Ohio State-Michigan Rivalry Transcends the Greatest Rivalries in Sports

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Ohio State-Michigan Rivalry Transcends the Greatest Rivalries in Sports
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Nov. 26, 2011: The Michigan Wolverines defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes 40-34 en route to the 2012 BCS Sugar Bowl

What is it about great rivalries that inspire such passion and hatred?

Often it starts simply with geographic proximity.  Such is the case with the Red Sox and Yankees, which is an extension of the Boston vs. New York rivalry that dates back to the American Revolution. 

Michigan borders Ohio, and cross-state poaching of players has added spice to the great rivalry between the Wolverines and the Buckeyes.

The crosstown rivalry of USC vs. UCLA was one of college football's best for many years. During the 1960s and 70s, their battles decided who would play in the Rose Bowl. In one of the most memorable games, #4 USC—with junior running back O.J. Simpson in the backfield—defeated top-ranked UCLA 21-20. The Trojans then went on to win both the Rose Bowl and the 1967 national title.

Frequent meetings contribute to rivalries. The Yankees play the Red Sox nineteen times each season, often battling for supremacy in the American League East. Michigan has played Ohio State 108 times since 1897, and many times the winner secured the championship of the Big Ten Conference and a Rose Bowl bid. 

Having a winning season but losing the Michigan-Ohio State game can be detrimental to a coach's career. Former Buckeyes head coach John Cooper, a Hall-of-Fame coach who compiled a 111–43–4 record in his 13 seasons at Ohio State, was fired after the 2000 season in large part because of his 2-10-1 record against Michigan.

The Army-Navy game is an embodiment of the inter-service rivalry of the two branches of the U.S. armed forces, with the winner having bragging rights for the year. The two military academies have met 112 times, with Navy holding the all-time lead with 56 wins, 49 losses and 7 ties. 

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Harvard-Yale meet annually at the final game of the regular season and is simply known as "The Game"

Decades ago, both Army and Navy were national powerhouses.  Although the academies now rarely crack the top 25 in rankings, the Army-Navy game is still a national broadcast that draws widespread interest, even among football fans with no connection to either branch of the military. The history and tradition associated with the participants transcends football.

 

Yale and Harvard have played 128 times. The annual, season-ending contest is simply known as "The Game," a distinction that the Michigan-Ohio State battle also adopts. Florida-Georgia is called "The World's Largest Cocktail Party." Meanwhile, the Texas-Oklahoma "Red River Rivalry" often determines the Big 12 Conference champion.

Today the biggest rivalry in college football is LSU-Alabama. The two rivals battle not only for the SEC Conference championship, but for the national championship as well. Meanwhile, there are few rivalries as intense as Alabama-Auburn, which is an intrastate rivalry.

College football has produced many rivalries that ebb and flow with the wider fortunes of the combatants. Longtime power Notre Dame has many fierce rivalries, none more glamorous with USC.  In the 1960s and '70s, USC-Notre Dame was the top-rated regular-season national TV broadcast.  The showdowns have featured Heisman Trophy winners such as Notre Dame's John Huarte (1964) and USC's O.J. Simpson (1968), as well as future NFL stars Pat Haden and Lynn Swann.

In the 1980s, the Notre Dame-Miami rivalry, which had implications for the national championship, was nicknamed "the Catholics vs. the Convicts" by the Fighting Irish faithful. The 1988 contest, in which the Irish beat the No. 1-ranked Hurricanes 31-30, featured a pre-game fight in the tunnel and is considered among Notre Dame's greatest victories. 

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In the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, an improbable United States victory over the Russian Red Army team is considered the greatest upset in sports history.

A year later, Miami stopped Notre Dame’s 23-game winning streak with a 27-10 victory at the Orange Bowl, in a contest noted for the rowdy behavior of Hurricane fans. This year's game at Soldier Field on October 5 was much more subdued, particularly since the two teams had not faced each other in 22 years. 

Social and political tensions also surface in great sports rivalries. What made the victory of the U.S. Hockey team over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid so great was the political undertones of the Cold War period.

The Russian Red Army team was big, strong, intimidating and almost robotic. Yet a collection of college students stunned the heavily-favored Russians in the greatest upset in sports history.  The fact that the U.S. had to defeat Finland to win the gold medal two days later sometimes is overlooked.

 

At the Olympics, athletes become proxies for their respective countries. This summer in London, the U.S. took great pride in finishing ahead of China for the highest medal-count overall and the most gold medals. Four years earlier, the Chinese state-run sports system had bragging rights with 51 gold medals, although the U.S. had the edge in overall medals (110 vs. 100) in 2008.

Religion and social politics can come into play during cricket matches between India and Pakistan.  Likewise, sectarianism often rears its ugly head during Glasgow Celtic vs. Glasgow Rangers games, as the teams' followers fall along Catholic (Celtic) vs. Protestant (Rangers) lines. Many call the Celtic-Rangers rivalry the most heated in all of sports.

Few individual rivalries fueled passions more than Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier. Ali was a young, brash, often polarizing figure who rose to prominence during the Civil Rights Movement.

Frazier helped Ali monetarily after the champ was stripped of his heavyweight title and barred from boxing for three-and-a-half years because he refused to join the U.S. Army in 1967.

African Americans identified with Ali, while white audiences tended to favor Frazier, whom the brazen Ali labeled an "Uncle Tom" and the "white man's champ." Small wonder why fan support tended to divide along racial lines.

One can argue that for a rivalry to be great, the opponents must play meaningful games. What has happened to the great baseball rivalries? The Yankees-Red Sox showdown to end the season resulted in a battle between the AL East's first-place and last-place teams. Without much at stake, the games lacked the intensity of years past. 

When the teams battled in the 2003 and 2004 American League Championship Series, the rivalry seemed to be at its zenith.

So what is it about sports that inspires so much passion?

 

Human beings tend to group with people who have similar traits. Certainly one of the most identifying traits is the love of a particular sports team. 

Fans buy hats, jerseys and other garb that give them a sense of pride and connection with others. This in and of itself is relatively harmless. However, sometimes the passion goes too far, as was the case with soccer "hooliganism" at many European stadiums. 

And it's not just limited to Europe; in 2004, Chinese fans chanted over the Japanese national anthem, booed the Japanese team throughout the game, and rioted after Japan won the A.F.C. Asian Cup match.

In Korn/Ferry's latest edition of Briefings on Talent & Leadership Sports, “Why We Love Sports,” by David Berreby, an expert in the science of behavior, reports that one commonly-shared mannerism in both the athletes and fans of winning teams is a spike in their levels of testosterone. 

The surge in hormonal balance can induce unruly behavior in fans, particularly following championship games. 

Immediately after the conclusion of the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Finals, the passionate Canuck fan base rioted in the streets of Vancouver, as their team once again failed in a quest to win its first Stanley Cup.  The surge of emotion and forfeiture of individual accountability in a group setting contribute to this type of rowdy behavior. 

Alcohol often serves as a catalyst, as well. Fans of losing teams lash out as a result of their disappointment and feelings of inadequacy and perhaps powerlessness, in part because they couldn't help their teams to win. 

We can't chalk this phenomenon up to fans being sore losers. Shootings and violence erupted earlier this year when University of Kentucky students "celebrated" the team's national basketball championship. 

Riots broke out following the LA Lakers' NBA championships in 2000, 2009 and 2010. Phillies fans caused destruction in the City of Brotherly Love after the team won the World Series in 2008, as did Red Sox fans following the end of the team's long championship drought in 2004.

Fans of winning teams feel that they can do anything with little chance of being caught, since there is "safety in numbers."

The ultimate goal in sports is to win a championship, but it is realizing the individual/team achievements that undeniably provide a psychological boost for fans. 

When teams overcome adversity and top their heated rivals, fans are provided with the incentive that keeps them tuned into sports.

 

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high profile placements are Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy, New York Jets President Neil Glat, and Michigan head coach Brady Hoke. Earlier in his career, Jed coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA). Follow him onFacebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.

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