The players had heard of celebrations such as this only as part of Michigan lore, so when the Wolverines spilled into their dressing room after last Saturday's 20-14 victory over Ohio State, it was as if their maize-and-blue dreams had sprung to life. Captains Eric (Zeus) Mayes and Jon Jansen stood on folding metal chairs in the middle of the room and led their teammates in a hoarse rendition of The Victors, the Michigan fight song. Coach Lloyd Carr delivered a brief homily on the mountaineering theme he had used all year to prod the Wolverines toward their summit, the Big Ten title. The championship trophy was presented, and it all seemed too sweet to be real.
Outside, in the bowl of Michigan Stadium, a party raged as many in the crowd of more than 106,000 refused to leave. "When I came here, I read so much about what it was like to beat Ohio State, to win the Big Ten, to go to the Rose Bowl," said Jansen, a hulking tackle. "Now, to have it all happen, I can't even describe it." Briefly Jansen made another, more graphic statement. He stuck a plug of chewing tobacco behind his lower lip, which he had promised fellow offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson he would do if the Wolverines went undefeated. Then he spit it out. "Otherwise," he said, "I'll yack." Soon he and his teammates would join that madness on the field, singing joyously with the crowd and waving roses in the twilight.
Perhaps you've heard the numbers: It had been five years since Michigan won the Big Ten, 26 since the Wolverines finished the regular season 11-0 and exactly forever since they took a consensus No. 1 ranking into January, with the national championship theirs to keep or lose in a bowl. Those streaks passed into history on Saturday as Michigan's victory, coupled with Florida's upset of Florida State (page 44), which had been first in the coaches' poll, allowed the Wolverines, previously top-ranked by the AP, to become the top team in both polls heading into a Rose Bowl date with Washington State (page 40). "What we did this year, and what we did today, was restore Michigan to its place in college football," said fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Griese.
He was being too modest. In the 29 years since a Big Ten team, Ohio State, last won the national championship, the balance of power in college football has shifted west, east and, most dramatically, south. There had been a time when the late-season Ohio State-Michigan game perennially affected the national-title picture, but in the 1980s and '90s, November usually has meant Games of the Season (or the Century) on artificial turf in the heartland (Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado) or on lush grass in the Deep South. It was as if the most storied conference in the country had become a fossil.
December 1, 1997
What a journey back in time it was, then, when on Saturday the game at the center of the college football universe was played in the raw afternoon chill of Ann Arbor. Snow had fallen overnight and sat piled along the sidelines. With not only the Rose Bowl but also a possible national championship hanging in the balance, Michigan and Ohio State played a tense game in which there were just 441 yards in total offense. Plays critical to the outcome included two interceptions, a fumble and a punt return. Carr described his thoughts during the final 15 minutes of the game this way: "I was just hoping we could punt the ball into decent field position and play great defense." Somewhere Steve Spurrier yacked.
Not only was Michigan's name restored this season, but also an entire conference's. The game between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines crowned an autumn in which the Big Ten again became the premier conference. "Much tougher, much better than I even imagined it would be," says Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who brought his program into the Big Ten five years ago. "There was a time when people suggested that we would come into the league and dominate, but other teams have just gotten stronger and stronger."
The surest measure of a conference is at the top, and the Big Ten had three of the AP's top six teams (No. 1 Michigan, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 6 Penn State) going into the fourth weekend of November. The round-robin showdowns involving these teams were three of the season's centerpiece games, filling the gaps left by sudden parity in the SEC, the collapse of the Big East and the rampant mediocrity (and worse) in the Big 12 beneath second-ranked Nebraska.
"Look what has befallen some of the traditional power programs," says Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. "Texas, Alabama, USC." He could have mentioned Notre Dame and Miami, but he didn't. "Our power teams have had some off years, but they have not experienced that type of fall from grace." What's more, the Big Ten has become more balanced behind its Big Three, and Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan State are all solid programs in the middle of the league, which has a chance to send seven teams to bowl games this season. Even longtime doormat Purdue went 8-3 this fall, with a veteran team under first-year coach Joe Tiller. At the bottom, Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois combined for just two league wins, but each has a first-year coach and the sunny optimism that goes with recent change. "There are still power teams in this league, but the gap is smaller," says Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter. "The other teams can smell blood when it's in the water."
Last week Bo Schembechler, who coached Michigan from 1969 to '89, sat in the football office building that bears his name and marveled at the change. "We only had to worry about Ohio State and maybe, in some years, one other team," he said. "It's different now. You can get beat any week."
The conference has prospered by navigating the most turbulent political times in recent college football history with a combination of patience, grace and stubbornness. While the Big Eight and the SEC hurriedly became 12-team megaconferences and the Big East turned itself into a faceless hybrid of football and basketball that stretches from Boston to Miami, the Big Ten calmly snatched Penn State, the most attractive free agent of all, given that Notre Dame wasn't interested in joining a league. "Penn State is what has changed this conference more than anything else, and for the better," says Ohio State coach John Cooper. From this solid base the Big Ten is studying at least three expansion models, with as many as nine new teams (or as few as one) involved. "The door is open," says Delany.
The hiring of coaches by Big Ten schools in recent years has been equally astute. Barry Alvarez has been at Wisconsin for eight seasons and Gary Barnett at Northwestern for six. Both are keepers. Nick Saban, who is finishing his third year at Michigan State, shows much promise. In a postseason bloodletting a year ago, coaches were let go at Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue, acts on which the jury is still out.
Even the league's most controversial decision has turned to gold. The Big Ten (with the Pac-10) has kept the Rose Bowl out of the two-year-old bowl alliance until next season, much to the consternation of other conferences, and will be rewarded this season with a title game. "The last traditional Rose Bowl gets Michigan, and we're undefeated," says Griese. "I think that's perfect."
The Big Ten's unbalanced schedule, in which each team plays only eight of its conference rivals in any year, isn't ideal, yet it helped Wisconsin (which didn't play Penn State in 1993) and Northwestern (which didn't play Ohio State in '95 or '96) win titles and build a reputation on which to recruit. Rebuffed recently by Notre Dame, the Big Ten now towers over the struggling Irish. Cooper last week urged all Big Ten schools not to schedule Notre Dame in football until the Irish agree to join. These are heady times indeed.
Headiest of all for Michigan. Carr is close to completing a stunning three-year rise from being a reluctant interim replacement for his disgraced friend Gary Moeller to becoming the Wolverines' first national-championship coach since Bennie Oosterbaan, whose team went 9-0 in 1948 and did not play in a bowl. Michigan lost eight games in Carr's first two years, a record masked by two dramatic victories over Ohio State. After the first of those wins, a 31-23 upset in Ann Arbor in '95, Schembechler embraced Carr in the Michigan locker room and told him, "You're going to win a lot of big games here, but none are going to be any bigger than this one."
That is now in doubt. "I try not to think in terms of personal goals," Carr said, standing alone in the locker room on Saturday evening, still dressed in his sideline gray sweatshirt, his black sneakers still plastered with dry mud more than two hours after the game, "but I knew when I got the opportunity to be the coach here that the only way I could be successful was to take a Michigan team to the Rose Bowl."
Tell it to Cooper, who is now 1-8-1 against Michigan. His Buckeyes collapsed Saturday on inexcusable errors, including interceptions of two terrible throws by Ohio State senior quarterback Stanley Jackson. The second was returned 43 yards for a touchdown by Michigan junior cornerback Andre Weathers and gave the Wolverines a 20-0 lead with 10:29 left in the third quarter. That was the cushion Michigan needed in the final quarter.
One week before the game, Ohio State sophomore wideout David Boston had cluelessly predicted as much as a three-touchdown Buckeyes victory and said that Michigan All-America junior cornerback Charles Woodson wasn't as good as Ohio State corner Antoine Winfield. Boston dropped two passes, and after catching a 56-yard third-quarter touchdown pass despite tight coverage by Woodson, he waved the ball in Woodson's face. In retaliation Michigan junior strong safety Marcus Ray, a Columbus native who knows Boston well, dumped Boston hard on his right shoulder (cover photo) with just under six minutes to play and stood over Boston as he writhed on the ground. "I highlighted him for you, like I said I would," Ray told Woodson in the locker room after the game. "He went down, and he sounded like 'Oooooo.'"
For the record, Woodson didn't need much big-brothering. He enhanced his Heisman credentials with a 37-yard reception that set up a touchdown, a 78-yard punt return for a TD and an end zone interception.
All of which were strictly prologue. "Going to Pasadena, that's the best part," Woodson said after a long shower. He reached into his chicken-wire cubicle and pulled out a rose. "How sweet it is," he said, holding the thorns gently against the light stubble of his mustache. "How sweet it is."