Ohio State's football opener will be unique scene at Ohio Stadium with no fans or band

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Ohio State's slogan for the 2020 football season is as important as it is ironic.

“Every game is a home game.”

The Buckeyes finally start their season Saturday against Nebraska, and it will, in fact, be a home game. But fans are not permitted to attend because of the pandemic. The Big Ten decided when it reinstated the football season last month that it would not allow fans.

It's not just that spectators won't be inside Ohio Stadium. Tailgating is also banned, and fans are being urged to watch games in their home instead of in large gatherings.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said that some of the school's students coined the “Every game is a home game” slogan, and the program has embraced it.

“We're really worried about the large gatherings and watch parties and tailgating that people will do,” Smith said. “Just be smart. Watch the game with people you know, people you know are negative (from COVID-19). Don't create these large super-spreaders.”

Ohio Stadium, also known as the Horseshoe, the Shoe, and the House That Harley Built, is on the campus of  Ohio State University in Columbus.

Inside the Horseshoe, it will be a unique experience. The Big Ten has dictated that marching bands aren't allowed, so no Script Ohio or halftime show will be performed. There won't be cheerleaders, either. The band's "skull session" inside St. John Arena is a casualty, as well.

The atmosphere will feel surreal for the few people inside the Horseshoe.

“That's a good word,” Smith said. “It's going to be really weird not having the fans there.”

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He estimates that about 1,600 people will be inside the stadium. Each player can have four relatives attend, and they'll be socially distanced throughout A Deck, the level closest to the field. Game-operations people, the Fox TV crew and a severely restricted number of media constitute most of the rest of those in attendance. Photographers will be in A Deck and not on the field. The only other presence will be cutouts purchased by fans.

“It's just going to be weird,” Smith said. “I don't know how else to describe it.”

Piped-in crowd noise will keep the stadium from being mostly silent. Per Big Ten guidelines, the standard level will be 70 decibels – about the sound of a washing machine or dishwasher. After a play such as a touchdown or turnover, it can be raised to 85 decibels – the sound of a lawnmower.

However loud it is, it won't be the same without fans. Ohio State coach Ryan Day knows that his team won't have a typical home-field advantage.

“We've definitely talked about bringing our own energy,” Day said. “We really make sure that we talk about it. I think it matters. I don't think you can just not talk about it, because it's real. We're just so used to being at a home game with a crowd your whole life, and we don't have that.”

The Ohio State Marching Band performs Script Ohio at Ohio Stadium before the start of the school's game against Wisconsin on October 29, 2019.

Day said he's told his players to imagine the fans cheering at home and that they are just as passionate about the Buckeyes even if they're not in the stadium.

Even the pregame routine for players will be different. They aren't staying at the Blackwell Inn on Friday as usual. Instead, they will meet Saturday morning at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and put on part of their uniform before being taken to the stadium.

Dr. Jim Borchers is OSU's team physician who as part of the Big Ten's Return to Competition task force was instrumental in persuading the conference to reinstate the season. He believes the Big Ten protocols will be effective in keeping Saturday's participants safe.

“I don't think there will be any risk to the players or coaches or staff,” Borchers said. “You're talking about a gigantic outdoor environment where the few numbers of people that will be there are completely socially distanced away from the team and have no access to get to those players and staff members and coaches.”

Borchers said Ohio State has worked closely with the Ohio and Franklin County departments of health.

“I know they've done everything they can to ensure the safest environment possible for home games this season,” he said.

That will require sacrifice even for the players' parents, whose persistence was instrumental in keeping hope alive for a season. They won't be able to hug their sons after the players leave the locker room following the game.

“Certainly an unfortunate part of this is that there's a risk with parents and family members,” Borchers said. “It's certainly discussed with our players. It's going to be difficult. They're going to need to be masked and socially distanced from those people who are coming to watch them play.

“It's going to be an incredible sacrifice for parents and players. But I think they recognize that's the sacrifice that's going to have to be made to give them the best chance to be able to complete this season.”

As difficult as the sacrifices are, Smith said they're worth it because the ultimate goal of having a season has been realized, even if all pageantry that make Saturdays at the Horseshoe an event and not just a game will be absent.

“All of those things are gone,” Smith said. “It's hard. But for me, it's really about the players having a chance to play. That's what meant the most to me.”