What defines a rivalry? No matter the sport or the teams, the rivalry itself is something cherished and enjoyed by the fans and players alike. For fans of Michigan and Ohio State, it gets no bigger than the final conference game of the season.
Is it bigger because of history? Absolutely. many times have these two teams spoiled each other’s Big Ten and/or national championship dreams?
Is it bigger because of the coaches? No question. Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer are relative newcomers to the tradition. But everyone in Ann Arbor and Columbus remember Bo and Woody stalking the sidelines. While the outward intensity has simmered years after the Ten Year War, the importance of this game is not lost on Hoke and Meyer.
Is it bigger because of the fans? While Michigan fans get knocked for being a “polite” audience, the Big House is never silent for “the Ohio game.” And the fans in Columbus also live and breathe this rivalry more than any other game in the season. Jim Tressel knew that and, unlike his predecessor, he stressed the importance of the game to his fans. More than 100,000 people will pack the Horse Shoe this weekend and millions more will be watching on televisions all across the nation. Ask any one of those diehard fans about this game and many will tell you it’s the biggest game all season long; bigger than a bowl game, even.
Is it bigger because of the players? Sure. Whether it’s Eddie George of Ohio State or Desmond Howard of Michigan, or the countless other big-name players to play in this rivalry, it’s the players who suit up and run out of the tunnel who make this rivalry special.
While those elements truly build and perpetuate the rivalry, I point to the days leading up to and following the Michigan-Ohio State game on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006 as the most emblematic of the intensity and class of the rivalry. With both teams undefeated and ranked 1 and 2 the polls, the rivalry game took on a whole knew depth and importance. It was arguably the biggest and most important chapter ever in the rivalry. The fans knew it. The players knew it. The media knew it. The coaches knew it. Whomever won would go on to play for a national championship. But the game would be played with heavy hearts.
Friday, Nov. 17, 2006
On the eve of the game, While preparing to tape his weekly television show, former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler collapsed and died at the age of 77. The news rippled across national media and became the news of the day.
And here’s why this rivalry is special.
Not only were Michigan fans and alumni hurting from Bo’s death, but so was the Ohio State community. The game was played in Columbus before a largely home crowd. Ohio State honored Bo’s legacy with a pre-game video and a moment of silence before kickoff. Three days later, former Ohio State head coaches Earle Bruce and John Cooper joined current head coach Jim Tressel and his staff in Ann Arbor for a memorial ceremony at Michigan Stadium. Could you imagine Tennessee fans holding a moment of silence for Steve Spurrier? That’s why this rivalry is so special. The intensity and desire to win is only outmatched by the mutual respect and admiration for one another.
But that doesn’t mean fans don’t want to see their team dominate this Saturday. Yes, there’s respect, but there’s also a fair amount of competitiveness, pride and mutual rage. At the end of the day, it’s about winning. The next 93 hours can’t go fast enough.