2001 was one of the most tumultuous years in American history. In January, a bitterly divided country saw the inauguration of George W. Bush, who entered the Presidency after the first election to be decided by the US Supreme Court. In September, the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed America forever, and set us on a path to war that we still walk down this day.
In the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, things had reached critical mass for the Buckeyes. Coach John Cooper had left town after a 13 year coaching career that included some notable achievements, but one ignominious mark that will never go away: 2-10-1. That was his record against Michigan, and every year it seemed to get worse. In at least half those games OSU entered with the better teams on paper, and each time it seemed they ended up on the short end. Every year, at some point the cameras would pan to Coop on the sidelines, and his face would be tense, chewing his fingernails until he drew blood, unsure of what to do as things fell apart around him.
In January, Ohio State welcomed little known Jim Tressel, from 1-AA Youngstown State, as the new head coach.
Jim what? From where? Ohferchrissakes...yet Tressel struck the right chord on day one. At halftime of an OSU-Michigan basketball game, on the day he was introduced, he made his now famous guarantee:
Yeah, he gets it. THIS GUY GETS IT, whatever his name is. It isn't gonna matter, because Michigan was really good, and OSU was just okay, but hey, at least this guy will at least understand how we feel about losing to those guys. I mean, Coop actually called Michigan 'just another game'.
We soon remembered who Jim Tressel was, and Buckeye fans will never forget. After a fairly forgettable first season, OSU was just 7-4 entering The Game, and with a win Michigan would go to the Rose Bowl. It was a big game for both teams, but for different reasons. For Michigan, it was for the Rose Bowl. For Ohio State, it was for respect, and only their third win in 14 years.
I had missed most of the season, so this game, for me, was important for different reasons. But it was still important, and everyone in Buckeye Nation, wherever they were watching, wanted to see The New Guy live up to his promise.
I remember going in to the contest thinking that OSU didn't have much of a shot. Steve Belisari, the starting QB, had gotten a DUI the week before, so Tressel decided to start backup Craig Krenzel and bench Stevie Wonder. Nice statement, coach, but now the Buckeyes had virtually no shot. Backup QB, on the road, against the #11 team in the country fighting for a spot in the Rose Bowl. But Jonathan Wells ran wild in the first half, and OSU hung on for dear life in the second half, and managed to win.
Jim Tressel had righted the ship, and set Ohio State on a decade of almost unprecedented success.
Go Bucks. Beat That Team Up North.