Good Football Weather

When I stepped outside for my walk on this morning of the Ohio State-Michigan game, I immediately thought of my father.

IMG_1875It was because of the weather — crisp and clear, with the stars sharply outlined and the steam from breath rising upward into the chill.  Those are the kind of conditions that would cause my father to lean back, sniff the air, nod approvingly, and say:  “Good football weather.”

Every Midwestern football fan knows exactly what that phrase means.  It means dry conditions, because no one wants to watch football or play football in a downpour.  It means a day that is not too windy and where there is a significant difference between being in the sunshine and being in the shade.  It means a temperature that is cold, but not too cold; in the 30s or 40s, where you can bundle up and layer against the chill and a few hours outside will bring color to everyone’s cheeks.  The kind of day when you enjoy having your core warmed by a well-prepared toddy, or Bloody Mary, or Irish Coffee at a tailgate and can hear the crack of the pads echoing through the stadium as the crowd roars.

Yes, it’s good football weather today for The Game.  Go Bucks!

Woody Week

Ohio State has viewed Michigan as its great opponent for more than a century, but the modern rivalry really took its shape when Wayne Woodrow Hayes became the head football coach at Ohio State in 1951.  It was Woody Hayes who schemed all year for the game against That Team Up North, Woody Hayes who purportedly pushed his car back to Ohio rather than buying a tank of gas in Michigan, Woody Hayes who attempted a two-point conversion rather than an extra point in a beat-down of the Wolverines and, when asked why he went for two, responded “Because I couldn’t go for three.”

That’s why, for members of Buckeye Nation who are my generation or older, Michigan Week really is Woody Week.  From the Ohio State side, Coach Hayes is the inescapable colossus who helped to define what the ultimate rivalry in sports was really all about.  You can’t help but think about him as The Game draws near.

But there is more to the story than that.  Woody Hayes was always a complex figure — professorial and intellectual, a student of military history who was likely to quote Emerson, yet possessed of a volcanic temper that propelled him into embarrassing sideline outbursts, including the furious punch that cost him his job.  A man who was the iconic face of Ohio State football but didn’t insist on large contracts and happily lived in the same tidy Upper Arlington house for years, who was gracious to the timid students who knocked on the door of his office and asked if the Coach might sign a football for their father or uncle, who mentored his players and hectored them into getting their degrees and pursuing post-football careers as doctors, politicians, and lawyers.  Living in Columbus, you inevitably encounter people who were touched by the generosity and decency of Woody Hayes, whether it involved an unpublicized hospital visit to a sick child or an encouraging word to a struggling young person.

Over the years, my perception of Coach Hayes changed, and I think I’m not alone in that.  For me he began as a too-conservative football coach whose temper-fueled antics often made Ohio State the butt of jokes, then became the modern Greek dramatic hero whose passion led inexorably to his downfall.  Now, as the stories of what he did are told and retold, he has become a venerated figure whose failings are forgiven, if not forgotten, because his strength of character and good deeds vastly outweighed them.

For those of us who have made mistakes in our lives — a population that includes me and most of the billions of people on planet Earth — the story of Woody Hayes is a warming and ultimately encouraging human story of the possibility of redemption and how good deeds can live on as blunders fade away.  It’s a good story to remember each year during Michigan Week.

One For The Ages

In a rivalry filled with memorable games, this year’s version of The Game has to be one of the greatest ever.  Back and forth, with the game ending on a thwarted effort by Michigan to get a two-point conversion and spring a stunning upset.  But Ohio State’s defense, which had been gashed repeatedly during the day, finally made a play, Tyvis Powell knocked down the pass, and the Buckeyes hung on to win.

IMG_1829This was the kind of game that makes the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry the greatest rivalry in college sports.  Michigan ran just about every play in their playbook, their much-maligned offensive line held up, and Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner was a warrior who played a virtually flawless game.  He never quit, and neither did the Wolverine coaching staff.  Michigan just kept coming, and coming, and coming.  They gained more than 600 yards — 600 yards! — and were clicking on all cylinders.  I give great credit to the Michigan team, from the head coach on down, for developing a near-perfect game plan and showing what this rivalry is all about.

Fortunately for me and other Pepto-Bismol-guzzling members of Buckeye Nation, the Wolverines had no answer for the Ohio State offense.  For the Buckeyes, the accolades must start with the offensive line.  The Buckeyes front wall pushed the Michigan defensive line around like a precision lawnmowing team, and Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller took full advantage.  The Buckeyes ran for 393 yards — 393 yards! — and Carlos Hyde rumbled for the most yards ever by an OSU running back against the Wolverines.  I was especially glad to see Carlos Hyde, who has been a monster, bounce back from his fumble to score the winning touchdown.

So, the Buckeyes’ winning streak continues.  The pundits can talk all they want about style points, and we can worry about that porous defense next week.  For tonight, Columbus and Ohio and Buckeye lovers everywhere will breathe a sigh of relief and crack open a cold one.  The Buckeyes won against their great rival, stay in the hunt for a BCS title game spot, and move on to the Big Ten championship game next weekend.  That’s good enough for me.

It’s Michigan Week! (IV)

We’re less than 24 hours away from The Game.  It will be a noon start tomorrow, which is the way it should be, because it’s the way it has always been.

The Game will be at the Big House in Ann Arbor.  Like the Horseshoe in Columbus, Michigan Stadium is one of college football’s most fabled venues, a huge, cavernous bowl dug out of the ground.  It’s where Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler prowled the sidelines during the 10-Year War.  It’s where the Buckeyes tore down the “M Club” banner in the early ’70s, sending the Michigan radio announcer into a frenzy.  The field is thick with memories and legends.  Tomorrow the members of Buckeye Nation will try to fill a significant part of that colossal edifice, cheering on the Men of the Scarlet and Gray.  Michigan fans have experienced a tough and disappointing season, and many of them have put their tickets up for sale.  Ohio State fans have been very willing buyers.

What will happen?  The Wolverines have struggled this year, while the Buckeyes have won every game.  The statistics and records will tell you that Ohio State clearly has the better team and should win the game . . . but in The Game, records and statistics often don’t matter.  Fans of both teams who have watched The Game will remember surprising triumphs and devastating losses.  The shocks and upsets are what have made The Game the greatest rivalry game in college football.

Casual fans can be overconfident, but I don’t know of any true member of Buckeye Nation who is expecting an easy game tomorrow.  We know that it will be a tough, brutal battle, filled with bone-jarring hits and hard runs to pick up crucial first downs, and we’re starting to feel that surge of adrenalin as The Game draws nearer.

Let’s go, Bucks!

It’s Michigan Week! (III)

No Ohio State will fan ever take The Game against Michigan for granted — at least, no Ohio State fan who lived through the ’90s.  For Ohio State fans, the ’90s were the long, dark night of the soul.

Ohio State was coached by a cordial, good-humored gentleman named John Cooper.  Coop wasn’t an Ohio native, but he could recruit great athletes and get them ready for early season games.  His record at Ohio State was 111-43-4.  He beat Notre Dame twice, and won a Rose Bowl and a Sugar Bowl.  But when it came to The Game, Coop turned into a fingernail-chewing, watery-eyed wreck.  His teams were 2-10-1 against That Team Up North, and it got so bad that the Ohio State President described the tie as one of the greatest victories in Ohio State history.

During the Cooper era, Ohio State played Michigan as the favorite and as the underdog.  It played the Wolverines at home and away.  It played Michigan when the Buckeyes were highly ranked and when they were struggling.  And all of that made no difference, because the result — inevitably — was another soul-crushing loss.  Whether it was a record-setting performance by a previously unknown running back or a slip and fall by a defensive back or some other disaster, Michigan always found a way to win.  Eventually, the Buckeye Nation had had enough, and Coop was gone and Jim Tressel was in.

Whenever Ohio State goes to The Game as a favorite, I think of John Cooper and his struggles with the Wolverines.  It’s left me permanently scarred, and I will never forget.  John Cooper taught me to never take The Game for granted.

It’s Michigan Week! (II)

I would call the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan during the week of The Game a friendly rivalry — except it really isn’t.  Deep down, every Buckeyes fan wants to crush Michigan like a cockroach.  We want to punish them, humiliate them, and leave them wailing forlornly to their misbegotten gods. Michigan fans share this perspective.

But, since we aren’t fighting with broadswords, we need to make do with humor.  When I was a kid, and Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler were fighting the 10-Year War, the battle was waged with bumper stickers.  I remember one of the Michigan bumper stickers said:  “Save Fuel.  Burn Woody!”  And I thought — boy, Michigan fans are about as funny as, say, Jerry Lewis during the MDA telethon.

The Ohio side of the humor equation, however, isn’t appreciably better.  Consider these two representative efforts:

1.  “A University of Michigan fan walks into a doctor’s office and removes his hat to reveal a frog sitting on his head. The doctor asks, ‘How can I help you?’ The frog replies, ‘I was wondering if you could help me get this wart off my butt.'”

2.  “Two University of Michigan grads are laughing it up on their way into a bar.  The bartender asks:  ‘Hey, why are you guys so happy?’  One of the Wolverines says, ‘Well, to be honest with you, we’re proud of ourselves.  We just finished a puzzle in a week, and when we were done we noticed the box said 4 to 6 years.'”

In Ohio, we try to make our statements on the football field.

Let’s Go, Buckeyes!

Let’s go, Buckeyes!  It’s time to win The Game and kick some Maize and Blue butt!  (And enjoy Jocelyn Smallwood dotting the i in Script Ohio.)

Edited to add:  It’s cold here in Columbus on Game Day, with a brisk wind and a few snowflakes drifting down.  Perfect football weather!