Jonathan: Aaron, we have always called it The Game, and we have always understood it to be the best rivalry in all of sports. This year, the entire world is seeing it the same way. ESPN has been showing countdowns for weeks, the national media have descended upon Columbus, and even outside the Midwest, the Michigan-Ohio State game is Topic A. (I spent last weekend at a wedding in Georgia, and talk about The Game never stopped.)
The Game is The Game for a number of reasons. First, of course, is that college football has the fewest games of any sport, and thus every individual game takes on magnified importance. Second, Michigan and Ohio State historically dominate the Big Ten conference and always play each other last. The matchup inevitably colors the entire season for both teams and usually carries championship implications.
Michigan and Ohio State have played 102 times, but most fans of both schools believe the essence of the rivalry is the "10 Year War." That's the decade (1969-1978) during which Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and Michigan's Bo Schembechler faced off. Both teams were at their peak (OSU won 81 percent of its games over that decade, UM 86 percent). Bo, of course, had coached under Woody, lending a recurring Zeus-Cronus subplot. More importantly, The Game was, quite literally, the season. The games leading up to The Game were often a procession of blowouts, and the two rivals spent much of the year practicing for each other. Until 1975, moreover, no Big Ten team other than the champion was allowed to play in a bowl game. It was win and go to the Rose Bowl, lose and spend the next 365 days preparing for revenge.
Since Big Ten teams have been allowed to appear in other bowl games, and especially since the 1980s, when a Michigan or Ohio State loss to another Big Ten foe became something other than a freakish occurrence, The Game has seemed slightly less cataclysmic. It's the culmination of the season, yes, but not the season itself. Except that this year, with both teams 11-0 and clearly the best two squads in the country (OSU probably a little better), it is everything those Bo-Woody battles were and more.
I'm a Michigan graduate and a lifelong fan of the football team. When my non-college-football-fan friends (and here in Washington, D.C., that means almost all of them) inquire about Michigan-Ohio State, they assume the two sides are mirror images. Sort of the way political novices think of the Israel-Arab conflict. In many ways we are alike, but we are different in one critical respect: Ohio State fans are insane hooligans. Not all of them, of course. Not even most. But enough of them.
This may sound like a hopelessly partisan statement, but let me explain. It has been known for many years that opposing fans, especially Michigan fans, get treated very badly in Columbus. Not only will you be cursed at, you may have beer or urine hurled at you. You may also be shoved or punched. If your car has Michigan license plates, the police will frequently ticket you for trumped-up infractions. I have not heard of these things happening with any regularity in Ann Arbor.
This year, the University of Michigan sent an e-mail to fans traveling to Columbus. It reads like a State Department warning to tourists visiting a hostile Third World country. Some of the advice:
- Try carpooling to the game; if possible, drive a car with non-Michigan license plates.
- Keep your Michigan gear to a minimum, or wait until you are inside the stadium to display it.
- Stay with a group.
- Stay low-key; don't draw unnecessary attention to yourself.
- If verbally harassed by opposing fans, don't take the bait.
- Avoid High Street in Columbus.
Two years ago, the last time the game was at Ohio State, police detained the Michigan football team outside Ohio Stadium and searched them with bomb-sniffing dogs. Again, no equivalent thing has happened in Ann Arbor. I haven't heard of anything like this happening elsewhere, either. And in no other opposing stadium do Michigan fans report regular physical abuse, vandalism, and police harassment. So, the interesting sociological question is: Why are Buckeye fans so insane?
I have two theories. The first is that the Michigan-Ohio State game is more important to Ohio State. Michigan has secondary rivalries with Notre Dame and Michigan State, and these drain some of the focus that Ohio State fans reserve entirely for Michigan. OSU players get a special gold trinket if they beat Michigan. The team has a sign asking, "What Have You Done to Beat Michigan Today?" in its weight room, year-round. One of OSU's most popular school songs is titled " We Don't Give a Damn for the Whole State of Michigan." When a Buckeye coach is fired, it is generally for failing to beat Michigan, regardless of how well he has done overall. I don't think any of these things have a parallel in Ann Arbor.