I remember once when I was young kid, probably around 4th or 5th grade, I was riding the bus home from school during the week of The Game. Growing up in the small town of Napoleon in northwest Ohio, sitting geographically closer to Ann Arbor than Columbus, there was always a pretty even split between Ohio State kids and Michigan kids (or, traitors to their state, as we used to call them).
As I sat on the bus that fall afternoon, a spirited discussion broke out between many of the kids about the merits of rooting for Ohio State and for Michigan. I don’t necessarily remember taking part in the discussion, but I do remember for the first time in my life feeling like one of the older kids on the bus had made a particularly compelling argument for why rooting for Ohio State was ignorant and based on blind loyalty. True happiness, he argued, comes from rooting for the superior school with the superior football team.
Mind you, John Cooper was the head coach at Ohio State and in those days, taking our annual heartbreaking failure at the hands of our most hated rivals was nothing to treasure. The autumn seasons always felt colder and more grey back then. The winters seemed to last for years, as we awaited our chance to take revenge. There was nothing but bitterness and anger and contempt inside me for the team with those hideously ugly blue and yellow uniforms that I secretly thought looked awesome.
So, as a conflicted and impressionable young child who had only recently discovered the power of rebellion against one’s parents, I decided that day on that bus that I was done rooting for Ohio State “just because”. I was going to root for the winning side. I was going to join the treacherous traitors to our state.
So when I got home that day, and the bus pulled away as I slowly walked toward the front door of our house, I thought long and hard about what I would say to my parents about this switch. My mom was waiting for me on the front porch and I decided to test this news on her before my dad got home from work.
“Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to become a Michigan fan. Some kids were talking on the bus and they told me about how Michigan is a better school and how they have the better football team who always wins and has more history. So that’s it. I’m a Michigan fan now.”
My mother barely skipped a beat as she replied, “Well, we’ll just see what your father has to say about this. If I know him at all, I have a feeling you’ll be sleeping outside tonight and you’re going to be on your own for your meals from now on.”
That was that. I’m pretty sure she was joking, I don’t believe for one second my parents would have followed through with the threats. But the threats were successful enough to put me back in my place. I realized right then and there that if even my mom, who didn’t care about football other than Ohio State, was so keenly aware of what this rivalry meant, that it was something too serious to throw loyalty out the door on a whim.
Well, that and I really was scared my dad would throw me out if I started rooting for Michigan. Besides, my father really did raise me better than that. We lived in Ohio, and we rooted for Ohio State. It was that simple. If anyone wanted to root for Michigan, they could feel free to move there. My dad taught me about Woody Hayes. My dad explained to me why all the Ohio State players were carrying the guy with the funny looking hat off the field following a joyous win over Michigan in Earle Bruce’s last game. He taught me that even though the Rose Bowl was the ultimate goal every season, the only thing that really mattered was beating Michigan.
I remember calling my dad after watching Jim Tressel’s introductory press conference. Not the now-legendary introduction at halftime of the OSU basketball game where he called his shot against Michigan, but his regular old press conference. I told my dad how after watching that press conference, I wished more than anything that I could suit up and play for that man. We both agreed that perhaps OSU was on to something and got very lucky with this hire. Little did we know.
I don’t know how much people outside the rivalry understand it, but for my entire life this has been the biggest game of the year. I attended and graduated from The Ohio State University and the rivalry now feels like it’s even more a part of me. Sure, life goes on when Ohio State loses, but it sure is a lot less fun for that year.
That’s what this rivalry is all about. It’s about legacy and birthright. It’s about ultimate bragging rights. It’s about channeling all that real life anger and frustration into one late November football game. It’s about being able to share stories about the rivalry across generations.
The rivalry has gotten weird in recent years. Jim Tressel came in as our beloved white knight and changed the course of the Rivalry. Too young to really remember the years Earle Bruce beat the Wolverines, my memories were instead filled with scar tissue from a lifetime of pain under John Cooper. A tie against Michigan once felt like a win because, hey, at least we didn’t lose. Jim Tressel changed all of that.
Suddenly we had all the power. We got to laugh as year in and year out Jim Tressel came up with seemingly the perfect game plan to counteract what Michigan was trying to do. Coach Tressel and Coach Carr played a series of truly great battles, including the most memorable one of all, the #1 vs #2 battle of 2006. Thankfully, Coach Tressel won all but one of those tight battles with Carr’s Wolverines.
Then Michigan underwent change, and all hell broke lose in Ann Arbor. They hired a coach with seething indifference for the traditions of Michigan Football. A highly regarded player for the Wolverines, Justin Boren, defected to the Scarlet and Gray side. And Ohio State began to beat up on Michigan as though they were Indiana. 42-7, 21-10, 37-7. Those are Rich Rodriguez’s contributions to The Game. A brash coach who thought he was above Michigan’s traditions let them be outscored by the Buckeyes 100-24 in his three games.
But things are different now. Rich Rodriguez is thankfully gone. Unfortunately, so too is our beloved leader, Jim Tressel. Forced to resign in disgrace after making the biggest mistake of his coaching career by a mile. Now, for the first time since 1929, both teams come in with new coaches. Both coaches understand and appreciate the traditions of their schools and what this rivalry is all about.
Luke Fickell may be more of a steward than a head coach for the Buckeyes. He likely knows this is his only shot to beat Michigan as a head coach, unless it works out in the future for him to return as a more experienced coach. But for right now, this is his one shot.
For the first time in a very long time, I don’t know what’s about to happen. I do believe that Ohio State has more talent on their side, but Michigan is the team playing better football and it’s not even close. This is the first time Ohio State has brought a 2 game losing streak into The Game since 1999. Michigan is coming off an absolute thrashing of Big Ten newcomers Nebraska. Brady Hoke has brought integrity, discipline, and belief back into Michigan football. I want to believe Ohio State will rise up and save us from the most miserable season of Ohio State football in my life, but for the first time in years, I am overcome with doubt.
There was been so much sadness in Columbus this year. This season was supposed to be the coronation of perhaps the greatest recruiting class Ohio State has ever brought in, The Brew Crew. Names like Pryor, Posey, Adams, Brewster, Shugarts, Stoneburner, Sweat, Sabino, Goebel, Williams, Howard all came into Ohio State together to do something special. And for a while, it looked like they were right on schedule.
Then the tattoo scandal came out and everything came crumbling down. And while Tressel was fired, Pryor left for the NFL, and Herron, Adams, and Posey served suspensions, it was the innocent ones who were left to deal with the aftermath. Luke Fickell was unceremoniously asked to lead this team through virtually impossible circumstances. You think this was what Michael Brewster had in mind when he orchestrated this class? But there he was Saturday, a dejected leader being forced to ask about whether Michigan was a chance for this team to salvage something.
Salvage something? You could see the look in Brewster’s eye. Ohio State doesn’t “salvage something” against Michigan anymore. That’s Michigan’s job now. You could feel the weight with every word coming out of his mouth. He talked about how this season had been a shot to his pride. By all rights, Brewster was supposed to be an obvious choice as a senior captain leading his Buckeyes team to the National Title. Instead, the team eschewed permanent captains in favor of weekly ones. Instead of winning games, the team played like a team who lost their coach and best player and who had to deal with crippling suspensions to other star players.
And so there remains that dark cloud hanging over the entire program heading into the only game that really matters. Will the school face more sanctions from the NCAA? Will Urban Meyer be the next coach? Will OSU hang on to Brionte Dunn in the recruiting race or will he, too, defect to Michigan with Kyle Kalis? Will Ohio State be able to keep this 7 game 6 game winning streak alive?
Ohio State find themselves as 7.5 point underdogs to Michigan. Ohio State haven’t been underdogs to Michigan since 2004. But that’s the challenge facing Luke Fickell this week. This has not been an easy year for Coach Fickell. He certainly didn’t ask for any of this. He surely once dreamed of coaching his alma mater, but not like this. Not under these circumstances.
Coach Fickell’s fate seems to be set. The fate of this coaching staff seems to be set. The fate of these seniors and the legacy they will leave behind seems to be set. But that’s the magical greatness of this game. Those things only seem to be set. In reality, this game offers redemption and a shot at making things right. This year’s story isn’t set in stone yet. It will go down as a disappointing year for sure, but should Ohio State pull off the upset and make Michigan try again next year to end the streak, then this year’s team will live on forever in glory as a team that overcome impossible setbacks. It will be the team who once had such high hopes for a wasted season, found it within themselves to band together one last time for the honor and splendor of Ohio. To send a message back to Ann Arbor that things might be different now, but this is still Ohio State football and we will not be taken lightly in this rivalry.
It’s funny as I think back now upon that school bus ride home when I once contemplated the unfathomable and actually considered switching sides. I wanted to experience winning in this rivalry and not being afraid of the opposition. For the past decade, I’ve lived that reality and it’s been everything I ever imagined it could be. But for the first time, I kind of feel like that kid on that school bus again.
No, I’m not considering switching sides. But I am worried about this game. Even in 2004 when Ohio State were underdogs, I wasn’t worried about the game. I felt Ohio State would win easily, and they did. But this year, I have no clue who is going to win this game. There’s something exciting about that, but it’s also a little disconcerting. Which side will send the message on Saturday? Will Michigan finally end their worst losing streak ever in this series, or will Ohio State bring victory back to Ohio for us all?
I can’t wait to find the answer in five days. It’s why this game is my favorite game of the season and why it will always be more than just “a game” to those of us who live with the rivalry in blood every day. For us, this is The Game.