In the belly of Michigan Stadium, Wolverine equipment manager Jon Falk was retrieving towels from the floor of the visitors' locker room as Ohio State players and coaches filed out in stillness until only two young faces remained. Student managers, maybe, Falk thought. So he let them in on a secret. "We took what that Terry Glenn kid said, and we ran with it all week," Falk said. "We hung our hats on that." Five days earlier in Columbus, Glenn, the Buckeyes' magnificent junior flanker, had tried earnestly to put his unbeaten team's final regular-season game in perspective. He had said that Ohio State wouldn't put Michigan on a pedestal, that this would be just the last step on a long trip. But the only words that had reached Ann Arbor were these: "Michigan's nothing." Now in the aftermath of the Wolverines' 31-23 upset of the Buckeyes, Falk told his audience as he kept scooping up dirty laundry, "You can't say that about Michigan-Ohio State."
One of the kids approached Falk. "I'm Terry Glenn," he said, and then he tried to explain. "I didn't mean it like that. I was just trying to say that Michigan is like any other team. That's all." In the ruins of a terrible loss, Glenn was still not quite saying it right; he was making the same mistake in different words.
Ohio State reached Ann Arbor on the wings of a magical season, unbeaten in 11 games, ranked No. 2 in the nation and pointed toward the Big Ten title and its first Rose Bowl berth since 1986. A national championship was possible. All of those achievements, all those hopes were gutted in one afternoon. The two remaining unbeatens, Nebraska and Florida, will play for No. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl with no attendant controversy—provided that Florida disposes of overmatched Arkansas in the SEC championship game this weekend. Northwestern can cherish its Big Ten title and its Rose Bowl appearance against USC. The season has distilled itself to a single mammoth game and a single sentimental one, leaving the Buckeyes on the outside, in emotional carnage.
Ohio State's senior quarterback Bobby Hoying had been like Perm State's Kerry Collins was in 1994, the leader who suddenly emerged. But on Saturday he went just 22 for 45 and threw two interceptions while under relentless pressure. This season had been a joyride for Hoying, with a cadre of his family members at every game. The loss brought the joy to a crashing halt. "We've got to live with this, and it's going to be something," he said, his eyes swollen and red. "I might not get over it." Senior tailback Eddie George was the rock on which the Buckeyes' season had been built, the stoic force who would run a set of sprints in the morning with one group of teammates and another in the afternoon with another, just to set an example. He was held to 104 yards on 21 brutal carries by Michigan, never finding space, never seeing grass in front of him. "My life goes on," George said. "I imagine this loss will always be a part of it."
George approached the Ohio State team bus and embraced his mother, Donna. "He was very, very quiet," said Donna. "He's quiet when he's hurting. That's how I can tell he's taking this to heart."
Nearby, Ohio State coach John Cooper's wife and two grown children waited. For Cooper, the loss was cruelly painful. The Buckeyes' 11 wins and a five-year contract signed after last season helped to free Cooper from the annual speculation about his job security that had attended his eight-year term in Columbus. But now the significant digits for Cooper were not just 11-1 but also 1-6-1, his record against Michigan. And one other number: $85,000. That's the amount of bonus money that Cooper would not be able to earn because of this defeat ($50,000 for reaching the Rose Bowl, $25,000 for winning the national championship and $10,000 for a nine-win season, provided one of the wins was against Michigan).
So here is the lesson: In the Nike/Reebok/Adidas/Champion-outfitted, $50-million-bowl-allianced, ESPN GameDayed, NCAA-investigated, coach-controlled, Danny Sheridan-handicapped world of big-time college football, the doddering concept of rivalry still draws the most magical breath of all. A remarkable autumn for the Buckeyes was ruined last Saturday because for Michigan, Ohio State is not just another team.
The Wolverines had sought for three months to wed talent with success but instead had stuttered to an 8-3 record. Circumstances had afforded them an excuse. Coach Gary Moeller had resigned under pressure last April after a vulgar and embarrassing drunken display at a Detroit-area restaurant, and 15-year assistant Lloyd Carr had been named interim coach but had not been given the permanent job until 10 games into the season. Yet Michigan's players knew that coaching turmoil hadn't been at the root of their problems. They had lacked something ethereal, something that Ohio State seemed to have had in abundance.
"I don't understand it; we've got all the talent in the world," said Wolverine center Rod Payne before Saturday's game. "One week we can beat anybody, the next week we can't beat Wichita State." Safety Chuck Winters said, "I don't know if it's a different breed of player or what, but guys are supposed to live football. We've got to find that."
Ohio State was both the opponent and the solution. On the Wednesday before taking on the Buckeyes, Carr stood in front of his Wolverines and repeated Glenn's comments. Then Carr asked, "If a man calls you out, what are you going to do? I'll tell you: If a man calls you out, you show up and you put it on the line."