Happy Tuesday, WFNY!
I hope everyone has returned to life fully refreshed from the Thanksgiving weekend. Ideally, the effects of the requisite food comas have begun to wear off and everyone is charged up and ready to tackle these few weeks before Christmas.
This is generally one of my favorite times of the year. Thanksgiving always feels like a slingshot into Christmas. We have hockey going on, NFL football is hitting the critical stretch of the season for most teams, the NBA season is starting to take shape and we’re starting to figure out what is real and what is illusion, and college football has hit the rivalry week into conference championship week into bowl season part of the season.
For most of the last two decades, this has also been a time for Ohio State fans to glow in the shine of another win in The Game. Indeed, as hard as it is to believe for anyone who grew up in the late 80s and the 90s under the John Cooper era, Ohio State has actually now won 16 of the previous 20 matchups. For Ohio State fans like myself, this is something never to be taken for granted.
I grew up in a small town in northwest Ohio. Even though we were located in Ohio, we were technically closer to Ann Arbor than Columbus. Our local market, Toledo, tended to lean more toward Michigan sports than Ohio sports. All the local professional coverage centered around Detroit teams. Heck, I grew up a Detroit Red Wings fan because of this. As a result, there was a significant divide between Michigan and Ohio State fans there. Thankfully, though, my dad is an Ohio State fan and he raised me properly to be a true Buckeye through and through.
The larger point here, though, is that the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry has been part of me my entire life. I grew up in an area where it wasn’t a one day out of the year thing. It was 365 days a year. It was everywhere. Flags and bumper stickers and clothing attire adorned with one set of colors exposed anyone to comments from fans of the other colors. It was inescapable. And you grew up learning to hate those opposing colors with everything you have in you.
To this day I will not wear clothing if it is blue and yellow. You can search my wardrobe, you will find nothing with those colors. Not even socks or underwear. You won’t find so much as a mug or a cup or a plate or a blanket or anything with that color scheme in my house. To some, this might seem crazy. But for me, it was just the way things were. There was a clear line in the sand, and those colors represent which side you stand on. I have plenty of friends who are Michigan fans. I don’t dislike people just for rooting for Michigan. But when it comes to talking sports, there is only one rivalry in my life that matters like this rivalry.
My earliest firm memory of Ohio State and Michigan is the 1987 game. I was seven years old and Earle Bruce had been fired but would be coaching one last game. I remember the players all wearing white headbands with the name Earle written on them in red. I remember Ohio State overcame a 13-0 halftime deficit to claw back and earn a stunning 23-20 win. I remember the players hoisting up Coach Bruce in celebration after the win. I remember not understanding any of this. How could Ohio State get rid of this guy, a guy who just beat Michigan in Ann Arbor and who the players clearly loved so much? My dad explained to me that it wasn’t right, but sometimes in life things happen that just aren’t right. It’s a message that stuck with me throughout my life watching sports.
That was my earliest memory of the rivalry, but it was also the last really happy memory in that rivalry for a long time. Ohio State wouldn’t win in Ann Arbor again until 2001 when Jim Tressel took over the program. But first, we had to endure the John Cooper era.
Coach Cooper is a really nice guy. He was a hell of a recruiter. I believe he earnestly gave his all to the program and cared deeply about Ohio State. I liked John Cooper. I still do. I wanted him to have success. I was hoping he could find it. But I don’t think he ever fully understood the rivalry. And the results spoke for themselves. 2-10-1.
This was a pretty rough time to grow up as a kid in this rivalry. Year after year enduring painful heartbreak and then having to go to school the following Monday and listening to all my Michigan-fan friends gloat and laugh at us. It sucked. It’s those formative memories that make up the foundation of why I refuse to take any Ohio State win over Michigan for granted.
On Saturday, as Ohio State fell down 14-0 early to Michigan, I didn’t quite know how to feel about it. I wasn’t especially worried. I wasn’t mad, but I wasn’t happy, either. Ohio State has been a slow starting team for much of this season. I didn’t fear Michigan’s offense at all and I figured Ohio State would be ok if they could just put together a drive and get on the scoreboard.
But then the broadcast put the stat on the screen that Ohio State had never overcome a 14-point deficit in the history of this rivalry. Never. Not once. It turns out that 13-0 deficit Ohio State overcame in that 1987 game was the largest deficit the Buckeyes had ever erased against Michigan. It put things into perspective. Winning that game was not going to be easy.
As Mike Weber ran into the end zone to give Ohio State the 31-20 lead late in the fourth quarter, I allowed myself to breathe a sigh of relief. Ohio State was going to win again. Once more, I could hold my head high and endure another 364 days knowing that Ohio State had won The Game. As a sports fan, it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s right up there with winning those National Championships. Anyone who lived through 2-10-1 knows what I’m talking about. Typically when a rivalry becomes one-sided, the intensity tends to fade. For me, it never goes away because I still remember the feeling of being on the other side of it.
We’ve come a long way from those dark times in the 90s. The shoe is firmly on the other foot and Ohio State is rapidly closing the gap on Michigan’s all-time series lead1 and there are no signs of them slowing down. But this rivalry is fickle. Nobody2 foresaw Jim Tressel taking an unranked Ohio State team into Ann Arbor and knocking off the eleventh-ranked Wolverines. And certainly, nobody guessed that the series was about to flip on its head and that Tressel and then Urban Meyer would dominate the rivalry they have and continue to do. All it could take to reverse things again is one win for Michigan. You just never know.
And that is further reason why this rivalry will never change for me and why I will never, ever take for granted the way I felt on Saturday and the way I still feel today. In my sports life, Ohio State beating Michigan is everything. Today it feels great. Next year, who knows.