THE FRESHMAN DIDN'T KNOW WHAT HE DIDN'T KNOW. BORN IN COLUMBUS AND RAISED on Buckeyes football, Archie Griffin thought he was up to speed on this particular rivalry.
But in his first season under Woody Hayes, in 1972, Griffin was surprised to learn that "Mondays were dedicated to Michigan. And I hesitate to say this," the two-time Heisman Trophy winner confides, "but during the time I was at Ohio State, Northwestern wasn't very good, so we'd use most of the Northwestern week to prepare for Michigan."
When Michigan week rolled around that year, Hayes invited former Buckeyes captain Dave Whitfield, a member of the 1968 national title squad, to address the team. "Whitfield got rolling; he got emotional," Griffin recalls. "There were tears 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."
This game, known in the heartland as The Game, packs more history and hatred—often harmless, but hatred nonetheless—than any other rivalry, not just in college football but in football period. The ill will manifest in this 111-year-old border war has roots in a real-life boundary dispute dating to 1833, when these fractious neighbors disagreed over ownership of a 468-square-mile area called the Toledo Strip. Militias were mustered and faced off across the Maumee River, though no one was harmed.
Ohio prevailed in that 11-month-long contretemps (its reward: Toledo!), but the Buckeyes lost their first football game against Michigan, in 1897, 34-0. In fact, the outclassed Ohioans eked out just six victories in their first 30 games against the Wolverines. That's when the tide began to turn, as it periodically must in all true rivalries. A rivalry giveth and a rivalry taketh away, or it is something other than a rivalry. It is Kansas-Nebraska.
THE 1934 MICHIGAN-OHIO STATE game had been in the books for 69 years, but 90-year-old Gerald Ford remembered it well. "We won in my sophomore and junior years," recalled Ford, a standout center for Michigan. "But when I was a senior, we got the hell kicked out of us."
When SI spoke to Ford in November '03—three years before he died—the most famous son of Grand Rapids remained sharp and active: still making speeches and playing plenty of golf, although his artificial knees limited him to nine holes at a time.
That 34-0 loss in '34 had done nothing for Ford's health. In the Nov. 24, 1934, Michigan Daily, "Jerry" was described by team physicians as having "enough injuries to keep three men out."
The outfit that put the wood to the man who would become America's 38th president was led by Francis Schmidt, a first-year coach who succeeded one Sam Willaman, who was let go, Ford recalled, "because he couldn't beat Michigan." (He was 2-3 against the Wolverines.) Schmidt sought to puncture the maize-and-blue mystique by pointing out that "those fellows put their pants on one leg at a time, the same as everyone else," popularizing a phrase that's well known today.
Since then every member of a Buckeyes team to beat the Wolverines is awarded a pair of tiny gold pants—a charm whose whimsical appearance belies its gigantic significance in the life of its owner.