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BIGGER Than Ever
Austin Murphy
December 01, 2003
The sport's geatest rivalry again lived up to its billing, as Michigan knocked Ohio State out of the national title picture and won a Rose Bowl berth
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December 01, 2003

Bigger Than Ever

The sport's geatest rivalry again lived up to its billing, as Michigan knocked Ohio State out of the national title picture and won a Rose Bowl berth

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Jeez, was Chris Perry going to live? The way the kid was writhing on the ground, clutching himself, there ought to at least have been a gurney involved. But while trainers ministered to Perry, the crowd of more than 112,000 at Michigan Stadium began chanting his name, as if he were Russell Crowe's Maximus in Gladiator. Moments later Perry popped off the turf like a man who'd overslept for a job interview. � He returned to the Big Game, as the Michigan-Ohio State matchup is known in the heartland, to punch in the second of his two touchdowns in the Wolverines' 35-21 victory. Those scoring runs, along with his 154 rushing yards and another 55 receiving, ought to earn the senior running back a trip to New York City as a Heisman finalist. More important, to a true Michigan Man like Perry, he covered himself in glory in a win over the Buckeyes.

Never mind that Perry is slow to rise from the pile every other time he carries the ball. Like Franco Harris and Jim Brown before him, he lingers on the turf, taking inventory, and he gives the impression during his unhurried walk to the huddle that he surely cannot endure much more. What he is actually doing is getting a little extra rest, giving the defense the impression that it's wearing him down when in fact it's the other way around. Perry's Lazarus-like recovery, now etched in Big Game lore, was made complete after last Saturday's game, when his various afflictions were insufficient to prevent him from walking around with the Big Ten championship trophy, which weighs roughly as much as a Scottish caber.

Unlike lesser rivalries in college football—that would be all of them, frankly—this one is not played for some highly polished antique: an ax, or a bucket, or a jug. These two teams don't need to play for a relic, because when they knock heads something bigger is usually at stake. Saturday's meeting, the 100th between these powerhouses from contiguous states, represented the 20th time since 1935 that the Big Game had decided the Big Ten championship. It was the 41st time that the rivalry had had a "major impact" on the conference title, according to the estimable Ohio State fan publication Bucknuts. If the Big Game is where the Big Ten championship is often determined, it is also where grand ambitions go to die. Nine times one of the teams has come into this game undefeated and left with a loss (or, famously in 1973, a tie, when both entered undefeated). This year the Buckeyes entered the Big House with a record of 10-1 and a recent, controversial promotion over USC to No. 2 in the BCS rankings. A win would have kept Ohio State on track to defend its national title. It also would have precipitated debate on bar stools across the republic, pitting those who felt Southern Cal was getting screwed against those who would argue that it wasn't the Buckeyes' fault that the Trojans played in a weaker conference.

The Wolverines, now 10-2 and Rose Bowl-bound, have spared us this dispute, and we are grateful. For their part they're relieved. Many Michigan fans admit they'd begun to take this rivalry for granted during the reign of John Cooper, the star-crossed Ohio State coach who won only twice in 13 Big Games. The fat times came to an abrupt end nearly three years ago. The day Jim Tressel's hiring was announced in Columbus, the new coach stood at midcourt during halftime of a Buckeyes basketball game and promised the crowd it would be proud of its football team "in the classroom, in the community and, most especially, in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan."

While the academic travails of Maurice Clarett and his uncertain grasp of what constitutes a proper police report undermined two thirds of that prediction, Tressel beat Michigan in his first two tries. A third straight loss, said Perry, "would've been unacceptable."

He is right. In a true rivalry you cannot win them all, nor even the lion's share. A rivalry giveth and a rivalry taken away, or it is something other than a rivalry. It is Kansas-Nebraska.

"We won in my sophomore and junior years, but when I was a senior, we got the hell kicked out of us." The 1934 Big Game was 69 years ago, and Gerald Ford still winces at the memory of it Before becoming the 38th President of the United States, Ford played center for the Wolverines—this in the pre-face-mask days, when men were men and the quarterback did not press his hands into the center's buttocks before every snap. "Even in those days," says Ford, Ohio State-Michigan "was an historic contest."

Ford turned 90 last summer and is still sharp. He makes speeches, writes occasional editorials and tees it up, although his creaking old pins can handle only nine holes at a time. Like too many ex-football players, he's walking around with a pair of artificial knees. That loss to the Buckeyes, 34-0 in '34, did nothing for his health. In the Nov. 24, 1934, Michigan Daily, "Jerry" was described by team physicians as having "enough injuries to keep three men out."

The Ohio State team that put the wood to the man who would succeed Richard Nixon in the White House was guided by Francis Schmidt, a first-year coach who succeeded Sam Willaman, an otherwise fine coach who was let go, Ford recalls, "because he couldn't beat Michigan."

Sound familiar, Coop? This is one of the main ingredients of an authentic rivalry: Losing it too frequently—regardless of your record over the rest of the season—will get you fired. One of the reasons why watching Auburn-Alabama last Saturday night was a guilty pleasure was the rumor that Tigers head man Tommy Tuberville was coaching for his job. (Auburn won 28-23, but Tuberville must await his fate until after university president William Walker returns from a Thanksgiving vacation.) That rivalry games are so important that they cost men their jobs is not necessarily something healthy. Nor is a game played under the sword of Damocles something from which we can bring ourselves to look away.

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