Kay Drake, left, the Naples Buckeyes endowment fund chairperson, watches the Illinois-Ohio State game at Harold's Place on Nov. 18, 2017, along with longtime alumni club member Bob Holmes, center, and club vice president Dick Ritchie. RON HARTMAN/SPECIAL TO CSI
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been modified since it was originally published on Nov. 24, 2017.
If any Michigan fans stop by Harold’s Place today, the visit might leave them feeling, well … a little blue.
“We try to be polite,” said Kay Drake, an Ohio State University grad who, up until 2015, had attended 30 consecutive Michigan-Ohio State games.
“But as Woody Hayes used to say, show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
Buckeye fans have owned bragging rights for quite a while now in what is widely considered college football’s biggest rivalry. Since 2001, Ohio State has won 15 of the last 18 games in the series, including the last seven. (It would be 16 of 18, but the Buckeyes were forced to vacate their 37-7 win in 2010.)
Naples-area Buckeye backers can boast of something else: They’re the largest Buckeye alumni group in the country — besides, of course, the one in Ohio’s Franklin County, where Columbus is located. While Stevie Tomato’s Sports Page and Bokamper’s also host Ohio State watch parties, Harold’s Place has been the old, gold standard for longtime Buckeye fans in Naples.
In fact, Harold’s is believed to be a pioneer in the watch party industry, as fans started gathering there to watch the Buckeyes in the early to mid 1980s — a decade or so before watch parties became popular.
“It’s a great relationship, and has been for 30-some years,” Harold’s Place owner Joe Dinunzio said of the alumni club. “It started with my partner, the late Tom Larcomb, in ’83 or ’84. We raised the first scholarship, and we’ve been going strong ever since.”
With more than 400 members, the Naples Buckeyes alumni club is making sure that the Naples-to-Columbus pipeline stays strong. An endowment scholarship fund, which now stands at more than $1 million, gives five Naples-area students scholarships to Ohio State for the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition.
“No other school has an endowment fund to this degree,” said Drake, the Naples Buckeyes scholarship committee chairperson. “We try to help as many kids as we can. And they’re all in the top four or five percent of their class.”
Former Buckeye greats Archie Griffin, Eddie George, Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Spielman are just some of the guests who have spoken at Harold’s alumni meetings. Urban Meyer, who coached Ohio State from 2012-18, has spoken as well.
Back in the day, it was customary to pass a hat around the room to drum up club contributions. More recently, a 50-50 raffle has been held at each watch party, with half the money going toward scholarships and the other half to the winner.
Other Naples Buckeyes fundraising efforts have included an annual golf tournament, casino night and fashion show. The alumni group has also had a presence in two big Naples holiday events: the Christmas boat parade and St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“We used to pass the hat before the raffles but through the years we’ve built up considerably,” Dinunzio said. “So we haven’t passed the hat in a long time.”
With so much Scarlet & Gray adorning the town right now, it’s easy to see how Buckeye backers view Naples as their Columbus of the South.
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One Ohio State-Michigan game, played in Ann Arbor, Mich., stands out in the memory of Dick Ritchie, a 1959 OSU grad and retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.
“Back in the 90s, we took a bus trip there; it was very cold,” recalled Ritchie, who joined the Naples Buckeyes in 2006 and went on to serve as its vice president. “We got into the stadium, and everyone stood on their seats. Being 5-foot-8, I didn’t see any of that game.”
Bob Holmes, one of the original club members at Harold’s Place, will never forget the Snow Bowl in Columbus in 1950, won by Michigan, 9-3, despite getting no first downs and punting 24 times. Buckeyes coach Wes Fesler resigned after that game. His replacement? Woody Hayes.
“They played in 27 inches of snow,” Holmes said. “Vic Janowicz won the Heisman that year for Ohio State. He was always one of my favorites.”
Holmes crafted a stained-glass work of art that serves as the unofficial logo of Harold’s Place. Although the bar was named after the original owner, Bill Deagan, whose nickname was Harold, there was also a parrot named Harold that frequented the establishment. Many believe the place was named after the parrot.
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Russ Rogers was Ohio State’s track coach from 1987 to 2007, at which point he retired and moved to Naples. Rogers worked closely with the football coaches, as many of his athletes also played football. In the early 90s, the Buckeyes track team dominated the Big Ten and finished among the nation’s top three consistently with guys like Robert Smith, Chris Sanders, Aaron Payne and Butler Binote.
“During the winter, we had a station set up at football practice,” Rogers said. “A lot of players don’t know how to run with pads on. It takes time to learn how to shift your weight and not let the pads interfere.”
Rogers did some of his best work with former NFL running back Alonzo Spellman.
“He came to me and said he wanted to play in the NFL. He ran a 5.8 40,” Rogers recalled. “I got him down to 4.9 and he played 10 years with the Bears.”
Watching Spellman, Smith and Sanders excel in the NFL — Smith was a star running back with the Minnesota Vikings, and Sanders had a productive career as a receiver with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise — was gratifying for Rogers. But what’s really made him happy is seeing how his “kids” turned out after their playing days ended.
“When (Hurricane) Irma came (in 2017), I must have gotten 100 calls from the team. They’re just like my kids now,” Rogers said. “They’ve all become successful, they’re making good money. It’s a steppingstone, to be a good citizen and have a good family, and they’ve all done that quite well.”