Since 1935, when the two teams first began their annual end of the season meetings, Michigan and Ohio State have regarded the final game of the regular season as most important. This fact is something that Michigan and Ohio State fans have known, understood, and relished for years. While the rivalry has seen its share of ebb and flow, the importance of The Game has never wavered. Big Ten and National Championships have often been on the line when the Wolverines and Buckeyes have clashed in late November. Yet, even during those few meetings when pride alone was on the line, the passion and intensity of the rivalry has never diminished. The Game became a national spectacle during the 10 Year War, thrusting the importance of the rivalry beyond just the Midwest. As the 2007 HBO special on the rivalry eloquently summed it up, the regular season became mere window dressing before the annual end of the year battle. Each of the rivalry’s 107 meetings has held a certain level of importance for the players, coaches, and fans. Even so, there have been brief moments in history when fate has stretched out its hand and fundamentally changed the course of the rivalry. There are moments when the importance of The Game transcends the regular level of passion and intensity that the rivalry is built upon.
The 1919 contest between Michigan and Ohio State marked the first such moment in the history of the rivalry. In 1916, future first-team All-American Chic Harley arrived at the Ohio State campus and dramatically changed the course of “The Game.” Harley helped Ohio State snap a 15 game non-winning streak against Michigan in 1919. Ohio State’s 13-3 victory showed that yes, Michigan could be beaten. Ohio State’s win was the first of 3 straight victories over Michigan, a stretch that cemented the rivalry as a two sided affair.
In 1951 another rivalry changing moment occurred, created by the arrival of Wayne Woodrow Hayes, a.k.a “Woody.” Ohio State won all of 2 games in 12 years prior to Woody Hayes taking over the Buckeye program. While Hayes lost his first contest to Michigan, he went on to win 12 of the next 16 games against the Wolverines. Beginning in 1952, Hayes presided over the first “Red Scare” in the rivalry’s history, a period when Ohio State took over and dominated the series. Hayes not only made beating Michigan a priority, he instilled a level of hatred into the rivalry that fueled his team’s performance and created a deep sense of animosity between the two programs.
1969 marked a rivalry changing moment still held in reverent esteem by the Michigan faithful. The appearance of Glenn “Bo” Schembechler on the Michigan sideline changed the course of the series forever. Bo Schembechler’s 24-12 upset of Ohio State in 1969 launched the first salvo of the 10 Year War. Schembechler’s victory and the war that followed elevated the importance of The Game to unprecedented heights in the process. Schembechler’s victory not only snapped a losing streak to Ohio State, it established a set of principals and philosophies that remain the hallmark of Michigan football. “Those who stay will be champions” would have rung hallow, had Michigan not beaten Ohio State and fulfilled Bo Schembechler’s prediction.
Jim Tressel’s entrance in 2001 brought about the final watershed moment in the rivalry’s history. In the 13 years prior to Jim Tressel’s arrival at Ohio State, the Buckeyes posted a 2-10-1 record. The stretch included was a disastrous 0-6 record in Ann Arbor. While Jim Tressel’s hiring failed to garner much fanfare in either Columbus or Ann Arbor, his introductory speech at half-time of an Ohio State basketball game did. Tressel’s 2001 road victory over a Michigan, that was favored, gave way to the rise of a Scarlet Curtain separating the Buckeyes from the Wolverines. Tressel’s victory kicked off a period of dominance for Ohio State that included wins on and off the field. Jim Tressel accomplished what many Buckeye fans had long dreamt of, building a scarlet colored fence around the state of Ohio and dominating the Wolverines in recruiting and on the field. Tressel’s 9-1* record and 7 game win streak* from 2001-2010 marked the most successful stretch for Ohio State in the rivalry’s history. The Red Scare of the ‘50s and ‘60s spurred by Woody Hayes saw a reinstitution under Jim Tressel and extends to the present.
Here, as we sit on the eve of 108th meeting between Ohio State and Michigan a potential rivalry changing moment is at hand. The term “must win” is thrown around a lot in sports. Often, the expression does not apply to the situation but is used anyway in order to add excitement and interest in the game. True “must wins” carry along with them a significant set of consequences that are associated with both winning and losing. In order for a must win situation to exist a victory must result in significant positive consequences, and a loss must result in significant negative consequences. Michigan faces a just such a scenario on Saturday against the Buckeyes.
The stakes of tomorrow’s game are incredibly high for Michigan. When the implications on the rivalry are added to the equation, Saturday’s game transforms into a must win situation. A win on Saturday will likely send Michigan to a BCS bowl game. A loss could put Michigan in the Outback or Gator bowl. Playing in a BCS bowl is a prize that cannot be undervalued. Playing in a BCS bowl would return Michigan to relevancy on the national scene. While many Michigan fan will likely bristle at the notion that Michigan ever stopped being relevant nationally, the truth is that the Wolverines have not flashed on the national radar as a legitimate big time program since 2006. Playing in the Gator or Outback bowl would certain be an accomplishment in its own right, but it does not provide the kind of big stage that Michigan needs in order to prove that the program is truly back.
The single biggest reason why Saturday’s game is a must win relates to perception and changing the narrative surrounding the rivalry. Control over the narrative of the rivalry is something that both programs have fought over for years. Woody Hayes sought to change the narrative that Michigan dominated the rivalry, he then established the narrative that Ohio State was in command. Schembechler then sought to reverse Woody’s dominance over the rivalry and established the rivalry on equal footing. In 2001 Jim Tressel changed the narrative of the rivalry which previous held that Michigan was in command of the series, establishing dominance over the narrative in the years to come.
Michigan desperately needs to change the narrative that currently surrounds the rivalry. While nice, winning recruiting battles and being more competitive with Ohio State on the field does not change the narrative that Ohio State owns Michigan. If Michigan loses, the narrative will not only fail to change, it will become even more damaging for Michigan. Should Michigan lose the narrative would then include that despite changing coaches to a group who supposedly knows and understand the rivalry, despite improving the defense, despite Ohio State having one of its worst seasons and Michigan having one of its best, despite Ohio State have players suspended and its starting QB leave for the NFL…………….Michigan is STILL unable to beat Ohio State. And with the prospect of Urban Meyer taking over the Buckeyes looming, and having to play the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe next season, the opportunity to change the narrative of the rivalry is limited.
Brady Hoke arrived at Michigan saying all the right things where the rivalry is concerned. Fans swooned while Hoke pounded the podium and called the Ohio game the “most important game on the schedule.” Hoke installed clock counting to Saturday’s game as well as a clock showing how long it has been since Michigan beat the Buckeyes. Hoke called the rivalry “personal” and has placed reminders of the need to beat Ohio State throughout the program. All that emphasis will go for naught if Michigan does not win tomorrow. Ploys like Schembechler’s “Those who stay will be champions” sign and having Michigan’s scout team wear the #50 would not be held in Michigan lore had the Wolverines lost the 1969 game. Schembechler’s words and approach to The Game would have been hallow had the Wolverines lost. The same goes for Jim Tressel’s approach when he took command of the Buckeyes. Tressel’s half-time speech and his countdown clock would have been included in every Michigan blooper video had the Buckeyes lost the 2001 game. In fact, at the time the game was played, Tressel was on thin ice in the minds of many Buckeye fans. Tressel’s win united a fanbase that was previously divided and set the stage for the decade of dominance that followed.
Michigan sits in a similar position right now to the one it sat in before the 1969 contest, and the position where Ohio State sat prior to the 2001 contest. Michigan sits on the edge of one those rare moments when it has the opportunity to change the course of the rivalry in a significant way. A win will launch Michigan up the national rankings and into the BCS, change the narrative of the rivalry, break a 7 game losing streak to the Buckeyes, and turn Brady Hoke into a hero as the latest “Buckeye Slayer” to walk the Michigan sidelines. For too long the Wolverines have been subject to an evil scarlet and grey dictator. The time for liberation has come. Michigan has the opportunity tomorrow to shed the Scarlet Curtain and forge a new chapter in the rivalry’s history.
GO BLUE! BEAT OHIO!
*Ohio State has vacated its 2010 season thanks to its egregious cheating, so in the official books Ohio State is 8-1 and has a 6 game winning streak over Michigan.
Credit goes to EFWolverine who I shamelessly stole the phrase “Scarlet Curtain” from.