Still no sign of an end to hostilities in the Ten-Year War

Wed, Nov 19, 2008, 00:00

DERBY DAYS/Ohio State v University of Michigan:A rivalry between colleges in neighbouring states that began over 100 years ago really took off with the arrival in the 1950s of coach Woody Hayes to lead the Buckeyes, writes Damian Cullen 

IN 2000, ESPN decided it was time to publish its list of the greatest North American rivalries. The usual suspects, well known both inside and outside the continent, enjoyed prominent positions. The legendary baseball match-up between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees came in at number seven, two places behind the ice hockey rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens.

Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier was ranked second, losing out only to the University of Michigan versus Ohio State.

Many in North America would have agreed with the winner.

Few outside would have.

The origins of sporting rivalry date from 1897, when the colleges first met on the gridiron field, though some argue the rivalry is a continuation of the 1835-36 Toledo War, when the State of Ohio and Michigan Territory were briefly engaged in a border dispute.

Either way, it wasn't until Woody Hayes came face to face with Bo Schembechler in 1969 and sparked the 10-Year War that the annual battle between the colleges became a national sporting obsession.

The universities have been members of the Big Ten Conference (the oldest Division One college athletic conference in the US, and one that, with the addition of Penn State in 1990, actually has 11 members) for more than 100 years, and from 1935 the annual meeting became the final game of the regular season.

A rivalry that was already heating nicely in the first half of the 20th century came to the boil in the 1950s after Wayne Woodrow "Woody" Hayes took over as Ohio State head coach.

A year before Hayes took over, in 1950, Ohio State played host to Michigan in one of the most bizarre American football matches. The game was played in such heavy snow and wind that it came to be known as the Snow Bowl, and witnessed the teams exchanging 45 punts (in the hope that the other team would fumble). Despite not gaining a single first down, the Michigan players finished frozen but victorious, 9-3.

Ohio State head coach Wes Fesler subsequently resigned and Hayes was handed the reigns. During the next 28 years, the Ohio native would manage his team to 13 Big Ten Championship crowns and five national titles.

Famously, during the 1971 visit to Michigan, a furious Hayes - who would be sacked seven years later for punching a Clemson linebacker - ran on to the field and confronted the referee, before then ripping up the yard markers.

By then, the derby stakes had risen considerably as Michigan had acquired the services of Glenn Edward "Bo" Schembechler Jr.

Under his watch, the Wolverines rose to the challenge set down by Hayes' Buckeyes, and Michigan won, or shared, 13 Big Ten titles during Schembechler's 21 seasons in charge.

In 1969, Hayes' Ohio State arrived at Michigan Stadium on the back of a 22-game winning streak. In the opening shots of the 10-Year War, Michigan won 24-12 and, while they grew immeasurably stronger in the following years, so too did Ohio State. Between 1970 and 1975, Michigan entered the final game without a loss each season. And yet, they beat their fierce rivals just once. Michigan gained revenge in the mid 1990s, when, in 1995 and 1996, Ohio State had flawless records until the final game of each season.

The passage of time has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm these meetings.

In fact, the last time the teams met at Ohio Stadium - on November 18th, 2006 - they were, for the first time, ranked number one and number two in the country. And for the first time since 1973, they both entered the final game of the season undefeated and untied.

The pre-match build-up, even allowing for the teams involved, was unprecedented, and the average TV audience for the ESPN/ABC event was a remarkable 22 million. Poignantly, the game gained even more significance when Schembechler died on the eve of the match. The head coach at Michigan for 30 years had begun his coaching career at Ohio State, where he served as assistant in the 1950s.

It gave the game an almost surreal hype.

And, incredibly, the match actually lived up to the billing, with Ohio State holding off a furious comeback from the visitors to win 42-39 and clinch the Big Ten Championship in front of more than 100,000 spectators and 1,000 accredited news media.

Later that evening, in the Ohio State lottery, the Pick 4 draw for $2.2 million was 4, 2, 3 and 9.

In the last 73 years, Ohio State and Michigan have met on the final day of the season with the sides locked at the top of the conference table on 23 occasions. With the title and qualification for the Rose Bowl added to the mix, it was a powerful concoction.

Luckily, however, those ingredients are not essential for a tense, thrilling result.

This weekend, on the 39th anniversary of Schembechler's first time to lead the Wolverines into battle against Ohio State, Rich Rodriguez will attempt the same. The new Michigan head coach will also be hoping for the same result. The odds of an upset this time, however, appear even more remote.

Last weekend, Michigan lost a record eighth game of the season, surrendering a 14-7 half-time lead against Northwestern to eventually go down 21-14. For the first time since 2002, they will meet Ohio State with no chance of even a share of the Big Ten title; for the first time since 1967 they will record a losing season, and for the first time since 1962 they will finish a season without back-to-back victories.

Ohio State, in contrast, are still in the title race - with a 13-6 defeat to Penn State last month their only Big Ten loss to date this season.

And, crucially, the big game - which alternates between Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Michigan - will this season be held at Ohio Stadium.

More than 102,000 spectators will attend (remarkably, Michigan Stadium is bigger, with the 2003 visit of Ohio State attracting a record 112,000 fans).

"I'm sure we'll hear all week that our guys have no chance," said Rodriguez. "If they're favoured by whatever and up 21-0 before you kick-off, that's tough. But it's 0-0 when you start."

His senior safety, Brandon Harrison, admitted the Wolverines' season had been bitterly disappointing, before quickly adding that beating Ohio State "would clear everything up".

Saturday, Ohio Stadium, Columbus

Kick-off noon (local time, 5pm Irish)

Live on NASN