Okay, sports fans. How many times has a friend or relative said to you: “What’s the big deal? It’s only a game.” And how many times have you had trouble restraining from physical violence?
For those not involved in them, sports rivalries often seem silly and overblown. But for diehard fans they are emotionally packed events that define the season and wreck havoc with one’s mental balance. To this I can personally attest. In fact it is a part of the fabric of sports.
A few weeks ago saw a replay of this yearly emotional roller-coaster ride. One of the greatest traditions in all of sports played itself out right here in Columbus, Ohio, when the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State University Buckeyes football teams played their final regular-season game.
But this is not just a football game it is one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. For those unfamiliar with the import of these games, a recently released book might shed some light on the epic nature of this classic gridiron clash and the rivalries it personifies. The 100-Yard War: Inside the 100-Year-Old Michigan-Ohio State Football Rivalry by Greg Emmanuel is a rough-and-tumble pop-culture look at the history of this storied game.
The rivalry between Ohio and Michigan goes back a long way; in fact, to before they were even states. A land dispute arising out of some bad survey work led to angry rhetoric, border skirmishes, and heavy lobbying. In 1835 the dispute was decided in Ohio’s favor by President Andrew Jackson but the bad blood continued.
In 1897, this inter-state rivalry was transferred to the fledgling game of football and the sport has never been the same. The 100-Yard War traces the ensuing rivalry’s history from its humble beginnings in that first October game (in 1935 the game was changed to the final conference game which falls in November), as it grew and developed during the early twentieth century, through the classic years of the late 60s and into the 70s, and concluding with the centennial meeting last year in Ann Arbor. It traces the blowouts, the stalemates, the epic victories, and the shattering upsets.
The game is not just a slice of sports history, but has become wrapped-up in the traditions and cultures of the two schools and their surrounding communities. The Game has taken on a life of its own. Over a 100,000 people watch the game in person each November in the massive stadiums of the respective schools. Last year’s centennial game, when over 112,000 people packed into the stadium in Ann Arbor known as The Big House, was the largest crowd ever to attend a NCAA football game. The tailgating involved is up-and-beyond the normal festivities of college football with converted school buses, RVs, and thousands on foot congregating around the stadiums to eat, drink, and socialize before, during, and after the game. Those unable to attend plan their fall schedule around the game and throw Super Bowl-like parties to watch the nationally televised game. Both schools dedicate the entire week prior to the game to special events and activities designed to fire up the team and the student body for this one game. The energy and tension in the college towns prior to the game is palpable.
The quality of these games is nearly unrivaled. Amazingly, in the last 50 games, the record is deadlocked at 24-24-2. Since 1935, The Game has decided the Big Ten Championship outright (OSU or UM) 19 times while on 21 other occasions one of the two teams was playing for at least a share of the Big Ten Championship. In other words, two out of every three games have seen the conference championship on the line. From 1969-1978, the Big Ten title came down to these 2 teams 9 times. In the last decade, someone has spoiled the other team’s championship hopes four times. And, if that isn’t enough, the National Championship is often on the line as well. In the 1990s, Buckeye fans watched in horror as some highly ranked Ohio State teams regularly lost The Game and a chance at the National Title. Michigan had to hold off a tough Ohio State team 20-14 before they could win their National Championship in 1997. And it wasn’t until 2002 that the Buckeyes finally broke free and beat Michigan on their way to a National Championship. Last year they had hopes of defending that title only to see it slip away in Ann Arbor. Almost every year this game figures heavily in the Big Ten Championship and has an impact on the national rankings. And this year was no different. Michigan was ranked number seven in the polls and was playing for a chance to go the Rose Bowl and perhaps figure into the national title hunt.
All of this history, tradition, and competition has created a rivalry that practically defines the term. The coaches and players who built this rivalry built their respective programs into what they are today. This is a common theme that runs through this story: Coaches and players are often judged by the results of this game. Each university’s legends–people like Fielding Yost, Fritz Crisler, and Bo Schembechler at Michigan and Chip Harley, Paul Brown, and Woody Hayes at Ohio State–all were judged on what they did in The Game. The legendary battles between Hayes and his one-time assistant, Schembechler, built the game into what it is today. Woody is as much a symbol of Ohio State football as Brutus the Buckeye. Yost, Crisler, and Schembechler not only built the rivalry but they built much of Michigan athletics. The campus buildings named in their honor confirm their place in history.
I can attest that this game becomes a part of your blood. I grew up in Michigan cheering for the Maize and Blue. I wanted to beat Ohio State before I could even play football. In a twist of fate I ended up moving to Columbus, Ohio–the home of Ohio State and ground zero for Buckeye fandom–but I haven’t given up cheering on my Wolverines; if anything, it has intensified.
But this year, in the harsh tradition of the rivalry, the team with the most to lose lost. A Buckeye team who had already lost four games in the Big Ten overcame a 14-7 deficit and went on to rout Michigan 37-21. The Buckeye faithful were overjoyed and even managed not to riot. Michigan fans were despondent despite a 9-2 season–with a true freshman at quarterback–and a trip to the Rose Bowl (thanks to an Iowa upset over Wisconsin). It is testament to the power of this rivalry that a loss seems to negate previous success and victory takes the sting off a mediocre season.
For those unfamiliar with the history and culture of this great rivalry, The 100-Yard War is a decent introduction. It is, however, a pop-culture history and there is a significant amount of adult language included. There are no real insights or scoop involved and most diehard fans will be familiar with the history and anecdotes related. But they will also probably enjoy revisiting the great games of the past and remembering the legends that played in them. Newcomers to the rivalry will come away with a better appreciation of the intense feelings this game generates and the amazing history that has led to this point. And, to be honest, it is hard to capture the real essence of this game. For that you need to watch it, follow it, and live it; to feel the pain and ride the elation. That is what makes it one of the greatest traditions in the annals of sports.
So next time you are watching sports with a serious fan, remember it isn’t “just a game.”