Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" was near the top of the music charts and the Plymouth Barracuda was one of the preferred muscle cars of the time. It was also during this era in American pop culture that Woody Hayes was fielding what is still regarded today as one of the great teams in Ohio State football history.
The year was 1973, and the Buckeyes, who entered the season ranked No. 3 before ascending to the No. 1 spot for the remainder of the regular season, were running riot through college football. As was often the case during the 1970s, Ohio State would decide its Big Ten and national title hopes in the year-end matchup with Michigan. The Wolverines would play host to the Buckeyes as the No. 4 team in the country that year and holding a 9-0 record, which tied Ohio State for tops in the Big Ten.
Michigan's 9-0 was a far cry from Ohio State's 9-0, however.
"The 1973 team has to be considered one of the greatest ever at Ohio State," OSU football historian Jack Park told BSB in our Oct. 17, 1988, print edition. "That team was absolutely loaded."
Hayes' Buckeyes were pitiless in their pursuit of a national title in 1973. Ohio State's defense, led by third-year coordinator George Hill, pitched four shutouts during the regular season and had allowed only 33 points in the nine games leading up to the now-famous tilt with Michigan.
The Buckeyes' offense, under the tutelage of sixth-year coordinator George Chaump, scored 38 points per game in 1973. The attack was ground-centric, and why would it have been anything else with Big Ten MVP Archie Griffin lining up in the Buckeyes' backfield.
Griffin was also running behind tackle John Hicks, a Buckeye legend in his own respect that would claim both the Outland Trophy and Lombard Award by the end of the '73 campaign. Under center that season for the Buckeyes was flamboyant sophomore Cornelius Greene.
Suffice it to say that Ohio State was outgunning and overpowering its opposition leading into the Michigan game in Ann Arbor, and a win of any variety was going to put a stamp on the program's ticket to a national championship.
Sure enough, Ohio State advanced to the Rose Bowl where, against Southern Cal, it allowed a season-high 21 points but still managed to double up on the Trojans in a resounding 42-21 win.
There was a hitch in the plan, though. When college football's national champion was announced after voters had cast ballots — there was no national championship game to decide the matter in these times — Ohio State came up short. The Buckeyes were No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll, and No. 3 in the UPI poll. Notre Dame took the AP poll's No. 1 spot in the final ranking of the year and the 11-0 Alabama Crimson Tide was tops in the UPI poll.
The 1973 Buckeyes' championship dreams went off the tracks during the Nov. 24, 1973, trip to Ann Arbor. Ohio State returned to Columbus tied in the standings with Michigan thanks to a tie on the scoreboard with their bitter rivals. The game ended 10-10, and the team Hayes had been so eager to declare his greatest ever would only go down as one of many Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions in program history.
"It all boils down to that Michigan game," former Ohio State defensive back Tim Fox told BSB in the Sept. 27, 2003, print edition. "Woody used to say that if that team had won that Michigan game, he would have declared that the best team he ever coached. That's what is frustrating about it when you look back, because we did have a great team."
Nov. 23, 1973 — The Game
It was a foggy, overcast, windy and balmy Ann Arbor day, and tension between Ohio State and Michigan mounted as the fog began to burn off.
The stage was set when the Buckeyes took the field prior to the game and attempted to rip Michigan's famed "Go Blue: The M-Club Supports You" banner at midfield. Buckeyes swarmed around it and tugged the banner down, though members of the Michigan program still managed make their traditional field entrance under it in a show of pride after forming what looked to be a celebratory dog pile in the Buckeyes bench area.
Once the pregame antagonism was put to bed, a defensive struggle unfolded on the field, as the Buckeyes didn't even collect a first down in the first 15 minutes.
Ohio State finally got on the board with a comparatively hot second quarter, first with 31-yard Blair Conway field goal, and then a 5-yard Pete Johnson touchdown run. The 10-0 lead would hold until the fourth quarter, the watershed moment of the 1973 team's season.
"That whole day was strange," Ohio State's Randy Gradishar told BSB in September 2003. "We built up a lead and couldn't do anything after that. I remember it rained, then it was sunny, then the wind started blowing. You had every kind of weather in that game."
Despite the wind and unpredictable conditions, Michigan's Mike Lantry booted a 30-yard field goal into the gray sky and through the uprights, narrowing the Wolverines deficit to seven points. A 10-yard touchdown run by quarterback Dennis Franklin at the 9:32 mark in the quarter tied the game. Lantry would miss a 44-yard field goal attempt with 24 seconds to play in the game, though, handing Ohio State an opportunity to win the game in the closing seconds.
On the final possession of the contest and deep in Ohio State's own territory, Hayes' final, fleeting hope for championship glory rested on the shoulders of Greene, who hurled long bombs on the final two plays of the game. The second-to-last deep throw was bobbled by former Ohio State receiver David Hazel, and then subsequently mishandled about nine or so times by players on both teams before falling incomplete. Greene's final toss went well out of bounds down the sideline.
Fans at Michigan Stadium gave a half-hearted cheer as the clock struck "0:00," and some threw debris down toward the field. The teams had only the regulation 60 minutes to decide that game, and since they failed to settle the matter, Big Ten athletics directors were saddled with the burden of voting to decide which team would receive the conference's berth to the Rose Bowl.
The rest is history, as the old cliché goes. When the phone rang in Hayes' office the day after the tie, the Buckeyes had their answer, prompting him to call his wife and hum the first few bars of "California, Here We Come." The conference athletic directors had voted 6-4 to send the Buckeyes back to Pasadena for the second year in a row.
Michigan coach Bo Schembechler didn't take the news well.
"I'm very bitter," he told reporters. "It's a tragic thing for Big Ten football. This is the darkest day in my athletic career."
For some Ohio State players, the news came as a surprise. Van Ness DeCree told BSB in 2003 that he began packing his clothes for the winter holiday when he found out he wasn't going anywhere.
"We stayed at 147 E. Oakland Ave. and I was packing my clothes that next morning," DeCree told BSB a decade ago. "I figured it was the end of the (academic) quarter and that was it. (A teammate) walked in the room and said they had voted us to go. He said, ‘We're going to the Rose Bowl.' I just sat down on the bed and said, ‘I don't believe it.' "
Griffin held out a bit of hope but wasn't feeling positive about Ohio State's chances of advancing to the Rose Bowl.
"I had some hope, but I didn't think they'd give it to us because we had gone the year before and lost to Southern Cal and that they'd figure they ought to give Michigan a shot this time," said Griffin, who was still a year away from capturing his first Heisman Trophy.
Much like the ultra-competitive Buckeyes teams in the early years of the Urban Meyer era, the 1973 team had blinders on throughout the season. They were a confident bunch but weren't concerned with the historical significance of the campaign they were embarking on at that time.
"We can talk about how good we are now, but what's funny is we never thought like that during the season," Hicks told BSB in September 2003. "We came in and inherited a hell of a legacy from the 1968 team. It was just kind of like this expectation that we're Ohio State, we're champions, and we're going to play Michigan and go to the Rose Bowl."
All the items Hicks listed went to plan, save for beating Michigan, which was the eventual downfall of the Buckeyes' national title hopes. As recently as a few years ago, members of the 1973 team lamented the team's departure from its normal game day strategies against Michigan.
"As often happens in the Michigan game, the game kind of took on a life of its own," Fox told BSB in 2003. "You find yourself being coached differently and playing differently. We played not to lose and it cost us."