Saturday marks the 99th consecutive year that the Buckeyes and Wolverines have squared off on the football field. But the series has not always thrived — for a five-year period a century ago the game wasn’t played.
Despite what you might assume, it wasn’t because of war — though there was, of course, war. It wasn’t because of global pandemics — though there, of course, was that too. And while player safety concerns were acute in the minds of administrators, that wasn’t the reason either. No. The ill that stopped the series from advancing was beyond the reach of injuries, microbes, or the Guns of August. It was the result of conference realignment.
There was no Big Ten at the turn of the 20th century — its forerunner was the Western Conference. And Ohio State and Michigan were in different leagues. This was a literal truth — OSU was an independent and Michigan was a member of the Western Conference. The class and caliber of talent was also on a different level.
When the Buckeyes took the field against the Fielding Yost coached Wolverines in Columbus in 1901, OSU was dispatched 21-0. In a measure of Michigan’s dominance at the time, that blowout win was the closest game the Wolverines would play all season. Michigan’s “Point-a-Minute” team was a force that outscored opponents 550 to zero as they romped to an 11-0 record.
The Pop Warner coached Carlisle Indian Industrial School was among Michigan’s victims that season, downed 22-0. And poor Buffalo wouldn’t soon forget the 128-0 loss the men of Maize and Blue hung on them. From 1901-1904, Michigan would not lose under Yost — running up a 43-0-1 record.
With the sport of college football more popular than ever, and revenue coming in, Western Conference officials met to determine the future direction of the game. Walking away, they established several rules that all schools had to live by — from banning the training table, to stipulating coaches be members of the faculty. Yost was not faculty, and while the rules worked for conference powers, they did not for Michigan. Soon, the Wolverines were out of the conference. The move was national news, the April 14, 1907 New York Times headline read: “CONFERENCE OUSTS MICHIGAN; Severs Relations with University for Non-Observance of Rules.”
That news was also in many ways a very good development for Ohio State — and the formative years of the rivalry. As an independent, Michigan was banned from playing schools in the Western conference. That worked well for OSU — the Buckeyes were part of the Ohio Athletic Conference — and made for a ready opponent (if not always a competitive one). During Michigan’s run as an independent, they would square off with Ohio State every year from 1907 to 1912. Michigan would win all of those games, save for one draw — building their record to a dominating 12 wins, 0 losses and 2 ties all-time against the Buckeyes.
When Ohio State joined the Western Conference in 1913 — there was a ceasefire in the lopsided series with the Wolverines. With OSU a member of the conference, and Michigan still banned from playing teams in the Western Conference, for five years — from 1913-17 — there was no Ohio State-Michigan game. But the same forces of conference realignment that stopped the series, also jump-started it again. Michigan re-joined the Western Conference and the rivalry resumed in 1918. The addition of the Wolverines in the Western Conference gave the conference ten teams, and a new shorthand nickname — the “Big Ten.”
The Wolverines would soon find that much more than the conference name had changed. Ohio State’s cuddly bear cub of a football program that Michigan had kicked around had grown into an ill-tempered grizzly. Under the guidance of OSU coach John Wilce, eventual three-time All-American Chic Harley’s runs dazzled overflow crowds at Ohio Field. The Buckeyes would claim their first Western Conference championship in 1916, repeating the feat in 1917.
OSU was an emerging power, but there were bigger global forces at play. Harley and many key players at Ohio State, and around the country, set out to serve in World War I during the 1918 season. In 1919, after the war ended and troops came home, Ohio State and Michigan’s programs returned to full strength — and the Buckeyes would win the next three contests in the series. The wins in 1919, 1920, and 1921 gave the Buckeyes their first ever taste of victory against Michigan — and ended OSU’s 15-game winless streak against the Wolverines in the all-time series.
And these Buckeyes were winning against good Michigan teams. The 1921 game, a 14-0 Buckeye win in Ann Arbor would be Michigan’s only loss that season. The Maize and Blue returned the favor the next season in 1922, blanking the Buckeyes 19-0 at the dedication game of Ohio Stadium.
Today, that five-year ceasefire stands as a largely forgotten chapter in a rivalry that is now the eighth longest continuous series in FBS. It was clear that the Western Conference that Michigan left was much different than the one that it rejoined a decade later. Yost’s “Champions of the West” found they had a new rival. A rivalry that was only just getting started.