BY SCOTT BELL
Published November 15, 2006
On Saturday, arguably the most anticipated game ever in college football's most storied rivalry will take place.
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But without a game 37 years ago, Saturday's matchup would be just another contest between two great teams - not the hype-fest that's dominated the media for the past month and taken on a life of its own.
The 10 Years War between Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes began in, and was defined by, the contest between the two in 1969.
Hayes's Buckeyes were the clear favorite. They had throttled Michigan by 36 points the year before, and entered the '69 game as the nation's No. 1 team.
Going into the '69 contest, Ohio State was riding a 22-game winning streak.
Sports Illustrated went as far as to say the only game worth watching that season happened every Thursday - when Ohio State's offense and defense squared off against each other in practice.
But Schembechler, Hayes's old acquaintance-turned-thorn-in-the-side, had other thoughts for the Buckeyes' march toward a National Championship.
Schembechler, a former assistant under Hayes at Ohio State, took over a struggling Michigan program in 1969 after coaching for half a decade at Miami (OH).
The opening in Ann Arbor surfaced after Bump Elliot's Wolverine squad were humiliated against the Buckeyes in the regular season's final game in '68.
At one point, the '68 matchup between Ohio State and Michigan was deadlocked at 14, but Ohio State then strung together 36 consecutive points to make the score 50-14.
Following the touchdown that put the Buckeyes at 50, Hayes elected to go for two. The attempt was unsuccessful, but Hayes's hubris salted the Wolverine wound.
If the mere act wasn't enough to fire up Michigan players for the next matchup, Hayes's post-game comments probably did the trick.
When asked why he went for two with the game in hand, Hayes responded: "Because I couldn't go for three."
So when Schembechler took over in between the '68 and '69 seasons, he made it his mission to reinforce the embarrassment that came from the debacle in '68.
And not just for Ohio State week, either. Schembechler had the Ohio State score displayed everywhere even before the season began.
"The one thing that he did to remind us about Ohio State was he took 50-14, and he it tacked up all over the place." said Jim Betts, a wide receiver for Michigan on both the '68 and '69 teams. "That was the score of the game the previous year when they went on to become national champions, so 50-14 was pretty prominent all year long."
By game week, Schembechler had the score tagged on the helmets of his players to further motivate them.
When game day came along, Michigan was fired up. The Wolverines jumped out to a 24-12 halftime lead.
By game's end, the Buckeyes still couldn't solve the Wolverines defense. Ohio State was still stuck on 12 points, and Hayes was so frustrated that he benched his high-profile quarterback, Rex Kern.
Schembechler's Wolverines won by 12. The game remains one of the legendary coach's fondest memories at Michigan.
"I'll never forget when Woody said at the dinner we had for him after he retired, and when he looked down at the podium at me and said, 'God damn you, you will never win a bigger game than that,' " Schembechler said on Monday. "And he was right - I don't think I ever did."
Michigan's 24-12 win against the top-ranked Buckeyes gave the Wolverines a berth to the Rose Bowl over their rivals. It also gave Schembechler a 1-0 record against Hayes, a mark that expanded to 5-4-1 by the time Hayes retired.
But maybe most importantly, the win put a Michigan program that had won just two of the last 20 Big Ten titles back on the map.
Without that game, this rivalry might not be what it is today.
Scratch that, without that game, the rivalry would not be what it is today.
Even though Ohio State has traveled to the Big House and beaten Michigan over a handful of times since that game - including last season's 25-21 win - it doesn't come close to comparing to the magnitude of what occurred on that afternoon in '69.
So when you're caught up in the media circus this week surrounding this game, take a step back and respect those who helped elevate the rivalry to its current place atop the college football world.
And if you see a current Wolverine on campus in the next few days, don't be afraid to slap a piece of paper that says 25-21 on his back.
I hear it works wonders.
- Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org