On October 17, 1897, Michigan wiped the floor with Ohio State, 34-0. Five years later, the Wolverines shellacked the Buckeyes by a score that looks more at home in 2014 than in1902: 86-0. Reopening old wounds is never fun, is it? But here we are, more than a century later, and things look awfully different than they did in those days.
You probably already know the history, or will at least have your memory refreshed by some of the excellent content our writers are putting out this week. I won't dive too deep into it -- one could write for days about Woody and Bo and the Ten-Year War, or about Lloyd and John, or any number of seminal moments in the chronology of this great rivalry. What I will jump into here is the idea that a rivalry is only as good as its weakest participant, and in the last fifteen years or so, that weak link has been found far north of Columbus.
I miss Michigan having a good football team with a strong identity and competent leadership. I do. Call me a blasphemer, call me a lousy fan, but it's the honest truth. I have enjoyed my fair share of Schadenfreude-driven laughs at Brady Hoke's expense in the last few years, as we all have. But as the years roll on, I find myself more and more ready to be done with Hoke's spittle-choked buffoonery and ham-fisted grandstanding. Why? Shouldn't I be happy that my beloved Buckeyes have become superior to the Wolverines in every measurable way? Shouldn't it make me ecstatic that Michigan can't get out of its own way, and that we can't stop beating them? Maybe. But it doesn't, and here's why: There's a lot at stake.
What, exactly, is put at stake the longer Michigan wallows in mediocrity? For one, The Game's reputation as the best rivalry in football. Think about last year's edition of this matchup for a moment. An instant classic, right? 42-41, a result that came down to the final minute of the game in the aftermath of some incredible drives by both teams, and only ending in regulation because of Brady Hoke's (correct) call to stick it to his rivals, play the spoiler, and go for 2. The attempt failed, of course (perhaps he should have gone for 3?), and the Buckeyes kept their record unblemished for the second consecutive regular season. That is what you want from a rivalry game: a fight to the end, regardless of the narrative and public perception.
Except when it isn't. Think about what was on the line for Ohio State in that game. They had won their last 23 contests, and looked to be on pace to appear in the national championship game. They were the heavy favorites, boasting a deep and talented roster ready to come and take care of business in Ann Arbor. Compare that to Michigan's real stake in that game, which was precisely... nothing.
There's emotional and cultural capital that comes with triumphing over your rival, sure, but in the big picture that game meant pretty much nothing to a Wolverines squad whose season was already an abject disappointment. Lose that game, and all you do is meet expectations. Win that game, and you get an exciting end to an otherwise blah year. Not an awful lot on the line. Hold that game up to one played on the same day, the all-time classic Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn won by a kick-six, and guess which one people will talk about longer. Were I a betting man, I'd take the one with national title implications for both participants.
Give me 2006 over 2013 any day of the week. No. 1 vs. No. 2, a game with so much clout that people wanted to have it rematched for the national title. A game that came down to the narrowest of margins, a coaching chess match with a photo finish.
I think that's why I didn't get nearly as excited about the 2013 Marcus Hall moment as most people seemed to. It was hilarious, sure, and provided a great substitute for the letter "H" on Buckeye shirts for years to come. But didn't it also feel like kind of a waste? One of Ohio State's offensive players got baited into getting himself ejected from a game in which the last thing the Buckeyes could afford to do was stoop down. It was a moment befitting the Woody and Bo years, a fantastic display of the kind of fervor a rivalry that runs this deep should produce. It just didn't belong in 2013, against a team so clearly inferior, with so much to lose and so little to gain by doing it.
That's why I'd love Michigan to be great again. Because a moment like that would mean so much more with the appropriate context. At the moment, I hate Michigan about as much as I hate mosquitoes, or hate Peter Jackson for ruining the Hobbit movies. It's a dull, abstract kind of hatred. And that sucks. I want to hate Michigan like Liam Neeson hates kidnappers, like Bob Dylan hates making sense. I want to hate Michigan like I hate King Joffrey, like John Green hates happy endings. I want to feel something, dammit.
Obviously, I'd rather be an Ohio State fan than a Michigan fan in 2014 (or any other year, really). It probably sounds like the ultimate first world problem: Yes, we're winning, but it's too easy! Sorry. I'm the worst. But I think my years in Columbus are partly responsible for my increasing apathy towards the Wolverines.
My first OSU-UM game, in 2008, I sat in C-Deck in freezing temperatures and got mustard all over myself as the Buckeyes rolled, 42-7. As a sophomore, I watched Ohio State win by the less-memorable score of 21-10. My junior year, a contest for which I had driven 850 round-trip miles in 3 days so I could get home for Thanksgiving and back for the game, the Buckeyes partied to the tune of 37-7. The only loss to Michigan I experienced as a college student came in my final year at Ohio State, in the awful limbo between Tressel and Meyer, which coincided with Brady Hoke's only glimmer of real competence as the Wolverines' coach. I watched Denard Robinson walk off the field a victor from my couch, where I was nursing a concussion from that morning's family Turkey Bowl (bloggers are the real warriors, IMO).
Buckeye fans and Michigan fans alike deserve something more from this rivalry. I hope with every fiber of my being that Ohio State wins every edition of this contest from now until the sun goes supernova. But I also hope it once more becomes as meaningful as it once was, and a victory over Michigan becomes something to be proud of for more concrete reasons than what we have now.
End this madness. Fire Brady Hoke. Hire someone we can hate, with good reason. Just as important: Hire someone that Michigan fans will love, with good reason. Life is a lot more fun when your coach has the support of his players and the program's fans -- ask Shane Morris, if the doctors have cleared him yet.