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Bigger Than Ever The sport's greatest rivalry again lived up to its billing, as Michigan knocked Ohio State out of the national title picture and won a Rose Bowl berth

Dec. 01, 2003
Dec. 01, 2003

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Dec. 1, 2003

Bigger Than Ever The sport's greatest rivalry again lived up to its billing, as Michigan knocked Ohio State out of the national title picture and won a Rose Bowl berth

Jeez, was Chris Perry going to live? The way the kid was writhing
on the ground, clutching himself, there ought to at least have
been a gurney involved. But while trainers ministered to Perry,
the crowd of more than 112,000 at Michigan Stadium began chanting
his name, as if he were Russell Crowe's Maximus in Gladiator.
Moments later Perry popped off the turf like a man who'd
overslept for a job interview.

This is an article from the Dec. 1, 2003 issue Original Layout

He returned to the Big Game, as the Michigan-Ohio State matchup
is known in the heartland, to punch in the second of his two
touchdowns in the Wolverines' 35-21 victory. Those scoring
runs, along with his 154 rushing yards and another 55
receiving, ought to earn the senior running back a trip to New
York City as a Heisman finalist. More important, to a true
Michigan Man like Perry, he covered himself in glory in a win
over the Buckeyes.

Never mind that Perry is slow to rise from the pile every other
time he carries the ball. Like Franco Harris and Jim Brown before
him, he lingers on the turf, taking inventory, and he gives the
impression during his unhurried walk to the huddle that he surely
cannot endure much more. What he is actually doing is getting a
little extra rest, giving the defense the impression that it's
wearing him down when in fact it's the other way around. Perry's
Lazarus-like recovery, now etched in Big Game lore, was made
complete after last Saturday's game, when his various afflictions
were insufficient to prevent him from walking around with the Big
Ten championship trophy, which weighs roughly as much as a
Scottish caber.

Unlike lesser rivalries in college football--that would be all of
them, frankly--this one is not played for some highly polished
antique: an ax, or a bucket, or a jug. These two teams don't need
to play for a relic, because when they knock heads something
bigger is usually at stake. Saturday's meeting, the 100th between
these powerhouses from contiguous states, represented the 20th
time since 1935 that the Big Game had decided the Big Ten
championship. It was the 41st time that the rivalry had had a
"major impact" on the conference title, according to the
estimable Ohio State fan publication Bucknuts. If the Big Game is
where the Big Ten championship is often determined, it is also
where grand ambitions go to die. Nine times one of the teams has
come into this game undefeated and left with a loss (or, famously
in 1973, a tie, when both entered undefeated). This year the
Buckeyes entered the Big House with a record of 10-1 and a
recent, controversial promotion over USC to No. 2 in the BCS
rankings. A win would have kept Ohio State on track to defend its
national title. It also would have precipitated debate on bar
stools across the republic, pitting those who felt Southern Cal
was getting screwed against those who would argue that it wasn't
the Buckeyes' fault that the Trojans played in a weaker conference.

The Wolverines, now 10-2 and Rose Bowl-bound, have spared us this
dispute, and we are grateful. For their part they're relieved.
Many Michigan fans admit they'd begun to take this rivalry for
granted during the reign of John Cooper, the star-crossed Ohio
State coach who won only twice in 13 Big Games. The fat times
came to an abrupt end nearly three years ago. The day Jim
Tressel's hiring was announced in Columbus, the new coach stood
at midcourt during halftime of a Buckeyes basketball game and
promised the crowd it would be proud of its football team "in the
classroom, in the community and, most especially, in 310 days in
Ann Arbor, Michigan."

While the academic travails of Maurice Clarett and his uncertain
grasp of what constitutes a proper police report undermined two
thirds of that prediction, Tressel beat Michigan in his first two
tries. A third straight loss, said Perry, "would've been
unacceptable."

He is right. In a true rivalry you cannot win them all, nor even
the lion's share. A rivalry giveth and a rivalry taketh away, or
it is something other than a rivalry. It is Kansas-Nebraska.

"We won in my sophomore and junior years, but when I was a
senior, we got the hell kicked out of us." The 1934 Big Game was
69 years ago, and Gerald Ford still winces at the memory of it.
Before becoming the 38th President of the United States, Ford
played center for the Wolverines--this in the pre-face-mask days,
when men were men and the quarterback did not press his hands
into the center's buttocks before every snap. "Even in those
days," says Ford, Ohio State-Michigan "was an historic contest."

Ford turned 90 last summer and is still sharp. He makes speeches,
writes occasional editorials and tees it up, although his
creaking old pins can handle only nine holes at a time. Like too
many ex-football players, he's walking around with a pair of
artificial knees. That loss to the Buckeyes, 34-0 in '34, did
nothing for his health. In the Nov. 24, 1934, Michigan Daily,
"Jerry" was described by team physicians as having "enough
injuries to keep three men out."

The Ohio State team that put the wood to the man who would
succeed Richard Nixon in the White House was guided by Francis
Schmidt, a first-year coach who succeeded Sam Willaman, an
otherwise fine coach who was let go, Ford recalls, "because he
couldn't beat Michigan."

Sound familiar, Coop? This is one of the main ingredients of an
authentic rivalry: Losing it too frequently--regardless of your
record over the rest of the season--will get you fired. One of
the reasons why watching Auburn-Alabama last Saturday night was a
guilty pleasure was the rumor that Tigers head man Tommy
Tuberville was coaching for his job. (Auburn won 28-23, but
Tuberville must await his fate until after university president
William Walker returns from a Thanksgiving vacation.) That
rivalry games are so important that they cost men their jobs is
not necessarily something healthy. Nor is a game played under the
sword of Damocles something from which we can bring ourselves to
look away.

Why do we love rivalries? We love them because they bring out the
best--or worst--in fans. After the Wolverines' win Michigan
students rushed the field at the Big House, mingling with the
players first, then migrating toward the south end zone, where
they chanted to the Ohio State section, "Over-rated!" Many of
these fashion-forward young adults sported anti-Buckeyes T-shirts
bearing such legends as 100 YEARS OF BUSTING THEIR NUTS.

We love rivalries because they force coaches, those creatures of
regimentation and habit who would never look past this week's
opponent, to acknowledge the truth: Some games are more important
than others.

At least Woody Hayes was up front about it. "Mondays were
designated for Michigan," recalls Archie Griffin, the two-time
Heisman Trophy winner who played for Hayes from 1972 through '75
and is now an associate athletic director at his alma mater. "And
I hesitate to say this, but during the time I was at Ohio State,
Northwestern wasn't that good, so we'd use most of Northwestern's
week to prepare for Michigan.

"I grew up in Columbus, and I thought I knew about the rivalry.
My freshman year, the Monday before the Michigan game, Woody
brought in Dave Whitfield, who'd played on the '68 national
champion team. Whitfield got rolling, he got emotional, tears
were rolling down his face. I looked around the room, my
teammates are crying, and I'm thinking, 'Man, this is more than I
thought it was.'"

Hayes ruled Buckeye Nation from 1951 to '78, going 16-11-1
against the Wolverines. It was during the final decade of his
tenure, coaching against his former player and assistant Bo
Schembechler, that the Big Game emerged as the nation's most
colorful rivalry.

One witness to that history was former NFL quarterback Jim
Harbaugh, who grew up in Ann Arbor and whose father, Jack, was a
Schembechler assistant in the '70s. "In '69 Ohio State was coming
off a national championship, and we beat 'em in Bo's first year,"
recalls Harbaugh, who was five at the time. "In '71 we beat 'em
10-7. Woody tore up the down markers. In '73, the year of the
10-10 tie, the Ohio State players came out of the tunnel and tore
down the Michigan banner." Here Harbaugh launches into a spot-on
impersonation of Bob Ufer, the late Wolverines radio man:
"They're tearing down Michigan's coveted M Club banner! They will
meet a dastardly fate for this!"

Asked why on earth he has committed this passage to memory,
Harbaugh explains that as a boy he would lie in bed at night
listening to a cassette of Ufer's best Big Game calls. A year
after the tie, the Wolverines had a chance to beat the Buckeyes
with a last-minute field goal. Harbaugh captures the anguish of
Ufer, who briefly lifted the hopes of listeners, only to dash
them: "The ball is spotted, it's kicked, it's end over end, it's
good.... No good! No good! Oh no, no, no, no, no, no...."

Not surprisingly, Harbaugh grew up to become a Wolverine,
quarterbacking Michigan to victories over Ohio State in '85 and
'86. He incurred the wrath of Bo before the latter Big Game.
Explaining to reporters that he felt it was his "destiny" to play
in the Rose Bowl, Harbaugh was asked if that meant he was
guaranteeing victory. Yeah, he said. I guarantee we'll win.
Though Schembechler called him out in a meeting that week,
Harbaugh's teammates--in particular Jamie Morris, who rushed for
210 yards--backed their signal-caller up.

That afternoon Buckeyes linebacker Chris Spielman, a junior, had
29 tackles in a losing cause. Spielman would have one last crack
at Michigan the following year. But five days before Spielman's
final Big Game, his coach, Earle Bruce, was fired. Bruce was told
he could coach the Michigan game, and to this day Spielman
remains in awe of the dignity with which the coach handled
himself. "He told us, 'I will not allow what is happening with me
to affect your experience.' And he never mentioned his firing the
entire week."

There is, at Ohio State, a Big Game week tradition called Senior
Tackle. A Buckeye says a few laudatory words about a senior
teammate, who then runs toward a tackling dummy. Some merely tag
the dummy, others attempt to knock the stuffing out of it. When
his players insisted that he join in the ritual, Bruce "tried to
kill the thing," recalls Spielman. The Buckeyes went up to Ann
Arbor, donned EARLE headbands, upset the Wolverines 23-20, then
bore Bruce off the field on their shoulders.

"I remember standing by the tunnel, trying to soak it all up,"
Spielman says. "We were finished. We could have gone to a bowl
game, but there was no one to coach us. So that was it. I'd
played my last game for Ohio State, and there was Earle, getting
carried off the field. I can still see the smile on his face.
What a way to go."

There is much to be said for a graceful departure. Ask John
Navarre. Rushed into the starting job three years ago when Drew
Henson left to play baseball, Navarre was immobile, inaccurate
and confused, and he was not well received by Michigan fans.
Despite steady improvement last season, the 6'6" native of
Cudahy, Wis., had a few rough patches in September and early
October, in losses to Oregon and Iowa. The Wolverines seemed
assured of a third loss until Navarre rallied them from a
21-point fourth-quarter deficit to win at Minnesota on Oct. 10.
In the next four games he completed 74 of 119 passes for eight
touchdowns in victories over Illinois, Purdue, Michigan State and
Northwestern.

Few people on the Ann Arbor campus much cared about Navarre's
numbers. They didn't care that his name was all over the school's
record books, or that he was a finalist for the Johnny Unitas
Golden Arm Award. They knew that he was 0-2 against the Buckeyes,
and they were withholding judgment. Fair or not, Navarre knew
going in that this Big Game would determine his legacy, or, as he
put it, "would define me."

Navarre quickly got busy on his legacy on Saturday, directing the
Wolverines to touchdowns on four of their first six possessions
to go up 28-7. Navarre was crisp, accurate and authoritative,
decisively outplaying his counterpart, Craig Krenzel. Inevitably
the Buckeyes clawed their way back into the game, pulling to
within 28-21. On the following possession Navarre threw an
interception. Earlier in his career that might have rattled him.
This time, after the defense forced a punt, the fifth-year senior
dropped back on a third-down play and lofted a sweet, 30-yard
touch pass into the arms of tight end Tyler Ecker. That set up
Perry's second score, midway through the fourth quarter, which
effectively dethroned Ohio State.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, roses appeared, as if
by magic, in the hands and behind the ears and clenched in the
teeth of the Michigan players. Two thousand miles away, in Rancho
Mirage, Calif., a 90-year-old Wolverine permitted himself a
subdued celebration.

Ford's most famous quote, as President, followed his pardon of
Nixon: "Our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution
works." Even as they failed to extend their streak over Big Blue
to three, the Buckeyes clarified the national title picture.
Looks as though it'll be Oklahoma and USC in the Sugar Bowl.
Paraphrasing President Ford: Michigan's brief regional nightmare
is over. The BCS works.

More college football coverage, including Tim Layden's Insider
and a photo gallery from the week, at si.com/football/ncaa.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS ENEMY TERRITORY Tressel (with headset) looked on as Michigan wideout Braylon Edwards paid an impromptu visit to his archrivals' sideline.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS JOIN THE CLUB Perry's dominant performance put him in the company of Big Game greats such as Griffin (inset).COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER ROSY FUTURE Steve Breaston (15) and mates celebrated a trip to Pasadena and the end of the Buckeyes' Big Game run.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN NO. 1 PRIORITY Edwards won the battle with Buckeyes star corner Chris Gamble on a 23-yard touchdown reception.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS BUCK STOPPER Norman Heuer (90) and the Wolverines' defense made sure there were no Krenzel heroics this year.

Rivalries force coaches, those creatures of regimentation and
habit, to acknowledge THE TRUTH: Some games are more important
than others.