Woody was the titan from the Buckeye state, and Bo a protégé working his way up the ranks, but now the two are synonymous with one of the most touted rivalries in all of football, and one that is as zealous as it is old. It started in the 1800s in a bitter dispute over the state boundary then known as the Toledo Strip. Both states claimed the territory for themselves, each sending troops to defend it. And while no blood was shed over the matter the clash remained a sore point in the history of the states that neither particularly cared to dissolve into goodwill. Ohio was conceded the portion of land, and Michigan was compensated with a much larger, but also much more remote piece of property now known as the Upper Peninsula.
But it would be sixty years before the two states would herald the two teams that would draw such accented hatred for one another. In 1897, the Wolverines and the Buckeyes faced off for the first time, and after World War I would continue to play each and every year until the saga was built on more than a half century of fervent clashes. No one could have guessed, however, that the matchup would achieve the status of an ongoing war, and that it would have its very own Benedict Arnold.
Bo Schembechler had worked under Woody Hayes for several years at Ohio State when his alma mater, Miami University of Ohio, asked him to be the head coach of its football program. Woody, not wanting to see him go, told him that he would assume the role under the helm after he had retired, a date which he thought would roll around in a handful of years. But Bo didn’t want to miss the opportunity, and packed his bags and headed south to what would become a stepping stone to his greatest achievement, and a role that would cement his status in football lore.
In 1969 an Ohio man was crowned the sovereign head of Michigan football to the sound of a thousand freshly stacked papers headlined, “Bo Who?”. A rather lackluster start for what would embed itself into Wolverine and Buckeye history alike in a few short months.
Coming into the 1969 game Michigan was still licking its wounds from the year before, as it is naturally hard to console any embarrassment caused to the ego without being given a shot to redeem the thing that precipitated it. In the case of Bo’s first team it was the memory of the outrageously unsympathetic two point conversion attempt made by Hayes when his Buckeyes were up 50-14 very late in the fourth quarter. It didn’t matter that the extra points weren’t converted, and it surely didn’t help that in the aftermath Woody is said to have replied upon being asked about his decision that he went for two “because I couldn’t go for three.” The attempt was one aimed at humiliation, and it served its purpose. Thus it was with the smell of fall lingering in the air, and a season of reminders of what had been a spit in the face to a down and out opponent, that the Wolverines had come to face their shot at revenge. The enemy however, had only gotten stronger.
Arriving at the gates of the Big House, the Buckeyes were an impressive force having won 22 straight games and averaging more than 500 yards of offense. If Michigan was to beat the Scarlet and Gray they were going to have to play as they had in the four games leading up to the meeting in which they scored an average of 45 points. Needless to say they were underdogs. Yet they were also the best kind, those with immense potential and an outlet to prove it.
There were over a hundred thousand fans packed into the stadium that day to see student face off against teacher, and they were treated to a show. Ohio State ran the kickoff back close to the mid-field line and continued to march down to just outside the ten before coming upon a fourth and two. They went for it, the refs marked it, and it was short. Michigan’s ball, but they did nothing.
The Buckeyes put up the first points of the game but missed the point after. Michigan matched the score and put the ball through the uprights. Not to be outdone, Ohio State scored again, and again cannot convert the two-point conversion. The Wolverines were not to be discouraged and put up a touchdown of their own, retaking the lead. On their next possession they ran the punt back to Ohio State’s doorstep and scored two plays later. Then, on their last possession before halftime, they attempted a field goal. It was good. 24-12 Michigan at the half.
And so it stays, the crowd counting down to the victory of the century and the dawning of what would become one of the greatest decades in football for the two programs. It was the era of the Big 2, and the Little 8. The series went back and forth until 1974 when Ohio State won twice in a row before losing in three straight matchups to the Wolverines. The pupil/mentor rivalry couldn’t last forever though and Woody’s angry foul at the 1978 season ending bowl game against Clemson, when he hit an opposing player on the chin after an interception looked to seal the win for the Tigers, also sealed his fate. He resigned as head coach shortly after, but Bo continued to lead the Wolverines for another eleven years until he retired.
They were passionate enemies to be sure, but they also held a tremendous amount of respect for each other. Not feeling well, Hayes insisted on delivering an introduction speech for Schembechler at a banquet in Dayton. He did, and passed away the next day. Bo, not to be outdone in regards to the man he so revered and the rivalry he loved so much, passed away the day before the first-ranked Buckeyes hosted the second-ranked Wolverines in 2006.
While Ohio State triumphed that night it was evident by the signs hoisted in the air by sworn enemies that both sides grieved the loss of a coach who had cared so deeply, and had been so instrumental in making the rivalry what it was. Because the truth of the matter is that as much as Michigan hates Ohio State, and as much as the feeling is reciprocated, both teams want to face the other at its best. They want the game not to mean something. They want it to mean everything.
What stands now is the opportunity for the rivalry to be reinstated after two decades of lopsided streaks, the Cooper era, and then the late Carr-Rodriguez debacle. Can Hoke and Meyer bring The Game to the height of its glory, and perhaps a few back-to-back installments to make things doubly interesting? Surly, this can’t be asking too much. Not for the fans who cheer year in and year out, who scold those who don’t believe that ten seconds is enough time to make a come back, and who hate the sound of the silence after a loss just as much as the ecstatic cries from the other side after a win. A true rivalry is about history, and all of those who tune in each game day to see whether today is the day for it.