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.