Why do we love rivalries? We love them because they bring out the best—or worst-in fans. After the Wolverines' win Michigan students rushed the field at the Big House, mingling with the players first, then migrating toward the south end zone, where they chanted to the Ohio State section, "Over-rated!" Many of these fashion-forward young adults sported anti-Buckeyes T-shirts bearing such legends as 100 YEARS OF BUSTING THEIR NUTS.
We love rivalries because they force coaches, those creatures of regimentation and habit who would never look past this week's opponent, to acknowledge the truth: Some games are more important than others.
At least Woody Hayes was up front about it. "Mondays were designated for Michigan," recalls Archie Griffin, the two-time Heisman Trophy winner who played for Hayes from 1972 through '75 and is now an associate athletic director at his alma mater. "And I hesitate to say this, but during the time I was at Ohio State, Northwestern wasn't that good, so we'd use most of Northwestern's week to prepare for Michigan.
"I grew up in Columbus, and I thought I knew about the rivalry. My freshman year, the Monday before the Michigan game, Woody brought in Dave Whitfield, who'd played on the '68 national champion team. Whitfield got rolling, he got emotional, tears were rolling down his face. I looked around the room, my teammates are crying, and I'm thinking, 'Man, this is more than I thought it was.' "
Hayes ruled Buckeye Nation from 1951 to '78, going 16-11-1 against the Wolverines. It was during the final decade of his tenure, coaching against his former player and assistant Bo Schembechler, that the Big Game emerged as the nation's most colorful rivalry.
One witness to that history was former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who grew up in Ann Arbor and whose father, Jack, was a Schembechler assistant in the '70s. "In '69 Ohio State was coming off a national championship, and we beat 'em in Bo's first year," recalls Harbaugh, who was five at the time. "In '71 we beat 'em 10-7. Woody tore up the down markers. In '73, the year of the 10-10 tie, the Ohio State players came out of the tunnel and tore down the Michigan banner." Here Harbaugh launches into a spot-on impersonation of Bob Ufer, the late Wolverines radio man: "They're tearing down Michigan's coveted M Club banner! They will meet a dastardly fate for this!"
Asked why on earth he has committed this passage to memory, Harbaugh explains that as a boy he would lie in bed at night listening to a cassette of Ufer's best Big Game calls. A year after the tie, the Wolverines had a chance to beat the Buckeyes with a last-minute field goal. Harbaugh captures the anguish of Ufer, who briefly lifted the hopes of listeners, only to dash them: "The ball is spotted, it's kicked, it's end over end, it's good.... No good! No good! Oh no, no, no, no, no, no...."
Not surprisingly, Harbaugh grew up to become a Wolverine, quarterbacking Michigan to victories over Ohio State in '85 and '86. He incurred the wrath of Bo before the latter Big Game. Explaining to reporters that he felt it was his "destiny" to play in the Rose Bowl, Harbaugh was asked if that meant he was guaranteeing victory. Yeah, he said. I guarantee we'll win. Though Schembechler called him out in a meeting that week, Harbaugh's teammates—in particular Jamie Morris, who rushed for 210 yards—backed their signal-caller up.
That afternoon Buckeyes linebacker Chris Spielman, a junior, had 29 tackles in a losing cause. Spielman would have one last crack at Michigan the following year. But five days before Spielman's final Big Game, his coach, Earle Bruce, was fired. Bruce was told he could coach the Michigan game, and to this day Spielman remains in awe of the dignity with which the coach handled himself. "He told us, I will not allow what is happening with me to affect your experience.' And he never mentioned his firing the entire week."
There is, at Ohio State, a Big Game week tradition called Senior Tackle. A Buckeye says a few laudatory words about a senior teammate, who then runs toward a tackling dummy. Some merely tag the dummy, others attempt to knock the stuffing out of it. When his players insisted that he join in the ritual, Bruce "tried to kill the thing," recalls Spielman. The Buckeyes went up to Ann Arbor, donned EARLE headbands, upset the Wolverines 23-20, then bore Bruce off the field on their shoulders.