A dozen years ago at the British Open, a kind innkeeper in Liverpool regaled his sports journalist guests with stories of the most intense sports rivalry he knew: Liverpool vs. Everton. A fierce love for one or the other of those Premier League teams divided families, caused arguments in school hallways and provoked fistfights in local pubs, he told us.
Then he smiled sympathetically.
“It’s the greatest thing in sports,” he said. “Too bad you don’t have anything like that in America.”
I smiled back. “Sure we do. It’s called Michigan-Ohio State.”
I’ve told that story before, and I’m sure I will tell it again, because to me, there is nothing in sports quite as sublime as the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.
I grew up in Ohio as a fervent Michigan fan. I can explain. Home was, and in many ways still is, Toledo, which is located 45 minutes from Ann Arbor and three hours from Columbus. It might as well be called Toledo, Michigan. I was born there. So were Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer — seven months apart in the same hospital.
My introduction to the greatest rivalry in sports came early. My father took my siblings and me to the 1969 UM-OSU game, the first Big Ten game we little kids ever attended. The defending national champion Buckeyes were undefeated under the legendary Woody Hayes but could not return to the Rose Bowl because of a no-repeat rule that was in place at the time in the Big Ten.
This drove Hayes nuts. “The best team in the country can’t go to the Rose Bowl,” he whined all week, pretty much assuming he was going to beat a 7-2 Michigan team with a rookie head coach named Bo Schembechler.
Woody’s pomposity turned off my father, so on the drive up to Ann Arbor, he started mimicking Hayes. “The best team in the country … blah, blah, blah, blah … what a bunch of bellyaching. Kids, we’re going to see who the best team in the country is today.”
We giggled and nodded in agreement. Even though we had no connection to either school, then or now, we were all in for the underdog. We had become Michigan fans.
And that’s how it began. We sat in packed Michigan Stadium that cold November day and witnessed the absolute best that sports can provide, throwing our hearts into a team and watching it reward us with the most wonderful result imaginable. In one of the greatest upsets in college football history, Michigan defeated Ohio State 24-12.
I never missed another UM-OSU game in Ann Arbor until I went away to Northwestern, but that early joy soon melted into heartache. Everyone knows all about Archie Griffin, the two-time Heisman Trophy winner and great ambassador for Ohio State who ended up starting in four consecutive Rose Bowls. That was great for him, but that means those were four consecutive Rose Bowls the Wolverines missed, even though they were consistently ranked in the top five in the nation. The four Michigan-Ohio State games from 1972-75 that preceded those Rose Bowls were decided by a total of 12 points. Ohio State won three, with the other ending in a 10-10 tie, which I remember as if it were yesterday.
I finally met Griffin last year. Even though I instantly realized how well we would get along, I knew I first had to break the news to him that he pretty much ruined the 1970s for me. He smiled and said he understood.
The rivalry ebbed and flowed for a while, with Michigan having its day and Ohio State answering with its own. Over the past 33 years, though, there has been serious domination by one school, then the other. From 1985-2000, the Buckeyes won only three times. Since then, the Wolverines have won only twice.
Which brings us to this Saturday’s game in Columbus. While Ohio State, ranked 10th in the nation, has stumbled its way through the past month, No. 4 Michigan has been brimming with confidence and is favored to win for the first time since 2011, a 40-34 victory in Ann Arbor.
But this game isn’t at home, and that could be a problem for Michigan. The Wolverines haven’t beaten the Buckeyes in Columbus since 2000, and Meyer has never lost to Michigan since becoming OSU’s head coach in 2012.
So Harbaugh and Michigan are due for a big win. Logic says it finally will happen. History says not so fast. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is certain in this game of all games. Trust me on that one.