each other.
Life as a college student at Ohio U. is an ideal one. The weeks are filled with classes and the constant pressure to prepare one's self for the job market. But the weekends are always a shelter from the ever-approaching real world. The remote location makes for a tight-knit student body. Ohio is consistently ranked high as a party-school location; I guess that speaks to the fantastic rapport among students in Athens. The festival like atmosphere on weekends transfers into the Convo on game nights and helps to create the atmosphere that makes the games so special.
But over half of the permanent residents of Athens live under the poverty line. The basketball program is a uniting force in town, and though the fan base may never consistency sell out our gigantic dome, they support their team fervently. Attending a game at the Convo allows the students and the natives to bond in a community where the line between town and gown is sometimes rigidly drawn. The local diehards are all exceedingly friendly who have followed the program since the golden age of the '60s. There are always debates over who was the greatest Bobcat ever -- Dave Jamerson, Baumholtz, or Trent? This keeps the tradition alive, and allows the student body to get glimpses into our rich basketball history.
Though in recent years the gridiron version of the Bobcats has had a higher level of success then their hardwood counterparts, Ohio has always been a basketball school. The Ozone is a fraction of its former size, but the students who still follow the team do so with a passion.
But we all know that the Ohio basketball program is at a crossroads. John Groce was named head coach before last season, and we all hoped for a quick rise to power. Groce had been one of the top assistant coaches in the country, and he quickly brought two stellar recruiting classes to Athens -- talent that ranked among the best the school has ever attracted. His brand of up-tempo play seemed destined to take the conference by storm, and return the school to the Big Dance.
Results are never predicated on Scout.com rankings, however. The hard-court revolution has stalled a bit. Two key players are currently suspended on drug charges, while another two starters have missed games because of suspensions for violating team rules. It's a young team that cannot yet find a way to pull out close games, and a lack of discipline threatens to pull the squad apart at the seams.
Ohio basketball has had some tremendous highs and depressing lows during its century of play. Memories of Robert Tatum's leaning game winner
in the school's last NCAA Tournament win in 1983, and Williams' MAC title-clinching tip-in keep the fire lit, and foster hope for a bright future. The team's talent, personified in electrifying freshman point guard D.J. Cooper, and the passionate fan following are in place. Ohio could be one of the premier programs south of the Red Line.
The dreary former factory towns seem like an oddly appropriate metaphor for the current turmoil within the team. But there's hope along that road into town. Just when it feels like you will never reach your destination, driving along endless Route 33, there's that familiar beacon in the distance: the Convocation Center. If the team finally meshes, perhaps the town and students who love this program will be able to bring back that long-overdue NCAA Tournament win.