When speaking to the men that have put on the storied Winged Helmet, one of the things you can always count on them mentioning is, "The game with Ohio State is special!" Sure there are other great opponents and other great games, but playing against the Scarlet and Grey has unique meaning. It's as if the game has a life of its own. Observers can share the experience vicariously through their gridiron heroes, but no one can truly appreciate the significance unless they actually put on the uniform and go toe-toe with the team from Down South. Former Michigan fullback Russell Davis recalls how he gained the appreciation he still holds for "THE" game to this very day.
"You knew something was different about the Ohio State game starting Monday with preparation," Davis said. "Even as a young player, and maybe not even fully realizing the scope of the game, I figured it out very quickly. Just from watching and listening to the older players I could tell that this one was cut just a little bit different than the rest of them. There was more at stake because in those days it always came down to that game to determine the Big Ten Champion. That never changed through my whole four years. It was always the Ohio State game that would determine who was going to the Rose Bowl."
Because the game means so much, the euphoria for the team that wins might in some cases surpass that from earning a victory in the "Granddaddy of Them All." On the other hand, the team that loses is so utterly disappointed that it's something they never forget and hope to get the chance to avenge. "They'd take us to Campus Inn the night before the game," Davis recalled. "I remember we always had our dinner on Friday night and they would always show a feature film of some sort … typically something like Patton. Before Bo dismissed us to our rooms that night he showed a short clip … and I mean it was real short. It showed just Ohio State's last play and their celebration because they were going to the Rose Bowl from the year before. We watched them whooping and hollering. It had such a DEVASTATING impact on us. You could have heard a pin drop! Everybody went to bed pissed off. Bo was THE MASTER OF MOTIVATION!"
With the presence of such high stakes and such intense emotions, there is certainly a chance that the players (and even the coaches) could be wound too tight. Bo Schembechler recognized that. He had a way for managing the mindset of his team. "Looking back on it now, he gauged his actions on how he felt the team was reacting," Davis said. "If Bo thought we were too tense or too tight, he would do things that would break it up. One particular thing I remember him doing a few times happened during our Friday walk-throughs in the stadium. We'd be practicing our goal-line stuff. We'd call the offensive play in the huddle, Rick Leach would drop back and throw the ball to the wide receiver, and then we'd look out and it would be Bo (laughing). It was just something to break up the tension that everyone had."
Almost 30 years removed from playing in the game, Michigan's team captain from 1978 still speaks with emotion in his voice when talking about the game. "It means a great deal still in my life," Davis said. "We shut them out 22-0 in their place. I think it was the first time they had been shut out in Columbus in 30 years if I recall correctly. I look back now and scoring two touchdowns and shutting them out in their place … that was BIG!"
For the record, Davis was 3-1 against the Buckeyes!
Before we finished our discussion, I had a chance to ask the Jackson athletic director about Antonio Bass. With official visits to Virginia Tech and LSU out of the way, where do things now stand? "I spoke with Coach Carr yesterday," Davis said. "Antonio and I told him 'don't be alarmed.' He is cut a little different. He is not a big RA-RA guy. Depending on when you catch him, you may not get four words out of him. Whenever I'm talking to any school, their sentiment has been the same…'I'm not getting a good feeling from him.' Well everybody is saying that. That's just how the kid is."
So does Davis believe any of the rumors that Michigan may have slipped and that Bass Antonio might be leaning in another direction? "No not at all," Davis said. "As a matter fact, everything I hear always says Michigan, so I'm loving it! (laughing)."