Michigan and Ohio State are set to dominate the Big Ten once again.
Don’t wear anything red into the Michigan football building. Just don’t do it. Somebody will ask you to take it off. It doesn’t matter who you are, be it celebrity or head of state, or who they are, whether freshman or Brady Hoke himself, you will not be welcome.
They’re not too fond of blue in Columbus. In fact, in the days leading up to the game with Michigan, Ohio State hosts an event that allows people to turn in any clothing of that color in return for a free T-shirt and a discount on Buckeye apparel. They give the blue stuff to charities — as quickly as they can.
“It’s called ‘Lose the Blue,’” OSU athletic director Gene Smith says.
No one should be surprised about either of those revelations. The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State is one of the most intense in college football — in all of American sports, for that matter. For decades, the schools have thirsted to defeat the other and have met on the last Saturday of every regular season except three since 1935. The games have decided the Big Ten championship dozens of times and from 1969-78 were dominated by the outsized personalities of OSU coach Woody Hayes and U-M boss Bo Schembechler. During that stretch — actually from 1969-81 — either the Buckeyes or Wolverines represented the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl every season.
Fans may be witnessing the beginning of a reprise of Bo and Woody’s “10-Year War,” thanks to Hoke and Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. The schools may not be ushering in another decade of dominance, a la the “Big Two and Little Eight,” but it’s clear Michigan and Ohio State are setting the tone for the conference, even as it expands in today’s unpredictable climate. Their recruiting stands above that of the league’s other schools, and their performance on the field appears to be moving toward a different level. In a 12-team (soon to be 14-team) conference, it’s nearly impossible for two to dominate, ’70s style, but the Buckeyes and Wolverines could come close.
“We could be very easily at the start of another ‘10-Year War,’” says Michigan athletic director David Brandon, who played for the Wolverines from 1971-73. “There are some similarities with where we are today versus when I was part of (the rivalry).”
Yes, there are. Like Schembechler, Hoke is an Ohio native who spent some time coaching a school in the state (Toledo, 1987-89). Meyer was born in Ohio, as was Hayes. The two men went to college at schools in the state — Meyer at Cincinnati; Hayes at Denison — and both coached colleges in Ohio. Although the gregarious Hoke isn’t the same firebrand Schembechler was, he understands the high expectations at his school and realizes the importance of the rivalry. Being an Ohioan makes it easier for Meyer to appreciate the intensity of the teams’ enmity.
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“Obviously, (you see it) when you walk through the (Ohio State football) facility, and there’s all kinds of tributes to this game, but this is all I knew growing up,” Meyer said last November before the Buckeyes’ win over Michigan. “It’s all anybody knew. In the era when I grew up, there really wasn’t much other than three channels on your television, and this game.”
Hayes left Ohio State after the ’78 season, and Schembechler lasted until 1989. The ensuing two-plus decades have featured some great games, upset victories and outstanding performances, but the teams weren’t always on the same footing. When one would thrive, the other might sag a little. Now, the two schools seem to be ascending concurrently.
The primary reason is their approach to recruiting, which is more aggressive and persistent than much of the Big Ten. When Meyer took over in 2012, he did not apologize for contacting committed — but unsigned — prospects at other conference schools and hired assistants who were dedicated to pursuing recruits almost constantly. Hoke and his staff had already been recruiting with an extremely aggressive approach, but they are quite aware of the OSU style and have become even more earnest.
“On most staffs you see four good recruiters and five average ones,” says Tom Lemming, of CBS Sports Network. “At Ohio State, there are nine great recruiters. It’s the same with (Alabama’s) Nick Saban and (LSU’s) Les Miles. If you’re an assistant, your hobby has to be recruiting, not golf.
“Brady Hoke is a blue-collar, aggressive, non-stop recruiter. He realizes that if he doesn’t do it that way, he’s going to get steamrolled by Ohio State.”
It helps that both head coaches have personalities that can draw the attention of top recruits and convince them to attend their schools. Meyer’s track record — two national championships at Florida — and year spent as an analyst at ESPN have established him as a star in the coaching ranks. But it’s not just Meyer’s Q score. His assistants are relentless, and he is, too. Within a few hours of his taking the OSU job in late 2011, he was on the phone to Rich Hansen of St. Peter’s (N.J.) Prep to tell him he was back in business. Whereas former OSU coach Jim Tressel was able to lock down Ohio, Meyer is willing to sacrifice a few prospects in-state to attract better, faster players from all over.
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“I’ll bet (Meyer) called 100 coaches the day he was hired,” Lemming says. “He goes the extra mile. Other coaches may have been partying if they got that job. He went to work immediately.”
Hoke was a member of Lloyd Carr’s staff in the late ’90s, when Michigan began to extend its recruiting reach, so he understands the need to be more than just the king of the Rust Belt. He has made strong inroads into Ohio, but he has the Wolverines looking nationally, too. And where Meyer is perpetually intense and unfailingly direct, Hoke has a more laid-back approach that works well with 18-year-olds.
“Brady really connects with people,” Brandon says. “He’s a very genuine guy, and what you see is what you get. There’s no phoniness, no fake polish and no P.R. spinning. He’s not trying to be someone he isn’t.
“He’s honest and straightforward, and he’s a likeable guy with very little ego. Michigan football isn’t about him. The players like that.”
A lot of coaches work hard on the recruiting trails, but few have the ability to sell what Michigan and Ohio State do. Each program has decades of tradition, multiple national titles, gigantic, jam-packed stadiums and facilities that are unsurpassed in the Big Ten — and surpassed by few, if any, other programs in the nation. The schools are committed to athletic success and have the ability to reach out beyond the conference’s Midwestern (and soon to be Eastern) footprint in search of elite players capable of competing against the nation’s best.
This past February, in addition to mining Michigan (eight signees) and Ohio (nine), the Wolverines brought in players from Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina and Maryland. OSU culled 11 from within the Buckeye State but also attracted talent from Texas (three players), Georgia (two), Florida, California, Missouri and North and South Carolina.
Michigan has already received commitments from players hailing from Utah, Virginia and Florida for 2014. While OSU’s class includes players from Ohio and Michigan, don’t expect Meyer and his staff to spend all of their time in the two states.
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And look out for the head-to-head battle that is surely coming for Grand Rapids Christian (Mich.) High School standout Drake Harris. The 6'4", 185-pound 4-star wideout committed to Michigan in April, the day after he visited Ohio State. Don’t expect Meyer to give up on Harris until the young man signs a letter-of-intent next February. It would be great for Meyer to steal one from Michigan; more important, it would add another speedy player to the OSU roster.
“There aren’t enough fast athletes to go around in the Midwest,” says Bobby Burton, co-CEO of 247Sports.com. “You can’t exist solely on Midwest players, not at an elite level.
“Meyer was a coach at Florida and an assistant at Notre Dame, so he’s been part of that. When Brady Hoke was an assistant at Michigan (from 1995-2002), they went national. These guys understand.”
The Wolverines and Buckeyes received some unexpected assistance in their move to the top of the league when the NCAA slammed Penn State with four years of probation in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Although Bill O’Brien did a fine job last year, leading the Nittany Lions to an 8–4 record, the severe recruiting restrictions placed on PSU and its four-year bowl ban won’t allow it to be an influential player on the national recruiting scene. If O’Brien takes an NFL head coaching job, as it was rumored over the winter he might, that would hurt Penn State further.
Nebraska, which was expected to be a strong counterbalance to the traditional Big Ten bullies, has yet to reach that level, although it has quite a tradition of winning. When we last saw the Cornhuskers, they were surrendering 115 points in their final two games of the 2012 season.
The arrivals of Hoke and Meyer signal a new chapter in the Michigan-Ohio State hostilities, at least on the field. As for the other parts of the rivalry, the continued reconfiguring of conferences could lead to some interesting decisions. Right now, the schools are committed to playing the game on the regular season’s last week, and in the afternoon.
“There will be a time when someone will ask about playing it in primetime, which I won’t do,” OSU athletic director Gene Smith says. “We will do everything we can to protect it.”
Smith’s stance is admirable, but schools don’t control their scheduling destinies, even those with annual nine-figure athletic revenues, like Ohio State. If the networks demand a primetime kickoff, it will be hard to refuse, especially when all of this realignment business has been fueled by TV money.
Then there is the divisional situation. Right now, the teams are separated, leading some to wonder what the response would be if the Buckeyes and Wolverines met one week on the regular-season slate and seven days later in the Big Ten title tilt.
“I’m okay with that,” Brandon says.
But when Rutgers and Maryland join up in 2014, the league will go with a more conventional, East and West configuration, rather than the current — and absurd — Legends and Leaders setup. This will put Michigan and Ohio State in the same division and end any talk of a doubleheader. Under the league’s new alignment, the contest could become a de facto conference semifinal, with the winners advancing to the Big Ten Championship Game.
The rivalry seems set for another period of high-profile, high-level play. Urban and Brady might not top Woody and Bo, but it sure looks like fun is on the horizon. And everybody seems ready for it.
“There’s a different feeling when you walk into (Ohio Stadium), especially when you’re wearing a Michigan jersey,” Michigan senior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says. “Our coaches are big on the Navy SEALS idea of a small group going in against big numbers and getting the job done and leaving. I love it. I love feeling the hate.
“Every single game, I want the guy who lines up across from me to be hurting at the end of the game. When it comes to Michigan-Ohio State, it’s different. I want to hit the guy a little harder.”
That’s what you get for wearing red around a Wolverine.
Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 Big Ten Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 Big 12 season.
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