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WOODY HAYES FAMOUSLY DID NOT LIKE TO SAY MICHIGAN, BUT HE ALSO DID NOT LIKE TO say the word hate, which put him in a bind when describing his least favorite school. In his calmer moments Hayes would search for another word to describe his distaste for his rivals. (He would settle on despise.) Looking back, this seems quaint. These are tense times in the Michigan--Ohio State rivalry, or the Ohio State--Michigan rivalry, or the Ohio--That School Up North rivalry, or whatever you choose to call it. After three years of being lost at sea, Michigan is suddenly speeding ahead under Brady Hoke. And after a year of mourning the death of Jim Tressel's reputation, Ohio State is all aboard for the launch of the Urban Meyer era.
The Wolverines and the Buckeyes have played so many games with so much on the line, but this moment feels different. It seems as if the programs themselves are at stake.
Michigan and Ohio State are the two most consistently great rivals in the country over the last century. Now both are starting fresh. Hoke has coached Michigan for one season. Meyer hasn't coached Ohio State at all. The last time the schools' coaches were so new: 1948, when Bennie Oosterbaan took over in Ann Arbor and Wes Fesler was a year into his brief reign in Columbus.
Fesler and Oosterbaan did not have to deal with recruits on Twitter. So they didn't know nuttiness like this: Recruit Logan Tuley-Tillman, an offensive tackle out of Manual High in Peoria, Ill., committed to Michigan (which he was entitled to do), got a recruiting letter from Ohio State anyway (which Ohio State was entitled to send), then Tuley-Tillman burned the letter (which is the kind of thing high school juniors do). Tuley-Tillman then tweeted a picture of the letter burning, and fans everywhere went nuts (which is what fans do—it's part of the fun).
Meanwhile, Meyer posted a comparison between Ohio State and "That Team Up North." But Meyer was not comparing wins, Big Ten championships or even weight-room sizes. He was comparing ... majors. The sign pointed out that a lot of Michigan players have majored in general studies. The implication, of course, was that Michigan lets its athletes coast through school and that recruits will get a better education at Ohio State. That mere notion caused thousands of Michigan fans to simultaneously make a joke about Ohio State grads working at McDonald's.
Most of this is in good fun. But it will be up to Hoke and Meyer to make sure it remains that way. Hoke, a former Michigan assistant who grew up in Dayton cheering for the Wolverines, understood the rivalry before he took the job. Meyer, raised in Ashtabula and previously a Buckeyes assistant, understands it too.
They are the right coaches for these jobs, and their ability to recruit and motivate sets up Michigan and Ohio State for another golden age of the rivalry. These are also the programs with the greatest potential to challenge the best of the Southeastern Conference—not in 2012 but within the next 10 years.
In their annual game, of course, one of these teams will triumph, and it is quite possible that in some years both programs will triumph nationally. That is what makes the rivalry so compelling. Let's hope that over time, good taste triumphs too.