Ohio State vs Michigan: A Lesson in Greed and Foolishness

How do you feel about tradition? Some feel tradition is a tool of the intellectually lazy. They would argue that there should be no such thing as tradition, that instead there should just be what is and what is not. If upon close rational examination, a new path or idea is deemed to be the preferred way, then that is the path that should be followed.

Still others would argue that tradition is necessary and vital to culture because it upholds certain ideals and allows them to maintain from generation to generation. In other words, without tradition, the links to our past would be gone and it would be hard for anything to organically hold any extra value or level of importance to us.

Which brings us to the greatest rivalry in American sports. Some call it simply “The Game”, others call it “The Rivalry”. Whatever you call it, if anything at all, it’s simply Ohio State vs Michigan, and for over 100 years, these two teams have slowly built a rivalry for the ages. For the last 75 years or so, The Game has been the final game of the season for OSU and UM, and as a result, The Game has often had more importance on it than the rest of them.

As a result of this “tradition”, the two schools have become bitter rivals and The Game has served as sort of a de facto Big Ten Championship Game. The Big Ten in the past has needed the OSU-UM game to prop up the conference on the national stage. As far as college football is concerned, no game annually would draw quite as much attention as OSU-UM.

Times have changed, though. No longer is the Big Ten more or less a two horse race. As the college football landscape has changed all around them, the Big Ten has clung to tradition for years even if at times it has been perceived as hurting the conference. In an effort to join the movement, the Big Ten has begun taking steps to “modernize” the conference. They have added Nebraska, and starting next season, there will be two divisions and a Big Ten Championship Game.

The biggest change of all, though, and the one that virtually everyone expects to be a done deal, is the splitting of OSU and UM into separate divisions and moving the annual game up to October in the middle of the season. No matter how you feel about tradition, this is a tough move to justify.

From a tradition standpoint, the Big Ten is about to destroy a part of college football that is deeply engraved into the very DNA of OSU and UM fans across the country. What if we take tradition out of the equation though? Lest we be considered intellectually lazy and accused of taking the easy path out, just consider this from a cost-benefit analysis. What is to be gained by this move, and how can it outweigh what will be lost?

Perhaps there is no greater indication, though, of how universally stupid this decision is by the Big Ten than to look at the unified reaction from both sides of this rivalry and even by many of those in the mainstream press. Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel wrote a particularly stinging rebuke of this move, saying:

Ohio State and Michigan should be placed in the same division and meet in the final game of the regular season. It works for Auburn-Alabama, Texas-Texas A&M and a host of other great rivalries that have survived the super conference era. It’s a nod to the concept that these are more than just games, that they aren’t just a product to package for television, that in college football, tradition should be honored, not reworked in the hope of a ratings bump.

“One of the best things that could happen, in my opinion in a given season, would be the opportunity to play Ohio State twice,” Brandon told Ann Arbor radio station WTKA.

No, it wouldn’t be the best thing that could happen. It might be fun the first time. It might be unique. It might be new. And then soon enough, it wouldn’t be.

Everything else about it diminishes an event built and maintained for five generations. When you control a 100-plus-year-old tradition, you don’t make decisions based on a four-year television contract. To do so is symbolic of the NCAA run by MBAs, where a projected spreadsheet means more than a history book. It is about selling out a century plus for an overnight rating and then trying to explain it away with specious and short-sited reasoning.

Dan isn’t alone in this thinking by a long shot. Marcus Hartman of Buckeye Sports Bulletin writes:

The most two 5-0 teams can ever play for is becoming 6-0. The disparity between that and capping a perfect regular season can hardly be compared. Lots of teams go 6-0. Few go 12-0.

And what if both teams do make it through to the championship game? Then they will get to play for all the marbles again. Except of course there’s no guarantee that will happen often, and when it does, the first matchup all of a sudden becomes meaningless, just a smudge on the windshield or a random notch in the belt.

And then on the other side of the rivalry there’s Brian Cook writing on MGoBlog:

And with both ADs at Michigan and Ohio State trying to prepare the fans for a soft landing, it’s clear which way this is going: the stupidest possible way.

ONE: It is extremely unlikely that Michigan and Ohio State would ever actually score a championship game rematch. Splitting the two teams is a pointless exercise in hoping that once every ten years you get another one. This is no longer the 1970s.

TWO: Michigan’s year-end opponent: Michigan State? Boy, that will fire up everyone on Rivalry Week: “It’s Michigan! It’s some team that’s been within a game of .500 every year since SEC schools started recruiting black kids! On ABC!”

THREE: Whatever damage the rivalry sustains because of the split is going to vastly outweigh the piddling slice of extra revenue Michigan and Ohio State will get from a 1/12th split of the incremental bump the Big Ten Championship Game gets because maybe once every ten years they’ll get to pit Michigan against Ohio State.

FOUR: Dennis Dodd thinks this is the way to go. QED.

Not that this matters. Apparently it’s done. Get ready for Michigan-Ohio State sometime in October, not even playing for a division or anything, because the “TV people” really want it.

There’s plenty more where this came from. A simple Google search will bring back countless articles and blog entries of fans desperately crying out against this senseless change. You can read Eleven Warriors’ take on this, or read the Plain Dealer’s Doug Lesmerises offer up a vary rational argument against this move independent of tradition, and you can even join a Facebook Group with like minded fans from all sides of the rivalry. With so much unified objection to this move, you have to wonder how this is really happening.

Going back to a cost-benefit analysis, the overwhelming question is what is the Big Ten gaining from moving The Game to October? Obviously, the answer is money from a potential OSU vs UM rematch in the Big Ten Title game. The problem is, that’s not going to happen very often. Doug Lesmerises points out that if you go back to 1993, OSU and UM would have faced each other in a Big Ten Title Game just 3 or possibly 4 times (2007, 2006, 2003, and maybe 1998).

For those who would argue that those who oppose this move are just clinging to tradition, I would argue that it is actually the Big Ten who is still clinging to an antiquated notion of tradition. To assume that today’s Big Ten is still a conference based on the two main schools (OSU and UM) and then everyone else is just downright silly. The Big Ten is far removed from the days of Woody and Bo when it really was just about those two schools. Iowa and Wisconsin have joined the ranks of Big Ten elite. Penn State is still a conference power capable of beating OSU or UM any year. Nebraska is about to join and they are an improved team. In the past couple decades we’ve seen the random year when the likes of Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois, etc have jumped into the picture. To assume that Ohio State and Michigan are the two main powers and that their rivalry is incapable of being affected by moving the game up in the season is simply denying the reality of college football today.

The Big Ten certainly isn’t hard up for money. The Big Ten Network has been an enormous success, giving the Conference an annual $66 million to split up (nearly equal to the amount made from major network partnerships). Ohio State doesn’t need any extra money for its athletic department and neither does Michigan. Moving The Game isn’t a decision that needs to be made. That’s the bottom line that offends most fans. This decision is being based solely on greed mixed with a misguided touch of nostalgia.

Should The Game be moved up to October, it will still be a rivalry. The teams still won’t like each other and will want to beat each other. Fans will still pay special attention to the game. But it will become much like The Red River Shootout. Sure, Texas and Oklahoma really love it when they win that game, but losing it isn’t the end of the world. After all, they have the rest of the season to atone for a loss. So too, would become the nature of The Game. No more would losing that game be a crushing loss. It would hurt for a week, and then you’d be on to the next game and trying to get back into contention for winning your division.

The people of our generation who grew up with this rivalry would still remember the way it was and it would still mean a lot to us. But to our kids, it would mean much less. And how couldn’t it mean less? The reason this rivalry is so special and so powerful is because of the stakes of the game. With the development of other schools in the Big Ten (combined with the limit on scholarship numbers), a degree of parity has grown in the Big Ten. I realize I use the word parity in the wake of Ohio State winning 5 straight titles (3 of them outright), but it hasn’t just been Michigan competing with OSU for the title.

The result, then, is that by moving The Game to October, it no longer means anything, really. Especially with the two schools in opposite divisions, it will just be a grudge match for those who remember the way things once were. And maybe some folks are fine with that, but I’m not. Not because it’s some kind of blind allegiance to tradition, but because it’s a something that doesn’t have to happen. Doing this doesn’t make the Big Ten a better conference.

The only way to allow the Ohio State vs Michigan game continue to have the same relevance is to allow them to continue playing each other in the final game of the season. According to Greg Kinney at the University of Michigan, since The Game has moved to the final game of the season in 1935, it has decided the Big Ten Champion 22 times. However, another 24 games have had some kind of impact in deciding who the Champion was.

If the Big Ten wanted to, they could do the divisions and have the Championship Game still, but keep OSU and UM in the same division and have the game be played at the end of the season. Doing so would keep the national spotlight on The Game (which is beneficial to the conference) every season and not just the one or two times per decade they might actually happen to play in the Championship Game. Doing so would allow the Big Ten to still “modernize” the league with the likes of the SEC, Big 12, and ACC while also allowing such an important rivalry to continue unaltered. Unfortunately for any of us who care about this rivalry, greed is about to triumph reason once more.

  • Lars

    Moving the game to week 1 of the season would also give it significance and the entire year would be a build up… and the loser would have all year to recover for a rematch.

    The game needs to stay or be in week 1, period. Mid-October is dumb and I wouldn’t be shocked to see each team be upset far more often (assuming Michigan ever gets good again) in the week following the game due to the emotional hangover. If the game is moved to week 1, a couple cupcakes would be next on the schedule.

  • Clown Baby

    It’s sickening what they are doing and it is exactly why I’m becoming a bigger fan of the NFL than the NCAA. At least the NFL is up front about making money and doesn’t hide behind the “Student Athlete” BS.

  • swig

    Tradition says it’s not all about money, which couldn’t be further from the truth, even in precious college sports.

    Rational examination says, when will Michigan football be relevant enough to actually worry about a rematch. HI-YO!

  • Ramzy wrote a great, great piece about it yesterday.

    I hate the idea. If you can make fair divisions such that UM and OSU are in the same division, you’ve gotta do it, and I’m pretty sure it can be done. @WisconsinRob had perfect divisions yesterday on the twits. This is a pure money grab, and it’s crap.

  • Kunal

    this makes me sick, really glad i have a ticket to probably the last osu-michigan game that will actually ever matter this year

  • BuckeyeDawg

    Nothing is sacred anymore. Some things in life are perfect (or close enough) that they shouldn’t be messed with.

    OSU/Michigan as the last game of the season is one of those things.

    If that makes me a “stuck in the mud” traditionalist, then so be it. (I don’t like dancing in the end zone, either…)

  • Lloyd Braun

    I hate the fact that OSU/Mich may be moved. Hate it. The uniqueness and traditions of college football are unrivaled by any other sport (pro and/or collegiate). The more those traditions, uniqueness, and rivalries erode – the more uninteresting it gets. The powers that be are trying to kill what makes college football special and what sets it apart.

    I actually sent an email to Jim Delany – I never send emails like that about sports. I just think moving the Game is far too egregious not to make my opinion known (whether it makes a difference or not).

  • Lloyd Braun

    I was so fired up about how much I hate the idea of the Game moving up and OSU/Mich being in different divisions, I forgot to comment on the article – very nicely done, Andrew. A great case why this should not happen.

  • Chris

    The Dawg Pound and now The Rivalry. Will the next post be about the destruction of Chief Wahoo?

  • BW

    I’m a Michigan fan and can’t stand that this is likely going to happen. It’s ridiculous in the grand scheme of things and really shows just how stupid some of these AD’s and conference directors are.

  • nobody

    I may not know much about college football, but how do you make the divisions so that Michigan is in a different division than Ohio State, and not cause either team to have huge road trips to other divisional teams?

  • JF Sullivan

    I have no problem with OSU and UM being in the same division and playing the last game of the regular season against each other even if there is a championship game after it where only one of them can attend:

    No one’s talking about moving the Red Sox and Yankees out of the AL East or said that none of their games should be in September as it would take away from a potential ALCS matchup or that the World Series will be lessened because only the winner will go.

    Same logic here.

  • JNeids

    Fantastic article, as if I needed more convincing.

    If this game does get moved to mid-October, someone needs to spread the word about boycotting the first game.

    /Cavs vs. cHeat’ed

  • I’m not even a full blown OSU fan and would be HORRIBLY disappointed if OSU vs Michigan didn’t end the season.

  • Alex

    money grab, to which i put on my yamaha and say oye vey


    Congrats Big 10, you actually found a way to have OSU & Michigan fans 100% agree on a topic… YOUR STUPIDITY.. Nothing is sacred and the fact this is happening for what I’ve read as approximately an extra $150,000 per Big10 team per year is absolutely ridiculous.

    Anything other than having OSU v. Michigan play the last game of the season ruins the greatest rivalry ever. I never thought it possible. Glad I saw the last 3 at Ann Arbor in person. It will never be the same.

  • JK

    TWO: Michigan’s year-end opponent: Michigan State? Boy, that will fire up everyone on Rivalry Week: “It’s Michigan! It’s some team that’s been within a game of .500 every year since SEC schools started recruiting black kids! On ABC!”

    Ya don’t say! And here I was getting blasted in another post on this board because “some UM fans care more about MSU than OSU.”

  • Danny

    Where did you find Jim Delany’s email? I briefly looked on the Big Ten website and didn’t see it. I would love to see fans just flood him with emails asking him to keep Ohio State and michigan in the same division.

  • @ Danny: Google dot org has info. But here you go: jdelany@bigten.org

    Don’t take things out on his poor secretary though. You also could email Gene Smith and Gordon Gee by using the OSU People Finder.

  • Mark Malley

    I am a graduate of OSU class of 1975 and a life time member of the Ohio State Alumni Association.

    If this happens Ohio State and Michigan Alumni will start the largest boycott of the 2011 game in college history. I have spoken to alumni form both schools. We are ready.

  • JK

    I admire that Mark, but IMO thats not going to change anything. Please believe there WILL be people that will buy those tickets. I guarntee the game will be sold out.

  • @Mark- Yes! Maybe there will be seats available for under $500 for us non-alumni!

    Seriously though, there is no way you can get that kind of boycott to work for that game.

  • Jim Wiggins

    “Time and tide will surely show
    How firm thy friendship

    Anything less than leaving ’em in the same division diminishes enthusiasm for football at those two schools. Broad-minded, right-thinking people will be pleased. However, I could imagine the schools losing as much in donations as they gain in ticket money. I don’t think seeing more of Nebraska is worth it. Good column.

  • jafam

    1) The AD & president of OSU didn’t go to Ohio State and probably have no particular love for its football team. I have the sense they probably look at OSU fans the same way Barack Obama looks at people “clinging to guns and religion”.
    2) The other teams in the Big Ten, who pay 10/12ths of Jim Delany’s salary, would probably be glad to see OSU-Michigan diminished, as they may feel it would help the standing of their schools. Maybe OSU & Michigan people would be out-voted anyway & figure it would be best to support the others schools.
    3) I didn’t understand why the impact on OSU – Michigan didn’t get more attention when the Big Ten was pursuing Nebraska. Once that was accepted, the game was probably over.
    4) Steps like these will likely weaken people’s emotional ties to their colleges. I would imagine it will result in a fair amount less giving. (The schools probably have regressions telling them exactly how much less to expect.) This seems about right. If OSU & Michigan treat its fans as incidentals, it seems a bit much for them to expect loyalty in return.

  • DP

    TWO: Michigan’s year-end opponent: Michigan State? Boy, that will fire up everyone on Rivalry Week: “It’s Michigan! It’s some team that’s been within a game of .500 every year since SEC schools started recruiting black kids! On ABC!”

    Ya don’t say! And here I was getting blasted in another post on this board because “some UM fans care more about MSU than OSU.”

    A few things in rebuttal:

    1) Just like I said like seven times in that other thread, NOT EVERY MICHIGAN FAN THINKS MSU IS MORE IMPORTANT. But there ARE some.
    2) The context of the note speaks of ESPN’s Rivalry Week, not UM’s.
    3) The thing you glossed over is the OSU-fan-ripping-on-all-things-Michigan-like nonsensical ripping on MSU, which actually supports my theory that these two schools don’t like each other.

    But, what do I know?