Respect is just fine, but rivalry needs sass

Rob Oller
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer takes the high road when discussing Michigan. He prefers showing respect to the Wolverines and the rivalry game by working "so freakin' hard at it to do your very best." [Barbara J. Perenich]

I miss Woody, specifically the Woody Hayes who turned Michigan Week into a 10-year Cold War, pitting God Bless the Ohio State of America against those commies from TTUN.

Woody detested the Wolverines and didn’t care if you knew it.

Compare the Old Man’s distaste for “Meethigan” with the public praise of today, when OSU coach Urban Meyer and UM coach Jim Harbaugh purge all animosity from their vocabulary. At least publicly.

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The closest Meyer comes to being caustic is refusing to say “Michigan.” It’s always That Team Up North or “our rival.”

“Words are critical, and I’ve been that way for several years,” Meyer said of always taking the high road when discussing Michigan. “Absolutely incredible respect. How do you respect someone and something? Your rival or a rivalry game? You work so freakin’ hard at it to do your very best.”

That’s Meyer. And Jim Harbaugh, too, who like Meyer is careful not to offend the other coach or team. Part of it is driven by personality. But what happened to the Harbaugh who, as Michigan’s quarterback, guaranteed a win against Ohio State in 1986; then backed it up by rallying the Wolverines to a 26-24 win in the Horseshoe? Did he grow up or become too safe?

Video: Meyer talks about Woody

Respect is good. But give me some sass, too. The rivalry could use it, especially since it has become a rivalry mostly based on brand awareness. That’s what happens when Ohio State is 15-2 since 2001, when former coach Jim Tressel arrived TMBNPA (To Make Buckeye Nation Proud Again).

Maybe the lopsided results explain why the rivalry increasingly feels more like an advertising campaign. If I may be that “Get off my lawn” guy, Ohio State vs. Michigan does not need red X’s taped over M’s, or even to be labeled as The Game (I often call it that myself, so the finger points back at me). What it needs is emotion. From coaches and players. Spewing vitriol is not mandatory. Just have fun with it, because the fiercest rivalry in sports should not sound like a board meeting.

Players have been coached to blandly blather about the opponent. (Thankfully, the occasional slip-up still occurs; UM senior running back Karan Higdon on Monday guaranteed a win against the Buckeyes.)

I understand the desire to underplay things, but only to a point. The pressure to win — on the field and at the cash register — has become so all-consuming that coaches worry every word will be taken out of context. Why risk it?

Well, Woody didn’t worry about risk. He respected Michigan but made sure everyone knew he disliked the place. It wasn’t just Woody, either. During Ohio State Week, feisty Michigan coach Bo Schembechler crossed three lanes of fake pleasantries so he could take the off ramp from politically correct to passionately cantankerous.

Schembechler supposedly once said of Columbus, “The best thing about it are the roads leading out of it.” I say supposedly because some quotes attributed to Schembechler and Hayes are more legend than legitimate.

Perhaps the most famous example: leading Michigan 50-14 late in the 1968 game, Ohio State attempted a two-point conversion that failed. When reporters asked why he went for two, Hayes answered “Because they wouldn’t let me go for three.”

Except it probably never happened that way. Hayes later used those words many times at speaking engagements, but written reports after the game do not include the famous line. An alternate version of the story has Hayes uttering the quote in 1961. More likely, Woody massaged the myth into reality.

I asked Meyer if he could get away with using Hayes’ coaching methods now.

“No chance,” he said, quickly adding that he thinks Hayes would have adapted to the times.

Maybe, but something tells me Woody still would have stirred things up with Michigan. And I miss that.


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