The hiring of coaches by Big Ten schools in recent years has been equally astute. Barry Alvarez has been at Wisconsin for eight seasons and Gary Barnett at Northwestern for six. Both are keepers. Nick Saban, who is finishing his third year at Michigan State, shows much promise. In a postseason bloodletting a year ago, coaches were let go at Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue, acts on which the jury is still out.
Even the league's most controversial decision has turned to gold. The Big Ten (with the Pac-10) has kept the Rose Bowl out of the two-year-old bowl alliance until next season, much to the consternation of other conferences, and will be rewarded this season with a title game. "The last traditional Rose Bowl gets Michigan, and we're undefeated," says Griese. "I think that's perfect."
The Big Ten's unbalanced schedule, in which each team plays only eight of its conference rivals in any year, isn't ideal, yet it helped Wisconsin (which didn't play Penn State in 1993) and Northwestern (which didn't play Ohio State in '95 or '96) win titles and build a reputation on which to recruit. Rebuffed recently by Notre Dame, the Big Ten now towers over the struggling Irish. Cooper last week urged all Big Ten schools not to schedule Notre Dame in football until the Irish agree to join. These are heady times indeed.
Headiest of all for Michigan. Carr is close to completing a stunning three-year rise from being a reluctant interim replacement for his disgraced friend Gary Moeller to becoming the Wolverines' first national-championship coach since Bennie Oosterbaan, whose team went 9-0 in 1948 and did not play in a bowl. Michigan lost eight games in Carr's first two years, a record masked by two dramatic victories over Ohio State. After the first of those wins, a 31-23 upset in Ann Arbor in '95, Schembechler embraced Carr in the Michigan locker room and told him, "You're going to win a lot of big games here, but none are going to be any bigger than this one."
That is now in doubt. "I try not to think in terms of personal goals," Carr said, standing alone in the locker room on Saturday evening, still dressed in his sideline gray sweatshirt, his black sneakers still plastered with dry mud more than two hours after the game, "but I knew when I got the opportunity to be the coach here that the only way I could be successful was to take a Michigan team to the Rose Bowl."
Tell it to Cooper, who is now 1-8-1 against Michigan. His Buckeyes collapsed Saturday on inexcusable errors, including interceptions of two terrible throws by Ohio State senior quarterback Stanley Jackson. The second was returned 43 yards for a touchdown by Michigan junior cornerback Andre Weathers and gave the Wolverines a 20-0 lead with 10:29 left in the third quarter. That was the cushion Michigan needed in the final quarter.
One week before the game, Ohio State sophomore wide-out David Boston had cluelessly predicted as much as a three-touchdown Buckeyes victory and said that Michigan All-America junior cornerback Charles Woodson wasn't as good as Ohio State corner Antoine Winfield. Boston dropped two passes, and after catching a 56-yard third-quarter touchdown pass despite tight coverage by Woodson, he waved the ball in Woodson's face. In retaliation Michigan junior strong safety Marcus Ray, a Columbus native who knows Boston well, dumped Boston hard on his right shoulder (cover photo) with just under six minutes to play and stood over Boston as he writhed on the ground. "I highlighted him for you, like I said I would," Ray told Woodson in the locker room after the game. "He went down, and he sounded like 'Oooooo.' "
For the record, Woodson didn't need much big-brothering. He enhanced his Heisman credentials with a 37-yard reception that set up a touchdown, a 78-yard punt return for a TD and an end zone interception.
All of which were strictly prologue. "Going to Pasadena, that's the best part," Woodson said after a long shower. He reached into his chicken-wire cubicle and pulled out a rose. "How sweet it is," he said, holding the thorns gently against the light stubble of his mustache. "How sweet it is."