Rob Oller: Ohio State's coaching edge over Michigan turned rivalry into rout

Rob Oller

The lopsided number — 16-2 — resembles a blowout baseball score more than a rivalry game record. Ohio State has smacked nearly two decades-worth of home runs against Michigan, from lead-off batter Jim Tressel to clean-up hitter Urban Meyer.

How did it get here, where the Wolverines are the Detroit Tigers to Ohio State's Cleveland Indians, who went 18-1 against the Tigers last season? The Game should be renamed The Same.

From the moment on Jan. 18, 2001 when Tressel gave his thinly veiled victory promise — “You will be proud of our young people … in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan …” — the Buckeyes have so thoroughly dominated the series that the Wolverines might as well be the Washington Generals.

Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter

Tressel went 9-1 against the Maize and Blue. Meyer stepped into the batters box and went 7-0. Two OSU coaches going 16-1 against a Big Ten opponent is not surprising, if that opponent is Northwestern. But Michigan? What has happened to turn the greatest rivalry in college football into a cowboy boot vs. cockroach no contest?

It is a question that requires reverse engineering; tear the thing apart to learn how it was built. I turned to former Ohio State linebacker Bobby Carpenter and Michigan historian and author John U. Bacon to shed light on the findings.

• It's the coaching, stupid. Obviously, Tressel and Meyer outdueled their counterparts — Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke and Jim Harbaugh — but it's not as simple as the two Buckeyes showing up on game day and outfoxing their opponents. Tressel and Meyer both were better tacticians than their Michigan counterparts, but there is only so much a coach can do during the game.

• Motivation meets preparation. It's one thing to plan for a rival, quite another to insert an IV into the program and pump Rivalry Game Kool-Aid into every practice and weightlifting session.

“All year long, we made notes about Michigan,” said Carpenter, who played 50 games under Tressel. “We had a Maize and Blue period during spring ball. In training camp, during lifting. There were signs and something always prepared for us.”

Especially effective were the guest speakers Tressel brought in to talk about the importance of beating Michigan, and no speaker brought the fire like former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce.

“Earle would speak every Sunday before the game, and Urban continued the tradition,” Carpenter said. “We'd hear about good wins and bad losses.”

A lot of coaches bring in motivational speakers. What made Bruce so special?

“It's effective when it's genuine,” Carpenter said. “With Earle, it was impossible not to feel his passion. I was just speaking with (former OSU defensive end) John Simon about it. It was amazing the intensity coach Bruce brought to the table. It permeated you, whether you were 22 or 32.”

Bacon attributed Ohio State's recent dominance to whatever special sauce Meyer used to get players ready for big games.

“Whatever they do — and they've had great seasons almost every year this century — they always seem to play their best when it counts the most,” he said. “Take last year: Ohio State got blown out by Purdue, for crying out loud, and probably should have lost to Maryland, while Michigan was blowing out Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. But the Buckeyes managed to play their best game of the season that day, while Michigan played its worst.”

• Recruiting. You need the horses to win in the Horseshoe (and the Big House). Looking at recruiting rankings since Tressel arrived in 2001 reveals much about how Ohio State has taken control of the rivalry.

From 2001 to Tressel's last season in 2010, the Buckeyes' average recruiting rank was 32, compared to No. 9 for Michigan. But the raw numbers are misleading, because Tressel brought in much smaller classes than UM. Despite that, Ohio State averaged nine blue-chip recruits (four- or five-star players) to Michigan's 10. And then Tressel developed them better than Carr or Rodriguez.

Under Meyer, Ohio State's recruiting reached another level, with a No. 4 average ranking, including 18 blue-chippers. Michigan's average ranking was 15, with 13 blue-chippers.

“The talent level has shifted,” Carpenter noted. “It's no longer symmetric but asymmetric the last 15 years, and more severely the last seven.”

The last word goes to Bacon, whose latest book, “Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines are the Crossroads of College Football,” looks inside the UM program.

“Law of averages, way too much coaching turnover and ADs at Michigan and going against established Hall of Fame coaches at OSU,” he said of the non-rivalry rivalry. “Some of it is dumb luck: OSU has won all the close ones.”

Bacon offered a last ray of hope. Sort of: “Once (Harbaugh) beats the Buckeyes once, I'd wager the game will revert to being a big football game instead of scaling Mt. Columbus. But when that happens is anyone's guess.”

Here's guessing it's not Saturday in Ann Arbor.