While making the one-mile or so trek from our parking spot to The Horseshoe, I saw plenty of Michigan fans sprinkled throughout the ocean of scarlet and grey.
Usually one would expect their lives to be threatened, called every name in the book and berated with jeers and taunting — this was the greatest rivalry in all of sports, right?
Well, thanks to Jim Tressel, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry had turned into a joke in recent years — when Lloyd Carr’s teams lost it was at least competitive, and then with Rodriguez, it got ugly.
Now, Michigan fans weren’t worth Ohio State fans’ time anymore. The Buckeyes knew they were going to win in a few hours. It would’ve taken a cruel and sadistic person to pile on, on top of the mess Rich Rodriguez had already created for those people.
In the week leading up to The Game this year, the players used the cliché, “You throw the records out the window,” when these two teams get together. Ohio State wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said as much during the Big Ten Media Day last year, before the season began.
It was about everything that produced the records, though, when Rodriguez marched his 7-4 Wolverines into Tressel’s slaughterhouse last November.
The truth is: Ohio State was bigger, faster, stronger and better prepared than Michigan the past three years. The Wolverines didn’t stand a chance, not with Tressel in charge.
With Tressel’s resignation coming early Monday morning, the tides may be turning in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry — those fans might not have such a pleasant stroll to The Horseshoe in two years. With Tressel gone, this is Michigan’s chance to make the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry great again.
Tressel improved to 9-1 against Michigan that afternoon in a game that his Buckeyes led by three scores at halftime. His teams outscored Rodriguez’s squads 100-24, and this loss allowed those Michigan fans to miss the traffic and head home early.
Following the worst bowl loss in Michigan football history, Tressel didn’t have Rodriguez to beat up anymore. Tressel’s teams routinely pushed around Rodriguez’s spread-option offense and 3-3-5 defense, and even had a quarterback (Terrelle Pryor) better suited, perhaps, to play in Rodriguez’s scheme.
The Ohio State coach made it clear from the start that beating Michigan was going to be a priority of his. Tressel was facing a similar hill to climb than Brady Hoke faces now — the Wolverines were 10-2-1 in their last 13 games against the Buckeyes before Tressel took over in 2001.
The pendulum swung towards Ann Arbor.
“I can assure you,” Tressel said at the time of his hiring in 2001, “that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community, and most especially, in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the football field.”
He understood that the first thing he had to do was beat Michigan. Everything else he wanted to accomplish would follow.
It was obvious Tressel was a great coach and a better recruiter. In today’s college football landscape, dominated by the Southeastern Conference, Ohio State was probably the only Big Ten team in recent years that was built to compete with the nation’s best. Michigan used to be among that elite class. And Tressel alone took Ohio State to that next level — with a 106-22 record in 10 years.
In his first season, 310 days after he was hired, he beat Michigan 26-20 in the Big House. Craig Krenzel made his first start of his career and Ohio State entered the game with a 4-3 record in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes were the underdogs against the No. 11 Michigan Wolverines. But Tressel coached Ohio State to a 23-0 halftime lead and then held on to win. That’s what good coaches do: they bring the most out of their players and win games they’re not supposed to from time to time.
Although, 2004 was the only other year under Tressel in which the Buckeyes could have been considered decent-sized underdogs in the rivalry.
The pendulum swung towards Columbus.
Rodriguez’s teams never had that win-when-you’re-not-supposed-to trait. The Buckeyes always had a chance with Tressel there.
The first step in beating Ohio State was the changing of the guard that took place in January when Brady Hoke took over. He takes the rivalry as serious as anyone. He has countdown clocks all over Schembechler Hall, ticking down until Michigan plays Michigan State and Ohio State — two teams Rodriguez never beat. And his players break their huddles screaming “Beat Ohio,” during spring practice, more than six months before they play the Buckeyes. He refers to the Buckeyes as “Ohio,” and his feelings about the rivalry seem genuine.
As a coach, Hoke teaches the fundamentals and is as hands-on as any head coach. We’ll find out soon enough if his teams have that integrity that Tressel’s played with.
For now, the pendulum stays in Columbus until Hoke proves he can beat Luke Fickell’s Buckeyes.
Anyone who knows the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry knows it is based on each team having a period of dominance. But had Tressel not known about Pryor’s and his cohort’s wrongdoings, then it would’ve been harder for Hoke to end Ohio State’s current seven-game winning streak in the rivalry — the longest it has ever had.
“The head of the scarlet and grey Demon has been cut off,” Michigan’s best defensive player, nose tackle Mike Martin tweeted on Monday.
With Rodriguez’s failings and the prolonged drought against Ohio State, Michigan is desperate for a swing in the pendulum. As The Columbus Dispatch points out in the upper left corner of its Ohio State sports page — the counter remains even if you are reading about the men’s or women’s basketball teams — that, as of Monday, it has been 2746 days since Michigan last beat Ohio State in football.
In Brady Hoke’s office it is counting down: 180 days, so-many hours and minutes and seconds until Nov. 26, when he gets his first turn to beat “Ohio.”
His chances got a lot better on Monday.
— Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.