Unlike lesser rivalries in college football—that would be all of them—this one is not played for some spit-shined antique: an ax or bucket or bronzed swine. These two teams don't need to play for a relic, because when they oppose one another, something bigger is usually at stake. Since 1935 The Game has decided the Big Ten championship 23 times.
If The Game is where a Rose Bowl berth is most often won, it is also where grand ambitions go to die, where perfect seasons are often spoiled. On 10 occasions, one of the principals in this rivalry has entered The Game undefeated, only to come out of it with a loss—or, notoriously in 1973, a tie.
That unsatisfying ending occurred at the height of the so-called Ten-Year War, a decade in which this rivalry, always intense, turned white-hot. It began with what some Buckeyes considered a betrayal.
HAYES WAS HIRED ON FEB. 18, 1951, in the wake of the wildest, whitest edition of this rivalry. The '50 Snow Bowl was played in blizzard conditions in Columbus. In college football's alltime "possession" game, the teams combined for 45 punts—often on first down. Sitting on a vaguely ridiculous 3-2 lead in the waning moments of the first half, Ohio State coach Wes Fesler chose to punt, rather than run out the clock. But Vic Janowicz's kick was blocked by Tony Momsen, who smothered the ball in the end zone for the game's only touchdown. The Wolverines escaped with a 9-3 victory without making a single first down or connecting on a single pass. The subsequent firing of Fesler required Ohio State to hire its sixth coach in 14 seasons.
"With the exception of his military service," writes Michael Rosenberg in War as They Knew It, his 2008 book on The Game, " Hayes lived his entire life in the state of Ohio. He grew up in little Newcomerstown, on the east side of the state; attended Denison University, 32 miles outside Columbus; and [coached only within] the state. Hayes was proud of that. He felt the state represented all that was great and pure about America."
While his predecessors shrunk from the pressure of The Game, Hayes, writes Rosenberg, "elevated the rivalry's importance. He made it clear that the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry was not just between schools but between states." As every Buckeyes fan knows, Hayes refused to allow the word Michigan to cross his lips, calling it instead "that school up north."
Starting in 1954, Woody won 11 of 15 against the Wolverines and elevated the Buckeyes to national champions in '54, '57, '61 and '68. Now it was Michigan's turn to endure serial humiliations at the hands of its bitterest foe. Salvation, when it came, was delivered by a disciple of Hayes.
Bo Schembechler had played for Hayes at Miami ( Ohio) and later joined his staff in Columbus as a graduate assistant. So Hayes was stung by his prot�g�e's decision, in 1969, to not only consort with the enemy but to lead them.
With the team buses cruising up Route 23, bound for Ann Arbor, on the final Friday of the 1969 regular season, it seemed certain that the Buckeyes were rolling toward their second straight national title. Sportswriters of the day were unable to resist labeling them college football's Greatest Team Ever. The Buckeyes had five first-team All-Americas and went into Michigan Stadium riding a 22-game winning streak, favored by 17 points.
They lost by 12. In a watershed victory that awakened Michigan from a long slumber, vest-pocket cornerback Barry Pierson picked off three passes and returned a punt 60 yards. Ohio State quarterbacks threw six interceptions in a 24-12 loss that only deepened Hayes's mistrust of the forward pass.