Anatomy of a powerhouse: Bitter rivalry with Michigan has fueled Ohio State football
Editor's note: How did Ohio State football become a Buckeye Nation of true believers? In a 14-part series, we explore aspects that shaped OSU's evolution from Saturday afternoon diversion to near-religious experience. Today: Rivalry
Ron Maciejowski remembers the devastation.
Sitting in the locker room after the Ohio State football team’s upset loss to Michigan in 1969, he and his teammates awaited the final words from coach Woody Hayes.
“He came in and he said only one thing,” said Maciejowski, then a junior quarterback for the Buckeyes. “He said, ‘Boys, you learned a tough lesson today. And now you know how the other half lives.’ ”
None of them had previously lost to their archrival, ushering in feelings of defeat for the first time.
“It was a good lesson,” Maciejowski added. “We didn't lose again the next year.”
Because the 1969 defeat kept them from winning a second consecutive national championship and spoiled an unbeaten season, it remains one of the most painful losses in program history.
During the return flight to Columbus, some of the seniors cried. It was a stunning end to their careers.
For those who remained in school, the disappointment fueled them as they sought to avenge the loss to their bitter foe.
The history of Ohio State's rivalry with Michigan
Ohio State’s rivalry with Michigan had been built over the previous decades, having been played each fall since 1918 with a Big Ten title often at stake and intensifying with Hayes’ arrival in 1951.
When the Buckeyes won 50-14 in 1968, Hayes elected to go for two rather than kick an extra point after their final touchdown in order to tally half a hundred points. (He had done much the same thing in a 50-20 victory in 1961.) The move added insult to injury for the Wolverines and was a clear signal of the animosity between the two schools.
But in the aftermath of 1969, the series turned even more heated, the start of the "10-Year War" between Hayes and Michigan coach Bo Schembechler and a daily obsession for the Buckeyes. The defeat consumed them.
When the team began spring practices in preparation for the 1970 season, players were met with a rug placed at the door of the practice facility as a reminder.
It listed the score of the previous November’s loss: Michigan 24, Ohio State 12. The next season’s score was in question. “Michigan? Ohio State?” it read.
“We walked across that thing every single day, looking at that rug,” said running back John Brockington, who was one of the so-called “Super Sophomores,” along with Maciejowski, fellow quarterback Rex Kern and several other key players.
The rug remained after spring practice, greeting players when they arrived in late summer for preseason practices.
As if they needed more motivation, Michigan announcer Bob Ufer’s radio call of the final seconds replayed in their locker room as a frequent reliving of the anguish.
The loss was inescapable for them because that’s the way it was for Hayes, who had absorbed an humiliating defeat from a former assistant coach in Schembechler, who had taken over at Michigan in 1969.
In response to the loss, Hayes turned to game-planning for their next meeting.
“Every day in his life for the next year, some portion of that day, was devoted to working in that game, what they could do to defeat Michigan,” said Jack Park, a historian of Ohio State football. “It meant that much to him to do that.”
Practices reflected the obsession, too, with periods dedicated to preparation for the Wolverines.
“Every day, we did a little something to work against Michigan, a little bit of practice every day for that thing,” Brockington said.
In previous years, the Buckeyes had devoted some of their in-season practice time to the rivalry, often during weeks in which they were preparing for overmatched opponents. It might be as many as two practices some weeks.
But in 1970, Maciejowski said, it was more common to set aside time to prepare for The Game.
When the teams reconvened the following November in Columbus, Ohio State won 20-9.
“It was such a thing that we could not lose that game,” Brockington said. “Couldn't do it, couldn't do it. It was not going to be allowed.”
It was vindication for the year-round dedication, a facet of the rivalry that has largely been a constant for half a century and remains a modern-day fixture.
Historical bitterness underlines modern-day rivalry
The coaching successors of Hayes still refer to Michigan as “The Team Up North,” as do assistants, players and many others in the program as a sign of the bitterness.
Segments of practices are set aside for preparation for Michigan, known as “The Team Up North” periods. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said that last year Ohio State spent about 10 minutes in each spring practice going through preparation for Michigan.
Countdown clocks are placed throughout the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, logging every day, hour and second until kickoff.
Michigan remains at the forefront of the Buckeyes’ minds.
Speaking at an event with the Greater Columbus Sports Commission last year, Day referred to the rivalry as “a way of life.”
“You have to live it every day,” Day added.
In various eras of the rivalry, defeat has fueled Ohio State. When Jim Tressel succeeded John Cooper in 2001, he took over at a time when the Buckeyes had beaten Michigan only twice in 13 games. The 1990s was a decade largely filled with defeat.
It was at the forefront of Tressel's mind early, and he referenced The Game’s importance while speaking to a crowd at halftime of a men’s basketball game on Jan. 18, 2001.
“I assure you that you will be proud of our young people in the classroom, in the community and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field,” he said.
The Buckeyes won the following November, and went 9-1 with Tressel on the sideline.
“From the day he took that job, he knew how many days it was until Michigan,” Park said. “He knew that you had to beat Michigan if you were really going to be successful at Ohio State.”
Since Tressel’s hire, the Buckeyes have lost only twice in the rivalry as if they are still motivated by losses from decades ago.
The Wolverines are so despised that for many the feeling of losing is stronger than the pride from winning, especially among those who made it a focus to avenge a loss 51 years ago.
“You don't want to lose any game, but especially that one,” Brockington said. “Losing is a sickness. It's like a cancer. Winning is a different kind of euphoria, but losing was a much worse feeling than winning.”