My second theory is that OSU, unlike most campuses, is located in a major city, one lacking in professional sports teams. Therefore, the whole city is wrapped up in Ohio State football, and you get a working-class fan base that's absent in most college towns. Professional sports fans tend to be angrier and drunker than college ones. (In my youth, I took many trips to watch the Detroit Tigers, and for a $4 bleacher seat you could watch not only the game but shirtless, mullet-wearing ruffians hurling racial insults at the other team's outfielders and, occasionally, beating the crap out of each other.)
The irony is that most Michigan fans respect Ohio State more than any other rival. Most of us root for OSU to win all its games leading up to The Game and consider our southern neighbors a worthy foe. And indeed, most Buckeye fans I've met are nonviolent, sober, and generally act nothing like a protest mob in Damascus. So, why do you think your side has such a sizeable crazed fringe? Can't we all get along?
Aaron: Jonathan, no, we can't. I might be inclined to believe what you're saying about the mental state of Ohio State fans, except for the fact that I've personally attended the Ohio State-Michigan game in Ann Arbor three times. In 2003, I sat in the Michigan student section dressed entirely in OSU garb and was subject to vivid, profanity-laced tirades. I was also physically threatened enough times that I felt I would surely experience the end of the game from the inside of an ambulance. (Inexplicably, I ended up trading chugs from a full bottle of Jägermeister with the guy who was most ready to fight me instead …)
Don't take my tale as a horror story. I don't consider my experience particularly interesting or unique—I've heard many a tale of rogue hooliganism directed at Ohio State fans visiting Ann Arbor. In fact, I thought I got off easy. After all, I was sitting in the opposing student section during the biggest college-football game in the country. And that, I think, is the crucial difference between Ohio State people and Michigan people: Buckeye fans know that when you buy the ticket, you take the ride. Football games aren't cricket matches. There's no break for tea.
Actually, if you ask around, most people will cite Wisconsin or Penn State as the home of the Big Ten's worst fans. In Madison, they have a special medical facility for fans who drink too much. Badger fans are also well-known for their profane chants. Penn State fans welcomed our band last year by lobbing bottles filled with yellow liquid. And it wasn't Mello Yello. My point here is that insane behavior is the norm in big-time college football. What you call certified lunacy, I call passion.
You are right about one thing: Ohio State fans care more about The Game than Michigan fans. The gold pants, the song, the "What Have You Done to Beat Michigan Today" sign—guilty on all counts. What you fail to recognize is that this is completely rational. First, Ohioans care more about football than people anywhere else in the known football universe. (Sit down, Texas.) There are small towns here where your eternal worth is defined by how well your high-school team did your senior year. Plus, there are no other big-time college-football programs in Ohio. As a consequence, there are tons of Buckeye fans across the state who didn't go to OSU. (I went to Ohio University in Athens, for example, but as a Columbus native, I consider the third Saturday in November a high holiday.) The lack of worthy state schools also means that we have to look across the border to find a legitimate rival. Do you know how hard it is to get up for games against Cincinnati and Toledo?
That said, spare me the notion that Michigan doesn't care about this game. Your coach revealed this week that he's been practicing for Ohio State all year long. And we haven't forgotten that Michigan fans were in an ugly, coach-firing mood after the Buckeyes snatched another win away in Ann Arbor last year. Besides, any team whose fans willingly wear maize-and-blue checkered pants in public is pretty into the game.
I also don't think that the working-class roots of the Ohio State fan base has anything to do with the bitterness of the rivalry. It's more about geography and history. We hate Michigan because they wanted to fight in 1835 over a sliver of turf that the Michigan Territory and the state of Ohio had competing claims on. No shots were fired in the Toledo War, but Michigan and Ohio militias did get close enough to lob insults back and forth for several days. And then there is the more recent history of near-misses for Ohio State in Michigan games where we had everything on the line. Buckeye DB Shawn Springs falls down one year. Michigan running back Tim Biakabutuka runs for 313 yards against our vaunted defense. Kiss two national titles bye-bye.
I agree that the 10 Year War between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler made this rivalry larger than life, but I don't think it really had that much to do with that Buckeye castoff Bo. Woody gave this rivalry its real passion—tearing up yard-line markers one year, refusing to let the almost-out-of-gas team bus stop in Michigan. And then there's the time Woody went for a two-point conversion in 1968 when Ohio State was up 48-14. When someone asked why he did it, Hayes said, " Because I couldn't go for three." Ohio State fans whisper that to their first-born sons when they place them in their cribs at night.
Ohio State coach John Cooper was most assuredly run out of town for his pathetic record of 2-10-1 against Michigan. I wouldn't be so sure that your curmudgeonly coach is safe. The Buckeyes' Jim Tressel has won four of five from Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr. There is loose talk in Columbus that we should throw a game just to ensure our scowling punching bag sticks around for a while. Maybe we'll give you guys a freebie next year.
Now that I'm done explaining what the rivalry means to my people, perhaps you could explain something to me. How in the name of Fielding Yost are your boys going to hang with my Buckeyes come Saturday?