11 December 2011
Troy smith under center, fakes the hand off to Antonio Pittman and throws deep to Ted Ginn, Jr. for a touchdown. Chad Henne drops back, steps up into the pocket, and he's brought down by Lawrence Wilson. Ohio State celebrating yet another victory over rival Michigan in what was known as The Game of the Century.
#1 Ohio State and #2 Michigan - two storied powerhouses and long time enemies squared off in Ohio Stadium with not just bragging rights and a Big 10 title on the line, but a berth in the BCS title match. This is how I best remember this great rivalry. I may only be 20 years old, but I still remember those days fondly, when 7/11 didn’t mean just a place to buy cheap large sodas in big plastic cups, but Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez. When The Vest was still clean and at the top of his game. When Troy Smith led his team to victory after victory and securing the school’s first Heisman Trophy since the great Eddie George won it last in 1995. When the rivalry, The Game, was at its finest since the 10-Year-War between Woody and Bo. I remember watching those games on those cold and dreary November Saturdays in Ohio. How I cringed when Bobby Carpenter left the game, and how a freshman linebacker whose name I had trouble pronouncing stepped into his place. Never in a million years did I think I was witnessing the birth of a Buckeye legend in James Laurinaitis, but when it comes to Ohio State football, and especially The Game, anything is possible.
That game when the rivalry was at its pinnacle was unfortunately the beginning of a downward slope that began when That State up North lost to that regional school in North Carolina - Appalachian State. I couldn’t believe that a school like Michigan could succumb to a school from a lower division. It just didn’t seem possible. Henne, Hart and Long, players that I hated but respected at the same time, all future NFL players, being beaten by guys who would in all likelihood never even sniff a NFL training camp? It just didn’t seem right at all. But in college football, anything goes. And as I watched my beloved Buckeyes take it again to TSUN, and seeing Lloyd Carr retire, I knew that things were taking a turn for the worse in the rivalry, something had changed, but what?
As all members of Buckeye Nation, I never wanted to lose to Michigan. Ever. But what is a rivalry without equality? Without a chance for both teams to have success against the other, what point is there? As much as I wanted Ohio State v. Michigan to be akin to Globetrotters v. Generals, I knew that just couldn’t be so. The final straw came loose when Michigan, in their desperation for change and a win against Ohio State, hired a man who brought with him not only an offense that was an insult to the Big Ten, but Michigan itself. He also brought the death of the greatest rivalry in college football. Rich Rodriguez, who if not for an unfortunate loss to Pitt, would’ve challenged our Buckeyes in the Championship game in place of eventual champion Florida (a fact that still makes me cringe to this day, not to mention continuing to hate Tim Tebow) now was at the helm of one of the great bluebloods in college football. Michigan fans tried to embrace him - wanted to believe he could bring the same success with him to Ann Arbor that he had in Morgantown - but we all knew that was not to be. Rich Rod’s days at UM were numbered the day he stepped on campus.
The vast majority of Ohio State fans will tell you that they saw Rodriguez’s hiring as a blessing - easy fodder for our Buckeyes. Jim Tressel would have no problem picking apart this wanna be “Michigan Man”, and that the Buckeyes would have guaranteed success as long as he was commanding the Maize and Blue. If you would have asked me, however, you would have had a mixed answer. Was I happy at the prospect of Ohio State continuing its streak over TSUN? Yes. Was I happy about Michigan making itself a vulnerable doormat? Yes. Was I happy with the state of the rivalry? Hell no. Michigan made a mistake of epic proportions by hiring a man who thought of the rivalry as just, “another game." Echoes of John Cooper swam through my head, and even though I was still a young kid when Coop was coaching the Scarlet and Grey, I knew about his record against TSUN. I knew of his view on The Game, and how he had changed the culture in Columbus. From Woody’s sacred philosophy of three yards and a cloud of dust, to air it out till the scoreboard breaks, things had changed mightily with his hiring.
It’s not that I’m not grateful for what Coach Cooper did for Ohio State, as his record overall was nothing to scoff about, and it did produce legends like Terry Glenn, Eddie George, David Boston, and Joey Galloway among many others. But His 2-10-1 record against our most hated rival was the reason for his ultimate undoing, and it would come to pass that the same should befall Rich Rod. In three painful years at Michigan, Rodriguez never won more than three Big Ten games and was unable to beat their most hated rivals Ohio State, or Michigan State (who had been coined by former Michigan running back Mike Hart as “Little Brothers” to the Maize and Blue). Rodriguez’s impact was not only felt in games, but outside as well. From NCAA violations to transferring players, such as Justin Boren, who returned home to Columbus to play for the Buckeyes after stating the UM program had, "lost its family values”, Michigan found itself being dug deeper and deeper into a hole of iniquity that it may not have been able to dig itself out of for years to come. And so it came to pass that after three seasons TSUN had finally come to their senses, firing Rich Rodriguez and relieving themselves of the coach that promised much, but achieved little, in his brief stay at Ann Arbor.
Insert Jim Harbaugh. Without a doubt the hottest coach on the market at the time, a former Michigan quarterback (and Toledo native) who was commanding the Stanford Cardinal and leading them to new heights under the superior play of quarterback Andrew Luck. He had recently won the Orange Bowl in blowout fashion over Virginia Tech. The Go Blue faithful could not have asked for a better opportunity than this - to nab a coach that truly knew the importance of The Game, who had played in it, won it, and was at the top of his game. I’ll admit I was nervous when his name was mentioned as a possible candidate, but I had hoped he would accept. If there was anybody who could reignite the rivalry it would’ve been Jim Harbaugh. At least that was what people wanted to believe. Harbaugh denied his Alma Mater to join brother John in the NFL, taking the reins of the San Francisco 49ers. Michigan fans were shocked. How could he not take the job? Who was left to look too? What was Michigan to do now? Other than reports of a little known WAC coach promising the Athletic Dept. at his school that if offered the job at UM, he would take it, who was there to take the job? All seemed lost for Michigan, but not entirely.
Michigan, who was desperate for a “Michigan Man,” hired San Diego State coach and former Graduate Assistant Brady Hoke as the new coach.
Hoke, a native of Dayton, OH, had stated his love for that state up north began when trying to be different from his friends, who all rooted for the Buckeyes. He had paid his dues coaching at Ball State, where they achieved near perfection in 2008 by going 12-1, and at San Diego State, where he had built a powerful conference contender. Now he was at the helm of his dream job, Michigan, where he had been a graduate assistant, rooted for always, even refused to wear red for his continued hatred of Ohio State. In his press conference, he made his position on newly dubbed “Ohio” very loud and clear. When I watched this pudgy man talk at the podium, I couldn’t help but chuckle. In my opinion, the worst Michigan fan is the one from Ohio, and he was no exception. On the contrary, his hatred for his native state's greatest school made me think of him as a sleazy suck up who spouted off whatever he knew Michigan fans needed to hear, and really didn’t know what he was getting himself into. I knew, however, that deep down this was the guy Michigan needed, not just for the school and the program, but the rivalry itself. He would be the spark plug that The Game needed so desperately. He would become the great rival to The Vest, a worthy opponent if there ever was one. That was, until turmoil struck Buckeye Nation.
When I heard of these allegations of selling memorabilia for tattoos, and lying to the NCAA, I didn’t know what to think. Is this really happening? Why wasn’t something done earlier to stop this? Say it ain’t so, Jim? My heart was broken - Pryor, Posey, Adams, Thomas, and Herron. The Tat Five. After an incredible seventh straight victory over the Wolverines, which I was able to witness in the flesh, my first ever Ohio State game, my first time ever in The Shoe, everything was now up in flames. Dan Herron, who was undoubtedly my favorite Buckeye, having grown up in Warren, Ohio, twenty minutes from my small town of Newton Falls (a region teeming with Buckeye greats like Paul Warfield, Randy Gradishar, who my father recalled once as also being a pretty good basketball player, Heisman winner Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., and many more) the player affectionately known as “Boom” and who was always greeted with a chorus of BOOOOOOOOOOOM by the crowd after a play on his part, had fallen into disgrace. I watched as countless scenarios and story lines played out like a cheesy soap opera. ESPN continuing their bias against the school and eventually sued. Former Buckeyes, like shunned wide receiver Ray Small, speaking out and making matters worse, not to mention the link with the tattoo parlor, illegal drugs and an FBI investigation. A lawyer, trying to help, and a coach, whose motives may never truly be known, failing to act. It made my skin crawl, and my heart sink lower than I ever thought possible. When would the chaos end? When would the bleeding stop?
I continued to watch as Ohio State finally overcame the SEC blues, beating Arkansas in stunning fashion as all of the Tat Five played huge roles in a game that would soon be tossed aside with the rest of the 2011 season, as all the players involved were suspended, and Terrelle Pryor, the prized recruit out of High School only years before, left for greener pastures for the betterment of the school. I watched as prized recruit Kyle Kalis, who was before a firm Buckeye commitment, betrayed Buckeye Nation and fled into the arms of Michigan’s new coach Brady Hoke. I watched as Jim Tressel resigned on Memorial Day, and assistant Head Coach and former player Luke Fickell was elevated to take The Vest's seat as the head of Ohio State. I continued to watch as Ohio State dealt with more player suspensions, and a horrid 6-5 season that saw an anemic offense, a young and brittle defense, and an exposed coaching staff eek their way along to the final game of the regular season, the only game that mattered now, the saving grace of the season - The Game.
Coach Hoke had done what many believed wasn’t possible for someone that, before last season, was an unknown coach at a little known school. He had brought the once-proud program back to their feet with alarming speed. Sitting at 9-2 with one of their blemishes coming to their in-state rivals they were poised to end the seven year streak on their own home turf. Hoke had brought back the swagger and ghosts of years past. The days of Schembechler, Moeller and Carr reborn and remade through him, he was now ready to take on the Scarlet and Gray and deliver the final blow to the still reeling Buckeyes. Coach Fickell, who had done a respectable job of keeping things in order, was now fighting not only the possibility of failure, but now for his job. He made Michigan Week as much about The Game as he could, even to the point of stating, “I know there’s a game at noon on Saturday, and I know my ass will be there”. The fiery passion, however, was not enough to fend off the constant questions of the coming of the new coach.
Years before this man had led Florida to two National Championships, the first of which over the Buckeyes. A native son of Ohio, he had retired and now worked for the very network that continued to loathe Ohio State. A man who had been a graduate assistant in Columbus years before, and would find himself sneaking out of the locker room to witness the bands pregame ceremonies with tears welling up in his eyes. The man who was not shy of his love and adoration for Ohio State, and its legendary coach Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes, and even on network television made sure the picture of his idol was in plain view for America to see. That man, who after the stunning edge-of-your-seat loss to Michigan, would find himself at the podium in front of a Scarlet and Gray back drop taking hold of the great program he had dreamed of one day leading. That man is Urban Frank Meyer.
I was able to watch The Game and what it looked like to again see a competitive game between the age long rivals. I saw freshman QB Braxton Miller truly show what he is capable of and bringing back memories, not of his predecessor Terrelle Pryor, but of a young Troy Smith. I watched in horror and shock as a last second interception cleared the way for a UM victory in the Big House. I sat in my chair, and tears welled up in my eyes, once again feeling my heart sink. I had only ever known Ohio State victory over Michigan. I was all but fourteen when the Wolverines last beat the Buckeyes. I sat and pondered about what went wrong and what should have been done differently. If Brax hadn’t overthrown those receivers! If the defense would’ve been able to contain Denard Robinson! If they would’ve just stopped Fitz Toussaint (a player that myself had the opportunity to play against in High School)! I was distraught, and depressed, and after a long drive to calm my nerves and gather my thoughts, I had realized that in my anger and sadness I had lost sight of the very thing I had longed for. I had just witnessed the rebirth of the rivalry. The Game was now relevant again.
And now as I watch Coach Meyer continue to build his staff and build the recruiting class, I see now that everything that happened in the past year truly happened for the betterment of not just both schools, not just the Big Ten Conference, but of all college football. And even though I’m mad as hell at any Ohioan who leaves the Buckeye State to suit up in the Maize and Blue, I know their program would be nothing without the state of Ohio, and our program would not be as great without Michigan.
I’ve lived by a quote from one of my favorite movies, Vanilla Sky: “The sweet will never be as sweet without the sour."
Now as I look upon the great rebirth of the greatest rivalry in college football, I can truly say without a shred of doubt, that quote rings true.
Editor's Note: E.B. Cooper is the first full-time addition to the BHC Staff. He's a lifelong, loyal member of Buckeye Nation, comes originally from northeast Ohio, and now proudly serves this great country of ours in the United States Navy. He can be found on Twitter at @The_Ohioan. We first want to extend a big Thank You to E.B. for his service, and also welcome him to the BHC team. We're glad to have you on our side!