A new chapter in the greatest rivalry in sports will begin this Saturday when Ohio State and Michigan take the field. For the first time since 1995, Lloyd Carr will not be coaching the Maize and Blue. Instead, Rich Rodriguez will be exposed to the greatest spectacle in college football for the first time.
Forget, for a week, that Michigan is 3-8. Forget that Ohio State is favored by 19 points. Those numbers are meaningless—this is Ohio State-Michigan.
A win for Ohio State gives them a fourth consecutive Big Ten title. A win for Michigan saves their season, and gives the program momentum going into recruiting and the offseason as they prepare for next year.
Ohio State is playing for a BCS Bowl. Michigan is playing their bowl game.
No active player on Michigan has beaten Ohio State. Ohio State's seniors are looking for their fourth pair of Gold Pants.
Fans could go on all day like this, listing story lines to focus on in preparation for the game. Instead of spitting irrelevant facts and numbers out all week, however, let's take a deeper look at something ultimately more important: This is Rich Rodriguez's first Ohio State-Michigan game.
Sure, Jim Tressel got his team fired up for the win in his first try. Lloyd Carr somehow got Tim Biakabutuka to channel his inner Barry Sanders to pull the amazing upset in his first year.
There's something those two coaches (as well as all-time greats Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler) had in common that made them successful, and it's the thing Rodriguez shares with John Cooper, the Ohio State coach whose failures against "That Team Up North" were responsible for his firing: their attitude.
The day Jim Tressel was hired as coach of the Buckeyes, he appeared at an Ohio State home basketball game and introduced himself to his new community, saying, "I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field."
Lloyd Carr didn't quite make the public statement Tressel did, but he did establish a list of priorities for his Michigan program that stressed beating Ohio State above all else. And, it worked—Carr won his first three games against Ohio State, and ended up 5-1 against John Cooper before Cooper was fired.
Year after year, John Cooper recruited fantastic talent to the Olentangy, but year after year National Title and Rose Bowl aspirations were shattered by Michigan teams who simply valued the game more.
Plain and simple, John Cooper was fired because he treated The Michigan Game like it was "just another game," and his players reflected this passive attitude regarding the most important game of the season.
So, where will Rodriguez fit in? Will he give The Game the respect it deserves? We'll find out on Saturday. But so far, Rodriguez has not given the Michigan faithful any reason to think he knows what he is in for this Saturday.
Like Tressel, Rodriguez addressed his new fan base at a Michigan home basketball game soon after he was hired. Everyone in attendance knew what Tressel had done, given the same platform, seven years before.
Rodriguez was not only supposed to introduce himself to Michigan fans; he was supposed to welcome himself to The Rivalry in a big way. In front of him were thousands of Michigan fans who had suffered through Jim Tressel's powerful 6-1 domination of Lloyd Carr, and these fans wanted some sign that change was coming.
So what did Rodriguez do? Nothing. "I'm not going to make predictions," Rodriguez said. The most he could definitively say to his Maize and Blue audience was that Michigan would "play hard and they will play physical" next year.
Swing and a miss.
As time has gone on, and Michigan's season has become worse, Rodriguez has still not given Michigan fans a valid reason to think he respects the magnitude of The Ohio State Game.
After losing a school-record eighth game to Northwestern this past weekend, Rodriguez said this about The Game: "If we play well and happen to win, it wouldn't salvage the whole season."
If you know nothing else about Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Jim Tressel, or Lloyd Carr, know that none of them would have ever uttered that sentence.
Michigan is down this year. There's no way around it. There's only one more game on the schedule, and it's The Big Game, so everything else that has happened to Michigan this year is irrelevant for a week.
A win over Ohio State doesn't just dampen the blow of Michigan's worst year ever; it eliminates it. Michigan's players know it. Michigan's fans know it. Until Michigan's coach realizes it, however, and changes his approach accordingly, Michigan doesn't have a chance.
A new chapter begins this Saturday for the greatest rivalry in sports, but unfortunately for Michigan it's going to sound a lot like the end of the last chapter.