The Michigan and Ohio State Football Rivalry Tradition

This rivalry, in my opinion, is the greatest in all of college football. Actually, it could perhaps be the greatest in all of college sports, depending on who you’re talking to. The reason this rivalry has always remained competitive each year is the consistent strength of the programs year after year. They are ranked among the top schools in the country each season and often times the conference title, as well as the hopes for a national championship, are at stake each time they take the field. It’s a special rivalry to watch, even for a North Carolinian like myself.

Though ESPN just recently named the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry as the second best rivalry in football, the seeds to this rivalry were planted long ago. In fact, the rivalry has been played each season since 1935 and each year the hype gets bigger and bigger. I’ll take you even further back with a story I heard from my step-father that just happens to be a Michigan native. He claims the tension between the two states really happened in the mid 1830’s when there were disputes and battles over the border. This was called the “Toledo War.” Whether or not this spawned the intense rivalry we’ll never know, but it certainly adds to the mystery and romance of the Michigan-Ohio State football tradition.

The first game between Ohio State and Michigan was played in 1897 and was a victory for the Wolverines, who didn’t allow a single point from a weak Ohio State team. Actually, Michigan held the advantage for the first twenty years, winning the majority of games.

Ohio State joined the Big Ten Conference in 1912, while Michigan came six years later in 1918. The first ever win for the Ohio State program came in 1919, finally breaking the losing streak and building some much needed confidence for the team. However, Michigan continued to impose its will on much of the early to mid 1900’s, including a 30-12 record against Ohio State by 1950. Up until this point it was clear that the rivalry was one-sided.

In 1950, perhaps the most memorable game in the rivalry was played in Ohio. However, Mother Nature had a different plan for the series. Or was it fate? Often referred to as “The Snow Bowl,” the eighth ranked Ohio State team was set to host, but a blizzard tore through Ohio and forced the Ohio State program to make a decision. They could either cancel the game, which would allow actually allow them to clinch the conference title, or play the game. Ohio State wanted to win the fair way. They chose to play the game. Though I wasn’t born at this time, I’ve heard stories from those who actually went to the game and they tell me about the snow and wind that invaded the game that day. Clearly, strategy played a big role in this game and there were over 40 punts throughout the game. Each team was hoping the other would fumble or turn the ball over and capitalize on the mistake. It worked for Michigan, and after a few blocked punts and a touchdown they clinched the victory and made their way to the Rose Bowl. Wes Fesler, the coach at the time, fell under criticism from the public and administration and he resigned shortly after. Woody Hayes took over coaching duties and the momentum started to immediately swing toward Ohio State.

In fact, within seventeen years under the Woody Hayes administration, Ohio State won 12 out of 18 games. In the 1968 game, Ohio State dominated with a 50-14 performance, clinching the conference title and a birth to the national championship. They were clearly catching up in the series. In 1969, Bo Schembechler took over the coaching duties for Michigan. Schembechler was actually an assistant to Woody Hayes at Ohio State, but decided to switch sides and add yet another puzzle piece to the rivalry. In their first contest, Michigan actually won the game and started what is often referred to as “The Ten Year War.” Many sports writers claim this was the best years for each program.

Later in the rivalry around the late 80’s, Michigan began to dominate again well into the mid 90’s. The 1990’s produced great talent from both schools, including former Tennessee Titan receiver Eddie George and current Cowboy’s wide receiver Terry Glenn. In 2001, Jim Tressel took over coaching duties for Ohio State after much success with Division I-AA school Youngstown State. It was there that Tressel compiled an impressive resume of four national titles.

Tressel immediately found success and won his first game against Michigan in a narrow margin of 26-20. In 2002, he beat Michigan again in consecutive years and went on to face Miami in the national championship. Ohio State won the game and were again crowned national champions. Michigan immediately responded in 2003, winning the 100th game between the rival teams in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a Michigan-Ohio State game. The next two years were dominated by Ohio State.

If there was ever evidence that the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is indeed a special one then it came in 2006. The game was set for November 18, 2006 and both teams were coming in with a record of 11-0. The night before the much anticipated game the story took another twisting turn. Former longtime coach, Bo Schembechler passed away, adding even more significance to the meaning of the game. He was honored with a tribute at Ohio Stadium, and the stage was set. The game was tight throughout, but when the dust cleared the Ohio State Buckeyes remained the victor with a score of 42-39. Many critics hoped for a rematch in the national championship, but Florida was chosen as the opponent over Michigan, and Florida actually went on to win the game.

This rivalry has been special for nearly 100 years and will continue to do so in the future.

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