Ten years ago, ESPN viewers voted the Michigan-Ohio State football game the best rivalry in the nation. Not just in college football, or football in general, but in all sports. Since 1935, it’s held a privileged spot as the last game of the Big Ten season. More college football fans have seen this rivalry, in person and on TV, than any other.
HBO has produced dozens of sports documentaries, but only one on college football: the Michigan-Ohio State game. They titled it simply, “The Rivalry.” They did not feel they had to explain it.
But when the Big Ten added Nebraska, everything seemed up in the air, including the Michigan-Ohio State game. Next fall the Big Ten will have 12 teams, playing in two divisions, culminating in a title game – all new.
So that raised a few possibilities – not to mention plenty of rumors and fears.
If they kept Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, the teams could never meet in the title game. But if they put them in different divisions, they might have to play again in the title game just one week later. One rumor had them moving the game from its traditional date at the end of the season – or even interrupting the rivalry, instead of playing every year.
The fans, former players and reporters – including me – responded with their “usual level of cool maturity,” as Dave Barry would say, “similar to the way Moe reacts when he is poked in the eyeballs by Larry and Curly.” One Ohio politician even went so far as to introduce a resolution demanding the game never be moved.
Rob Lytle, an Ohio native turned Michigan All-American, said, “Bo would have hated this. I’m glad he and Woody don’t have to go through it. They’re probably marching around throwing tantrums right now.” He was probably right.
College football is famous for fixing what ain’t broken, but the idea of moving or even interrupting the greatest rivalry in sports would have been the dumbest idea since New Coke. Actually, that’s not fair – because no one made you drink New Coke.
Fans expect to see the Rose Bowl in January, the Super Bowl in February, and March Madness in, yes, March. And they expect to see Michigan play Ohio State in late November. If they moved it, it would be no better than, say, Tennessee-Florida, or Oregon-Southern Cal. Those are not classics, just games, and no one cares when they play them. Not so The Rivalry.
Besides, the odds of a championship rematch are actually pretty small. In the last 22 years, the two rivals have finished first and second only four times – less than twice a decade. And on those rare occasions when there is a rematch, it won’t dampen interest, but ignite it.
Take the most recent example: in 2006, Michigan was undefeated, and ranked second in the country. Ohio State was undefeated, and ranked first. The Wolverines’ comeback attempt fell just short, and they lost, 42-39. But the game was so good, almost half the country wanted them to meet again for the national title. So who wouldn’t watch them tee it up a week later for the Big Ten title? The ratings would be astronomical.
So what’d the Big Ten honchos finally decide? They stunned everyone – including me – and came up with a format that’s intelligent, even elegant. They listened to their constituents and left the Michigan-Ohio State game at the end of the season, right where it belongs.
There’s only one downside: I had written my commentary a few days ago blasting away in anticipation of the sporting world’s dumbest decision, and instead I have to close this by saying: “You fooled me. Well done.”
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.