There are sports rivalries and then there is Ohio State and Michigan. It may not quite rank up there with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is almost as old as time, but it's not too far behind. Ever since the inaugural meeting back in 1897, won handily by "That School Up North" 34-0, there has been some bad blood between these two border rivals, and lots of great memories.
Historical Highlights from the Early Years:
Many of the legendary stories from "The Game" came long before my time:
- In 1902, "Carmen, Ohio" was penned on the train ride back to Columbus after OSU was pasted 86-0 in Ann Arbor.
- In 1922 Ohio Stadium was dedicated the day the Wolverines came to town. Of course many referred to the new 71,000-seat stadium as "The House that Chic built." In truth halfback Chic Harley did put the Buckeys on the map, leading Ohio State to three straight wins over Michigan (the first three OSU victories in the series).
- Beginning in 1934 every Ohio State player on a team defeating Michigan has received a gold pants pendant. All of this due to Coach Francis Schmidt commenting that "Michigan puts their pants on one leg at a time!"
- The 1950 game has gone down in history as the "Snow Bowl" as it was played in howling winds and snow at Columbus, and featured 45 punts!
- The 1967 game won by the Buckeyes at Michigan was the first in the series to be played before a crowd of over 100,000 fans...something that has become commonplace in our day and age.
- In 1968 Woody's boys defeated UM 50-14, and tried unsuccessfully to go for two after the last touchdown. When asked why he would go for two with an insurmountable lead Woody replied, "Because I couldn't go for three."
My first taste of "The Game" came in 1973, after my family moved to Cincinnati from southern Africa. Immediately I became an Archie fan, and watching the teams battle with passion to a 10-10 tie helped me fall in love with Ohio State football. That was the year that the Big Ten voted by secret ballot to send the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl, something Bo never totally got over. Woody, Archie and the gang didn't disappoint either, routing USC 42-21 in a game I can still recall to this day. I've had scarlet blood flowing through my veins ever since. Of course that was in the middle of the famed "Ten Year War" (1969-1978) when Ohio State and Michigan were both at the top of their games, coached by a couple of legendary icons in Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechlar. It is doubtful the rivalry will ever be bigger or more bitterly contested than it was during those years.
After Woody was forced to step down, Earle Bruce rode into town, and although he was never fully embraced by Buckeye fans, I enjoyed those years a great deal. Players like Art Schlichter, Keith Byers, and Chris Spielman were bigger than life to me. All of them had some memorable moments in "The Game", none more spectacular than Spielman's record 29 tackles (you read that right) against the Wolverines in 1986. During this period I was known to get hysterical while watching the contest on television, a fact that I would like to blame on my youth. However, since I am now 50 and still tend to shout, scream, and chest bump my son after touchdowns, that is probably inaccurate!
One thing Earle Bruce never could accomplish (in spite of a 5-4 record against Michigan) was to win the Rose Bowl. So after he was fired, the school turned to John Cooper, fresh off a Rose Bowl win as the head coach at Arizona State. Big mistake! Coop was a good old boy from Tennessee who was likable off the field, and was a big-time recruiter. But he never did "get" the rivalry and his teams almost always entered the contest unprepared. It is almost inconceivable that Cooper's squads went 2-10-1 against the Maize and Blue, and many of those defeats derailed what appeared to be special years. In 1993, '95 and '96 the Buckeyes entered "The Game" undefeated, only to get whacked each time by the Wolverines.
Like most OSU fans those years incited incredible frustration in me, as supremely talented teams folded under the pressure, while Coop looked like a deer in the headlights on the sideline. The worst for me was 1995, as the Buckeyes headed north to Ann Arbor with a team featuring Heisman winner Eddie George, Orlando Pace, Shawn Springs, Terry Glenn, Bobby Hoying, Ricky Dudley, and Mike Vrabel, but still found a way to lose 31-23, as Tim Biakabutuka ran for 313 yards. I remember that I wouldn't answer my phone afterwards, as dozens of Buckeye haters called to rub it in.
Although I can't verify it, legend has it that Michigan students held a "John Cooper Day" on February 10, 2001 (2-10-01) not long after he was fired. Thankfully, by then, Coop was history and things were about to change.
If John Cooper failed to grasp the significance of the greatest rivalry in sports, Jim Tressel more than got it. Introduced as the new coach at halftime of a January basketball game his legendary speech included the following: "I can assure you that you will be proud of our young people, in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the football field." Almost instantly Tress brought the honor back to the Buckeyes in this rivalry, backing up his words with an improbable 26-20 win against a UM team that was highly favored.
One year later, Ohio State stood on the brink of a national championship game with only the dreaded Wolverines standing between them and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. Although it was a hard fought game in which there were plenty of opportunities to fold, the Buckeyes prevailed 14-9. I remember hosting a little party that day, and getting so nervous in the fourth quarter that I could hardly breathe. Visions of Cooper's teams danced in my head, but like millions of OSU fans world wide I learned that afternoon to "Trust in Tress!"
Over the next few years it was like all the pain of the Cooper era was transferred from Buckeye fans to followers of Michigan. When the Wolverines were favored, Ohio State won. When the Buckeyes were picked to win, they held serve and secured the victory, usually by sizable margins. Some said the rivalry lost some of its glamor, but I never once complained. It was poetic justice in my eyes.
Of course the biggest game during this period was when #1 Ohio State, led by Troy Smith, took on #2 Michigan in 2006. Two undefeated teams jabbed and sparred for four quarters, with OSU eventually triumphing 42-39. Away from home on that day, I watched from a hotel lobby and a downtown restaurant, calling home to Drew regularly. Word is my wife just about disowned him that day as Drew lost his cool a time or two - but hey, isn't that what "The Game" is all about? One thing is for sure: nothing ever feels better than basking in the glow of a win over those whining fans from up north on a late November day.
Although Luke Fickell will only get one shot at victory in this famed series, it is his chance to go down in Buckeye lore. 7-5 doesn't sound like much in Columbus, but when it includes a W versus Michigan, it's enough to endear a coach to Scarlet and Gray fans everywhere for all time.