Bear with me on the setup of this article...lots of background, but good numbers...enjoy!
The year was 2001. Ohio State was in turmoil as a program. The program, under previous head coach John Cooper, had risen from the ashes to post some great seasons during the 1990s. But great 1993, 1995, and 1996 teams, National Championship-caliber teams, all fell to defeat at the absolutely one team it couldn't afford to...Michigan.
As the 1990s came to a close, it just seemed to get worse. The Buckeye football program not only continued to annually fall to Michigan in "The Game," but the bowl losses also mounted, and academic ineptitude within the program began to reach the public.
Voices grew louder calling for the dismissal of Cooper, and those voices were heard after mediocre 6-6 and 8-4 seasons in 1999 and 2000. Under Cooper the Buckeyes were 3-8 in bowl games, and most damning, 2-10-1 against the hated Wolverines. BuckeyeNation needed fresh air...
That fresh air arrived in 2001 when a relative unknown outside of football circles arrived in Columbus and got the job over "higher profile" candidates such as Bob Stoops, Glen Mason, Walt Harris, and Chris Spielman. Jim Tressel came to Columbus from Division I-AA Youngstown State, where he had won four National Championships for the Penguins.
But this wasn't Youngstown State, and this wasn't Division I-AA...this was the Big Ten, and this was Ohio State, and many questions arose as to whether Tressel would be able to handle the challenge.
At the time, Michigan had a stranglehold on the Midwest as the signature program, and Tressel also faced the difficulty of perceptions that the Ohio State program was out of control and declining in general. All throughout the main question being...how are you going to take Michigan to task?
Tressel answered that question with flair at a ceremony during a Buckeye basketball halftime, 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."
310 days later that promise was kept with a rebuilding Ohio State marching into Ann Arbor a heavy underdog and walking out with a 26-20 victory, the first win for the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor in 14 years. The Buckeyes haven't looked back since.
Under Tressel, the Buckeye have won six out of the seven meetings against the hated Wolverines, won a National Championship in 2002, and are 4-3 in bowl games. The improvement has seeped in off the field as well with team discipline, and academic pride has generally been restored as well.
But most importantly to BuckeyeNation, Jim Tressel took control of The Game at the end of November.
I don't find it to be coincidence that the arrival of Jim Tressel has coincided with the decline of the Michigan football program. Michigan's record under Lloyd Carr prior to the arrival of Jim Tressel in 2001 was 58-16 (78 percent), but from 2001 and until Carr's resignation in 2007...64-24 (72 percent).
Before Tressel arrived, Carr was entrenched at Ann Arbor. A disciple of legendary head coach Bo Schembechler, Carr continued the dominance of Ohio State during the John Cooper era, leading the Wolverines to a 5-1 record against the Buckeyes from 1995-2000, and was a Co-National Champion in 1997.
But by the time of his departure in 2007, Carr was the goat of Ann Arbor, and Michigan had clearly declined as a program and needed new life.
How did Tressel turn the tables in this one-time lopsided rivalry for the Wolverines? How did Jim Tressel come in and swiftly take The Game back into Ohio State's hands? How do we enter the annual game this year between Ohio State and Michigan with the rivalry looking as lopsided as many of us can remember in Ohio State's favor? How did Michigan fall so hard, so quickly?
I will attempt to answer those questions...
1) Tressel put the importance of The Game back into the Ohio State program.
John Cooper simply never "got it." Cooper never put the sense of urgency into his tenure that this game made or broke the season for his players. Thank God Woody Hayes wasn't alive to see 2-10-1 during Cooper's tenure...and he probably would've shot school president Gordon Gee in 1992 following a 13-13 tie against the Wolverines for stating that "a tie is one of our greatest wins ever."
As soon as Jim Tressel accepted this job, losing to Michigan was restored as an unacceptable occurrence. Jim set that precedent at St. John's arena during halftime in 2001, and the Buckeyes have played that way for the past seven years.
2) What's in Ohio Stays in Ohio!
Under Cooper, Ohio had gotten poached of some of its best talent by Michigan. Most notably, two Heisman Trophy winners in Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson were taken by the school up north right out of Ohio State's backyard. Michigan fans will even admit that a great amount of their success on the football field has come from the great state of Ohio.
Cooper often spent a great deal of time recruiting national talent from California, Texas, Georgia, Virginia, and New Jersey to fill out his roster.
With Jim Tressel's arrival came a renewed foundation of putting a fence around Ohio for other programs, and in most cases since 2001, he has been successful. Tressel has almost made it mandatory that if you are an elite high school prospect in Ohio, it's your duty to play for Ohio State.
This has hurt a lot of the programs that have been successful recruiting Ohio talent (Notre Dame, Tennessee, and Penn State), but it has undoubtedly hurt Michigan the most.
This has forced Michigan to settle on secondary Ohio talent and look elsewhere to find their impact players—players from mostly out-of-state, and players who didn't necessarily grow up with the importance of The Game.
3) Raising The Standards...
The Buckeye program under Jim Tressel has lifted itself into elite status in the college football world again—not only on the football field by scheduling high-profile games against national powerhouses Texas, USC, Miami, Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech, but also off the field by strengthening the stress upon academic success and high moral character.
All of this has gone further in making Ohio State all the more powerful a program...and it sets a standard and a tone for your program.
All of these reasons above...build cohesiveness, stability, and a marked direction.
That's something that Michigan had lost somewhere along the line, and what you see them trying to regain under new head coach Rich Rodriguez.
Jim Tressel took The Game back and has completely turned the tables in the epic battle between these two storied programs. We eagerly enter the weekend of The Game with an air of confidence as Buckeye fans that I can't remember ever having before.
As for new head man Rich Rodriguez, Saturday will mark his baptism into this rivalry. Amidst a cloud of uncertainty, Rodriguez and the Wolverines are trying to rebuild themselves and find a new identity. Saturday would go a long way for Rodriguez in accomplishing that goal.
What will happen, at this point we don't know...but one thing's for sure—The Game will be as much must-see TV as ever.
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