April 12, 2012

Meyer, Hoke reignite rivalry

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ask Ohio State and Michigan fans to describe the two schools' fierce rivalry and talk would almost certainly center on legendary head coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.

During a 10-year period in the 60s and 70s - referred to as the Ten-Year War - Hayes and Schembechler lifted the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry to a level never seen before. The Wolverines owned a 5-4-1 record over the 10 years. The teams split appearances in the Rose Bowl - five apiece - while the two renowned coaches went at one another with an unequaled passion.

Current Michigan head coach Brady Hoke has a differing opinion about the historic rivalry.

"Obviously, you've got two storied programs who have a lot of great tradition," he said. "As far as I know, it's never been about the coaches. It's always been about those two schools and that rivalry and the intensity of that whole week when you get ready to play each other. What a great game and a fun game it is to play in and coach in."

The answer was prompted by a question about the new "war" between Hoke and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer. It's a welcome change for both fanbases. The past five games since the school's faced off in arguably the biggest game in the rivalry's history in 2006 - No. 1 Ohio State defeated No. 2 Michigan, 42-39 - have been every bit as underwhelming as the '06 edition was exhilarating.

The Buckeyes won the next four seasons by a combined score of 114-27. The Wolverines record during those four seasons: 24-26.

In 2011, after Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor unceremoniously left Ohio State and Hoke lifted the Wolverines from their lowest period in the program's history, Michigan beat Ohio State in an offensive shootout, 40-34.

Michigan senior safety Jordan Kovacs, a former walk-on turned starter and leading tackler, is well-versed in the Ohio State-Michigan game. The northeast Ohio native's father played for the Schembechler's Wolverines. Kovacs views the Hoke-Meyer matchup with intrigue, as a fan from one of the teams would.

"It's going to be great for the rivalry," he said. "Two of the best coaches in the nation are coaching these two programs.

"It's historically a great rivalry. It's going to take that next step and be an elite rivalry these next few years with these two going at it."

The game is never far from the minds of the players, whether its April, July or November. Coaches have embraced "The Game" differently, however. The importance never strayed from Hayes and Schembechler's message, while John Cooper and Rich Rodriguez, two outsiders with no connect to Ohio State or Michigan, could never come to grips with how truly special the game was.

Tressel and Hoke, who lived the rivalry as assistants, immediately understood what they were dealing with when they were hired as head coaches. Each spoke about the arch-rival in their introductory press conference and followed it up by winning in November. Tressel compiled a 9-1 record in 10 games verses Michigan.

Meyer, an Ohioan, OSU alum and former Buckeye assistant, is not new to Ohio State-Michigan.

"In the locker room every day, we have videos playing of the past 100 years of "The Game,"" senior fullback Zach Boren said. "It goes over almost every single game from the past 100 years. That video's been playing for a long time in the locker room. It just reminds us every day when we walk in how significant that game is and how many great games have been played in that rivalry and how important it really is."

Boren may know the rivalry better than any coach or player currently at Ohio State or Michigan. His father, Mike, played at Michigan under Schembechler and his brother, Justin, played for two years at Michigan for Lloyd Carr before transferring to Ohio State when Rodriguez was hired.

"We respect (Michigan)," Boren said. "We always have. It's the greatest rivalry in all of sports. We understand that. It's something Coach Tressel preached to us from way back when and it's something Coach Meyer has definitely upheld with what he's brought to the table so far.

"Coach Meyer's from Ohio. He grew up here and he was a coach here, so I don't think that rivalry has ever really left him. You could tell when he came here he was excited. If you want to be successful at Ohio State or 'that team up north,' you have to embrace that rivalry and that game has to be put on a pedestal."

Said Kovacs: "We're really going to be excited about it and can't wait to get down there."

The 109th meeting takes place in 226 days.


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