Like most Ohioans, I learned to walk, talk, and cheer for Ohio State at an early age, and not necessarily in that order. This ingrained Buckeye fanaticism came with a corollary: a natural inclination to abhor all things Michigan. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with Michigan. It’s just that they were, well, Michigan.
The rivalry was hard to ignore. In my 35 years on the planet, the Buckeyes and Wolverines have combined for 28 Big Ten titles and 35 top ten finishes in the AP rankings. And that pales in comparison to their accomplishments in the years before I sprang into existence. To say the teams have dominated the college football landscape is to barely hint at their influence on the game—and on each other. At least twelve times in the last forty years, one or both of the teams have been undefeated going into their annual November match-up. And as history has shown, the team that has the most to lose usually does. In the early 1970s, Michigan had five out of six perfect seasons ruined by a loss to Ohio State. Three times in the 1990s, Michigan returned the favor.
Having two such competitive teams in the same conference would alone be enough to constitute a world class rivalry, but it took the genius and conscious gamesmanship of legendary coaches like Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler to create what ESPN deemed the greatest rivalry in all of sports, edging out Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier for the honor.
Woody’s disdain for the Wolverines was legendary. He refused to call Michigan by name, instead referring to it as “that state up north”. When his car was low on gas during a recruiting trip to Michigan, he forbid his assistant coach, who was driving, to pull over to fill up, preferring instead to coast into Ohio on fumes rather than give one cent of revenue to a Michigan gas station. By such stories are great rivalries cemented.
Naturally, the rivalry has fluctuated over the years, with Michigan sometimes dominating (the dreaded Cooper years), and Ohio State currently enjoying a decided edge under Jim Tressel, whom many consider the second coming of Woody. Just swap the eyeglasses for a sweater vest, and instead of punching opposing players, extol their merits.
But at the end of the day—or season, if you will—the outcome of the game is quite beside the point. Michigan sucks not because they beat us, or because they lose to us, but simply because they are Michigan. And naturally they feel the same way about us. In this way, we have established a wonderful relationship. We complete one another, much like Superman could not exist without Lex Luthor, or Austin Powers without Dr. Evil. (Note: Michigan shall assume the role of Luthor and Dr. Evil in above examples.)
This rivalry now looms so large, it even has the power to bring people together—bonding like immature middle school cliques over our common disdain for another group. A few of my friends and our families, who have all scattered to far flung parts of the country, get together each year to cheer the Bucks against Michigan. It’s a great excuse to see everyone, and reaffirms our faith in one another and a certain poisonous nut. So far we’ve cheered the Bucks together in New York and St. Louis, and this year will do so from my home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 15 miles from Boone, North Carolina—a town still given to spontaneous bursts of moonshine-induced celebrations over a noteworthy football upset earlier this season. As this will be my first year hosting the gathering, I wanted to have a little pre-game entertainment for my guests. Thus, the song: That State Up North.
I’d like to think it’s written just as much for Michigan fans as Buckeye fans. Because really, guys, when I say you suck, I’m sort of saying…thank you? Consider it a term of endearment.