Ohio State vs. Michigan in sign-stealing bowl

Published 6:46 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The Associated Press

The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry has always been a bubbling cauldron of antagonism, bitterness and dislike — maybe even hate.

The Game’s iconic and enduring moments include but certainly are not limited to Ohio State pulling down Michigan’s beloved “Go Blue” banner in 1973; a shoving match between David Boston and Charles Woodson in 1997; and Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes going for two at the end of blowout in 1968 because he couldn’t go for three. (To be fair, it’s unclear Hayes actually said that.)

Email newsletter signup

This year, with scandal swirling around the third-ranked Wolverines and the second-ranked Buckeyes being blamed by many Michigan fans for their team’s predicament, all the negative feelings seem to be amplified heading into Saturday’s showdown in Ann Arbor.

The mutual respect that has been a pillar of what is arguably college football’s greatest rivalry appears to be lacking these days — even among the coaches.

“People in Michigan think Ohio State is behind it, but what facts do they have? They don’t. On the other side, Ohio State is trying to diminish what Michigan has done the last two years by saying Michigan cheated,” Woodson told AP. “There are just a lot of insults being hurled back and forth as there always have been — and sometimes blows.”

To suggest any Michigan-Ohio State game is the biggest or most consequential in the history of the 118-game rivalry is a stretch.

“It’s not a big week. It’s not a big month. It’s not a big game. It’s a way of life,” was how former Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer explained Ohio State-Michigan on the Big Ten Network this week.

The Game almost always settles the Big Ten, often has national championship implications and because of the storied histories of its competitors is routinely dripping with storylines.

In 2006, No. 1 Ohio State played No. 2 Michigan in Ohio Stadium for a spot in the BCS title game. The day before the game, Bo Schembechler, the Hall of Fame coach who embodied Michigan football, died at 77. Schembechler’s passing turned a classic game into a tribute to one of the rivalry’s forefathers.

Bruce Madej was Michigan’s sports information director for 34 years before retiring in 2014. Madej remembers rocks being thrown at Michigan buses and hotels in Columbus where the Wolverines would stay that suddenly had no running water the night before the game.

He also remembered the admiration Schembechler and Hayes had for one another and how after Earle Bruce was fired by Ohio State in 1987 the week before the Michigan game the ex-Buckeyes coach spent enough time around the Michigan football offices that Madej offered him a role as an honorary SID.

“The word that I think should be banned from sports is the word hate,” Madej said “Do I want to see Michigan beat Ohio State? Yes, I do. Do I hate Ohio State? No.”

Heading into the the 119th meeting, college football’s version of Spygate has only served to ramp up the animosity.

“It’s allowed people to make accusations on either side that are probably unfair and unfounded,” said former Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry, who now works as an analyst for NBC Sports.

The NCAA is investigating an in-person scouting and sign-stealing operation a llegedly run by a low-level Michigan staffer who has since resigned. The Big Ten, in position to act more quickly than the NCAA, determined Michigan had violated the conference’s sportsmanship policy and punished the program by banning head coach Jim Harbaugh from the stadium for three games — including this one.

“And a lot of people on both sides, Michigan fans included, have very strong opinions on things that, frankly, they really don’t understand,” said former Michigan tight end Jake Butt, who works for the Big Ten Network.

Michigan was poised to take the Big Ten to court and fight the Harbaugh suspension, but backed off last week. The next day, the school abruptly fired linebackers coach Chris Partridge.

The final game of Harbaugh’s suspension will be served Saturday, keeping the former Michigan quarterback, who finally flipped the rivalry after a decade and a half of dominance by the Buckeyes, off the sideline as his team tries to make it three straight against Ohio State.

Who exactly tipped off the NCAA to a scheme apparently orchestrated by former recruiting analyst Connor Stalions is unclear.

That’s led to reckless speculation, unfounded rumors and fingers being pointed toward Columbus. It is downright nasty online.

“There is definitely a level of vitriol this year and there is so much at stake,” said Gary Marcinick, a former Ohio State football player in the mid-1980s and one of the founders of the Cohesion Foundation that supports Buckeyes athletes.

Woody and Bo were kindred spirits as they clashed during the 1970s in what became known as the 10-year War between Ohio State and Michigan.

“We’ve fought and quarreled for years but we’re great friends,” Hayes told the Ohio State student paper in 1986.

Harbaugh and Ohio State coach Ryan Day show no signs of a similar connection.

“Sometimes people that are standing on third base think they hit a triple,” Harbaugh said after Michigan broke an eight-game losing streak to Ohio State in 2021, a shot at the coach who inherited a ready-made national championship contender from Meyer.

Asked about his level of respect from Day and his staff this week, Harbaugh said it is irrelevant to the game.

Day took a similar approach to a similar question.

“I think with everything going on and the things that are out there, we’ve just kind of stayed away from all the distractions we have and just focused on our team, and I think our guys have done a good job of it,” Day said.

Perry and Butt, both Ohioans, have become close friends post college and hope they can be an example of how rivals can also be civil. They have been promoting a charity drive called The Game Gives Back for the Boys and Girls Club in Ohio and Michigan and challenging each school’s supporters to compete with donations.

John Kolesar has been deeply ingrained in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry his whole life. His father played for Michigan in the 1950s. He played for Michigan in the mid-80s. And now his son, Caden, is on the team.

He shrugged off the current testy state of the rivalry as mostly angry people on social media and recalled another quote attributed to Hayes that he may or may not have said.

“He says, ‘Men, at some point in your life you’re going to need a helping hand. And when you do I want you to call your teammates,’” Kolesar said. “’And if they don’t pick up, call the Michigan player you lined up against, he will pick up.’”

Maybe not quite as quickly these days.