COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The curb at the northwest corner of St. John Arena can be tricky on football Saturdays, as hundreds of fans march south from the parking lots.
“The over-under is three” that someone falls each week, said program seller Paul Theibert, “with the number higher for night games. I’ve told the university to paint it yellow.”
He’s seen plenty of spills in his 47 years on the job.
The 63-year-old Bexley native is probably the all-time leader in program sales. “I sold 700 in 20 minutes at the Michigan game in 2006,” he said of the “Game of the Century” in Columbus between No. 1 and No. 2.
He sold Cokes in Ohio Stadium at age 12. He moved to programs four years later, largely for free admission. Several of his siblings joined him. The Ohio State grad is the ninth of 12 children whose father, Fergus, worked on the visiting team’s sideline for 28 years. Sister Julie was a cheerleader. So OSU is home.
For the Ohio State-Maryland match up, Theibert arrived four hours before kickoff, picked up his programs and cart at Gate 8A and set up shop outside St. John. There he met his selling team of six to 10 friends and family members. It’s a big operation compared with his first seven years, when he sold solo.
As they huddled near the cart and organized cash for change, Theibert pointed them to various posts around St. John. There’s small talk and wisecracks but he stays businesslike — the earlier they complete their sales, the sooner he can get inside the stadium.
It’s the same urgency the Nationwide Insurance retiree felt as a teen. There’s no reserved seating for a program seller, even though Theibert has succeeded six university presidents, six football coaches and a few publishing companies.
Learfield IMG College has handled programs for 11 years, and Kirk Phillips, vice president of publishing, marvels at Theibert’s consistency.
“He doesn’t miss a game,” Phillips said. “He’s one of the first to communicate back to me each summer (that he intends to return in the fall), and he’s the first one there every game day to pick up his programs.”
And for 20 years he lived out of state in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Indianapolis.
Ohio State’s glossy color programs cost $10 — they were $1 when Theibert started in 1972 — and sellers make $1.25 per sale. Up to 10,000 programs might be printed for a big game, depending on the opponent. Unsold programs are donated to nursing homes and schools.
Phillips said his mainstay is a barometer of that day’s sales. “We know if it’s going to be a good day or bad day when he gets back to the booth.” If he arrives near kickoff, sales were slow.
Customers are drawn to his big smile, friendly banter and passion for the Buckeyes. He’s a one-stop visitors bureau for information on seating, parking, food, skull session and OSU trivia.
One year he gave his red seller’s apron to a customer, who promptly hung it in his “Buckeye room.”
“We know you’re tough but you don’t have to prove it,” he gently scolded a middle-aged woman as she rose from her wheelchair on her way to the Ohio State-Maryland game on Nov. 9. It’s three hours before kickoff as she reached for her crutches for the trek to the stadium. Theibert warned her about the tunnel full of people between the arena and French Field House.
About an hour later, the sun peeked through the clouds outside St. John. “There’s my girlfriend,” Theibert shouted to a stylish woman in a full-length red coat.
“Do you know what happens on Tuesday?” she asked after exchanging hugs. “Yes I do,” Theibert replied. “It’s your birthday!”
Virginia Frick of Columbus turned a youthful 95 on Nov. 12, an aluminum cane barely slowing her down. She has bought programs from him for 45 years.
Seller Cindi Marshall said longtime customers lunge for her boss, nearly knocking over the petite Upper Arlington woman in the process. “They just want to buy from Paul,” she said.
On this day, programs were shrink-wrapped on due to the weather. Ever the salesman, Theibert told a young fan: “Now don’t rip it open. Have your dad slit open the top.”
He instructed the boy — here for his first Ohio State game — to slide in a newspaper article on the game next to the program, thus a keepsake for another generation.
Kickoff loomed and the crew prepared to cash out and return any unsold programs.
Theibert was asked how long he’ll continue this game-day grind.
“As long as I can walk,” he said, grinning like a teenager.