The annual Ohio State vs. Michigan college football game on Thanksgiving weekend needs no hype. It doesn’t need outtakes of heated confrontations between players from each team to raise the temperature of viewers. It doesn’t need lofty language to describe the history of the sport’s greatest rivalry.
Sometimes, you have to tune out the exaggerated promotional stuff and appreciate the rivalry for what it is and what it has been.
It’s Ohio State vs. Michigan.
It’s The Game.
It’s the greatest rivalry in college football.
It hasn’t always been a rivalry. It didn’t become one until an Ohio State assistant coach named Bo Schembechler accepted the head coaching position at Michigan in 1969. That year, Michigan beat top-ranked Ohio State, 24-12, snapping the Buckeyes 22-game win streak, and the rivalry was born.
Schembechler, the student, beat Hayes, the teacher – and the series reached new heights.
What has become known as the Ten-Year War marked the most prolific era of the rivalry. During that decade, Michigan was 5-4-1 against Ohio State. Both teams were highly ranked each season. In 1975, top-ranked Ohio State beat Michigan, 21-14, only to lose to UCLA (coached by Dick Vermeil) in the Rose Bowl.
What makes this rivalry so special is that it is a game between teams that have dominated the Big Ten Conference for decades. In the past, the Buckeyes and Wolverines took proverbial turns winning the conference and playing the Grandaddy of Them All – the Rose Bowl.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Schembechler and Hayes roamed the sidelines and college football was defined by regional loyalties and conference ties to major bowl games – long before the corporate and media marauders reshaped college football into what it is today – there was a sacredness to particular rivalries.
Ohio State vs. Michigan was among the top two or three. The annual showdown between teams from neighboring states has always been played at High Noon. And, after the Hayes-Schembechler era, the rivalry dimmed in significance. But, by then, it had secured its place as the premier rivalry in college football thanks to the groundwork laid by the two legendary coaches.
It’s hard not to be taken in by the nostalgia, the history of Ohio State-Michigan – despite the one-sidedness of the rivalry since Schembechler’s retirement in 1989. John Cooper was run out of Columbus because he couldn’t beat Michigan. He was 2-10-1 against the Wolverines.
New Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel promised a change, and he delivered. In his first season, Tressel and the Buckeyes beat Michigan. Since 2001, Ohio State has won 17 of the 20 games between the two elite teams.
It’s a small wonder that Michigan’s patience didn’t run out on head coach Jim Harbaugh, who lost his first five games against Ohio State. There was no game in 2020, and, finally, in 2021, the Wolverines not only beat the Buckeyes, 42-27, but earned a spot in the College Football Playoff.
I won’t go into the reasons the CFP is destroying college football as we know it, but, suffice it to say, the CFP has raised the stakes of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry even higher. It’s not just a Big Ten title that is the ultimate goal for conference teams, it’s a place in the Final Four of NCAA Division I football.
And, that is a sad fact of modern-day college football. It used to be that the pinnacle in the Big Ten and Pac-10 was a conference championship and a trip to Pasadena, California to play in the Rose Bowl.
In the Southeastern Conference, it was the Sugar Bowl. In the Big Eight, it was the Orange Bowl. In the Southwest Conference, it was the Cotton Bowl.
In the age of talking heads, and the corporate takeover of major college sports, it’s at least good to know that the sometimes-used phrase “when it was a game” still applies to those who understand the proper place of collegiate sports in the overall landscape of life in America.
Then again, Ohio State-Michigan isn’t a game. It’s The Game.
Lee Goodwin writes about sports for Local.News. His column, “Sports Focus,” appears weekly.