Ohio State vs Michigan: More Than a Game

As a student of the history of college football I knew I had to witness one of these games. I wrote much of this on the plane on the way to an Ohio State-Michigan game in Ann Arbor…….

About 25 minutes into the early morning flight from State College to Detroit I looked out the window to the earth over 30,000 feet below me. The sunrise was to my back as the plane roared west over eastern Ohio. In that time when the first rays of dawn began to break the grip of night through a thin sliver of clouds I saw the lights of Akron and Canton below. The plane banked slightly, almost imperceptibly to the northwest.

Moments later the western suburbs of Cleveland appeared clinging to the shore of Lake Erie. Below I saw the large lakeside power plant in Avon Lake, Ohio that I’d driven by so many times while recruiting. Its tall smokestack reaching to the sky has been a landmark on many of these flights over the years. Soon we were over the lake and crossing towards the distant lights of Detroit.

For many of the people in the coastal cities of the United States this is flyover country. On that morning as I saw the lights of cities like Youngstown, Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Detroit stories emerged from a time in my life when my feet were firmly on the ground there and in other towns like Flint, Saginaw, Monroe, Portsmouth, Steubenville and Warren.

Even on the Pennsylvania side of that border, towns and cities like Johnstown, Sharon, New Castle, Farrell, Pittsburgh, Erie and Beaver Falls are more like their Midwestern neighbors than they are like Philadelphia and its suburbs.

For decades, men and women of this region put their shoulders into hard work. Steel, glass, rubber and cars came from the mills and factories that dotted the landscapes here. Coal from the ground fueled the mills, factories, towns, cities and homes. These men and women were the backbone of an American economy manufacturing durable goods shipped around the globe.

For years I drove and wandered the interstates, highways and byways of these two states—more time in Ohio than in Michigan. In Ohio, many high school coaches’ offices had pictures of Woody Hayes even decades after his death. Many of those coaches also played for Jim Tressel at Youngstown State or remembered his father at Baldwin Wallace so they had great loyalty to him.

In Michigan, the name “Bo” only referred to one person. The Maize and Blue uniforms and winged helmets meant a power running attack, a hard-hitting defense and a disciplined approach to the game.

Twenty-eight years before the first Ohio State-Michigan game in 1897, the first football game was played on a field in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. In a relatively short period of time, it spread to other Eastern Schools, most notably the schools that are now among the Ivy League.

While it remained as the domain of the eastern elite schools, it took root and found explosive growth in what was then “the west.” As late as the 1920s and 1930s in literature from Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the natives of Illinois and Minnesota saw themselves as outsiders at places like Princeton or Yale or Harvard. In football the teams from the Midwest felt a similar challenge to gain grudging acceptance from the blue blood programs where the game got its start.

But the hardscrabble nature of the game took hold with the hearty Germans, Slavs, Irish and Italians of the industrial Heartland of America. Football integration came earlier here too. Black players from the north were joined by southern Blacks barred from playing at their state schools.

Decades after the rise of college football in this region, professional football was born here with teams representing mill towns like Massillon or Canton or Latrobe. Even as the professional game grew, the college game remained far more popular for years.

The people here always valued toughness. There is an edge to the people of Cleveland or Detroit, a pride in the face of a nation that mocked their decline. Theirs was a pride born doing the nation’s labor, the cold, hard work in factories manufacturing the goods that created the industrial foundations of this nation’s rise. But while many people left this region when the jobs left, the ones who’ve stayed remain even more determined.

For people in in the south football had a place too. It became a measure to stand tall amid an era of civil rights unrest and a perception of backwardness. Football success by all-white teams at Alabama, Tennessee and other Southern schools became a point of regional pride. While change happened slowly, the “Sun Belt” became ascendant over time.

The Sun Belt’s rise, occurred as the “Rust Belt” corroded with factory closings bringing poverty, drugs and crime to Midwestern cities and mill towns. But Big Ten football remained a national symbol of relevance.

The Wolverines and Buckeyes were a sign that even hard times could not eclipse history, tradition, and resilience. Their boys were tougher, carrying the pride of place to fight and win.