More than any other rivalry in college sports, The Game is about the coaches involved.
The Ten-Year War was a war because of Woody "Because I couldn't go for three" Hayes on one side and Bo Schembechler on the other.
On the Ohio State side, the rivalry has been defined by coaches from Francis Schmidt – he won his first four tries vs. Michigan and created the gold pants tradition with his quote intoning Michigan put its pants on “one leg at a time” just like everyone else – to John Cooper, who had markedly less success.
So when it comes to the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, it’s likely that no coach had a tougher act to follow than Urban Meyer.
Jim Tressel set the standard from the Ohio State side of how to dominate the rivalry. Not only did he go 9-1 in his career against his rivals from up north, he did it with style and panache, beating Michigan as a favorite, an underdog and everything in between.
His mastery of the Wolverines was so thorough that he put up a fence around Ohio, weakening the Michigan at its very source – the Buckeye State talent that helped Michigan build one of the best programs in the nation on a year-in, year-out basis.
And it came on the heels of Cooper’s 2-9-1 record, a time in which any win vs. Michigan felt like it came around to Columbus as rarely as Halley’s Comet. He made the unique seem routine for Ohio State fans.
How did he do it? Because of a lesson he learned from a famous Michigan coach, in fact.
“There’s no question about it, we had great emphasis on the Ohio State-Michigan game,” Tressel said. “I remember learning as a young coach, I heard Bo Schembechler say, ‘You get what you emphasize.’ I can promise you, we emphasized that game.”
Yet, as we head into Meyer’s third stint in The Game as the Ohio State coach, he has a chance to make history. With a win tomorrow, Meyer can one-up the man before him – not even Tressel could win his first three games.
Though “The Senator” proved his mettle early on as both an underdog – his 2001 win, 310 days after his promise in Value City Arena, came with a team that was 8½-point underdogs – and a favorite – his 2002 win with an unbeaten squad exorcised many demons from the Cooper era – he didn’t get to 3-0, losing in 2003 in Ann Arbor with a national championship bid on the line.
In other words, Meyer is off to an equal start. And with just three losses in rivalry games in his 12-plus years as a coach, it’s clear that Meyer knows how to get up for big games.
He’s followed the Woody Hayes ethos that it’s not Michigan, it’s That School (or Team) Up North. He learned from the notoriously fiery Earle Bruce when he was an assistant in 1986 and ’87, often recalling seeing “Muck Fichigan” signs – or the alternative – hanging from Lincoln and Morrill towers when he would drive to work. And he grew up with the rivalry, often telling a famous story of listening to The Game over the loudspeakers while shopping with his mother as a child in Ashtabula.
“You go back and go have a little chat with Earle Bruce for six or seven minutes and this game's going to come up,” Meyer said Monday. “That's the way it is here and that's the way it should be. We just make a huge deal out of rivalry games. I want the players to take ownership in the program, part ownership in the game. This is not another game. This is the game.
“So it is different around here. I want to have some fun with it. But I also want the players to, when you say have fun, I'm not sure how to have fun. How to have fun is sing the fight song in the locker room after a win against your rival. That's how you have fun. Everything leads up to that fun.
“I know I'm kind of going on and on, but it's a huge deal here. And it's something that was it's always been a huge deal. As long as I can remember, this game is The Game. And the comment might be a little bit embellished about you can lose them all, just win this one. I'm not sure I buy that one. But this is and our players know it."
Tressel was known for emphasizing Michigan, creating “Maize and Blue” periods in practice every day throughout the year and, as a native Ohioan, focusing on the rivalry with his players throughout the year.
Meyer is the same way. He has kept Maize and Blue periods, and he takes time during the offseason – a day or a week at a time – to educate his players about the rivalry. He’s even added a new twist with his continuous playing of LL Cool J’s “It’s Time for War” the week of the game.
“It’s pretty much the same mentality,” senior cornerback Doran Grant said of the feeling about The Game over the years. “It’s The Team Up North. It’s a big game and it’s The Game so we go about it the same way.”
For former Ohio State offensive lineman Kirk Barton, who became the first player ever to start four wins vs. Michigan while playing under Tressel from 2004-07 and then coached under Meyer in 2012, there are more similarities than differences in the approaches between the two.
“They’re both really intense,” Barton said. “The good thing about picking up a guy like Coach Meyer as our new coach is he really gets the game. He grew up a big Woody Hayes fan, then he cut his teeth under Earle Bruce so he gets how important this game is.
“He’s beyond intense this week. It’s nuts, man. They blast music in the facility 24 hours a day the entire week – like, blast, so loud you can barely think. This is the only week Coach Meyer does it because that’s just how it is. He wants everybody who steps in the building to have the juice flowing and the whole nine yards. It’s really cool and it’s fun to be a part of. It’s fun to be a player and it’s fun to be a part of a staff who gets how important it is to beat Michigan.”
Much has been made over his tenure in the ways Meyer is like Tressel and the ways he isn’t. But what is clear is that whether it’s in winning games or beating Michigan, the two have approaches that work.