Tag Archives: Bo Schembechler

College Football Playoff Lands MAC on Life Support

Approaching its third year, the College Football Playoff has undoubtedly defibrillated a BCS-weary college football crowd, invigorating the game with a newfound excitement sure to boost competition, TV revenues, and AD expenditures to unprecedented heights. Conferences have realigned to a Power Five structure supporting the best and biggest programs and the playoff committee has coerced teams into streamlining schedules to include more and more top talent, as the NCAA reaps the benefits. For the Alabama’s and Ohio State’s of the country, vital signs are strong.

The Akron’s and Toledo’s, however, are in critical condition.

Smaller schools in the Mid-American Conference and around the country simply cannot compete with these elevated levels of funding and competition. For better or for worse, the College Football Playoff consolidates both football and financial strength at the top, hyper-commercializing the game and leaving less prolific programs fighting for scraps at the bottom. A case study of the MAC yields all the evidence.

Remember when Mid-American Conference football meant something? Remember when “Mid-American” summarized not just the member schools’ geography, but also their quality of football: average? Think back only a matter of years and memories of MAC studs recall a conference of ages past. Remember a young Ben Roethlisberger rattling off a 4,448 yard passing season in 2003, gunslinging the Miami Redhawks to a 13-1 record? How about Toledo’s 1995 undefeated season led by Wasean Tait (“Little Barry Sanders”), or then-member Marshall catching the ultimate lightning in a bottle: Randy Moss? More recently, how about Jordan Lynch garnering Heisman consideration as Northern Illinois claimed back-to-back MAC championships in 2011 and 2012, culminating in an Orange Bowl appearance? These are the heroes of Mid-American Conference past, establishing the MAC as a watermark of spirited, though average, football.

Passing the contemporary MAC as “average” football is liable to make Bo Schembechler turn over in his grave. Last year, the MAC’s collective out-of-conference record totaled 25-35. Their results against AP Top 25 opponents totaled 1-15 (the sole win being Toledo’s victory over #18 Arkansas). Bottom-feeder Eastern Michigan picked up just one win. Certainly not the pedigree of a thriving conference, to say the least.

Attendance figures mirror these deficiencies. The MAC ranked dead last among Football Bowl Subdivision conference attendance last season, averaging 15,316 fans per game- a number eclipsed by ten FCS schools. Their attendance rate is declining at nearly double the FBS rate, even as teams like Akron have unveiled new stadiums (pictured half-empty above) as recently as 2009. Product on the field is turning south and fans are noticing, opting to spend their Saturdays stationed on the couch watching Power Five heavyweights duke it out with big time TV deals.

Thanks to these deficiencies, MAC athletic departments then face the impossible challenge of spending on par with these heavyweights just to patch together decent seasons. The result? Ludicrous, Enron-esque financial reports that cover their programs’ inherent disadvantages. In 2015, the average MAC program spent $29,361,692 amidst this athletics arm race, turning what appears to be $28,915,830 in revenue. This only tells half the story. The average student subsidy for a MAC program is an incredible 70.3%, meaning students of these universities are forced to pay exorbitant costs for teams already destined to fail given the realities of the game. Schools like Eastern Michigan require even more- an 80.4% subsidy. Clearly these athletic departments are incapable of maintaining reasonable margins with budgets dwarfed by their Power Five big brothers.

Just as it is unreasonable to expect Buffalo to land a spot in the College Football Playoff, it is unreasonable for smaller programs to exhaust funds to keep up with budgets two or three times their size. While football-centric markets like South Bend, Gainesville, or College Station can mount the argument that athletic spending pads enrollment, or inches them that much closer to a national title, Mid-American Conference towns cannot make these arguments. Still, they’re subjected to the ferocious competition of SEC-sized markets.

As the playoff committee continues to place emphasis on strength of schedule, MAC schools will no longer be included as an early-season appetizer for larger schools. Instead, Power Five conferences will inbreed strength and leave smaller, already-suffering schools out in the cold.

Rest assured, MAC football will continue in the short term. But how long will we wait before the playoff stratification is so dramatic so much that these programs literally can’t compete? What’s the answer? Will small programs continue to irresponsibly overspend just to maintain relevance in the Playoff Era? Or will the MAC- and conferences like it- ultimately be removed from life support, left to fend on its own while the rich get richer?

E-mail Cole at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Cole_Hankins.

Photo via Adam Sonnett – Flickr

Bowl Me Over!

I will jump right in with a keen grasp of the obvious. It’s BOWL season! Well, duh!

We’re surrounded by bowls and they’re closing in on us ($1 to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson for that bit of inspiration). If you substitute the word idiots, for bowls, then you have the good doctor’s quote exacto.

Much of our chatter about bowls comes in the form of criticism. How many times have you heard or spoke this phrase? Now, everybody together. Fill in the blank. “There are too (blank) bowls.” How did you complete that sentence? I’ll bet you didn’t use the word ‘few’. Who says there are too FEW bowls? No one. Who says there are too ‘many’ bowls? Almost everyone.

It’s true that there are a glut of bowls which now comprise our postseason. There are so many, in fact, that teams with a sterling record of 5-7 are now being invited to participate in these, often meaningless, exhibitions.

Bowl names are sometimes, at once, both puzzling and amusing. Case in point. here are the bowls that have already gone into the books as I write this column. The Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, AutoNation Cure Bowl,  R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, and the Miami Beach Bowl.

That’s six down and thirty-five to go!

Bowls, bowls, bowls! Sponsors, sponsors, sponsors! And half-filled stadiums (which is being generous to a number of these contests). Or half-empty stadiums, huh? 😉

But you know what? I like bowls. Bring ’em on! Watch them or don’t watch them. Let the kids, their schools, and their fans have a big time. It’s fun! And bowl trips, themselves, are a lot of fun. That’s certainly the case as I have experienced it.

I have attended nineteen bowl games, in my lifetime, and the Auburn Tigers were participants in each and every one of them. Surprise!

Let’s take a look at two of the most memorable of these events.

Auburn vs. Michigan – 1984 Sugar BowlIMG_2569

There’s nothing like the first time. This holds true in many areas of life. This was the first bowl game I ever observed in person. And even though it was a low scoring game, Auburn won 9-7, it was very exciting. Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler, said Auburn wouldn’t be able to run the ball on the Wolverines. They did.

Bo Jackson ran for 130 yards on 22 carries and he was named the game’s most outstanding player. But, the Tigers were not able to punch the ball into the end zone. Al Del Greco kicked three field goals to account for all of the Tigers’ points. The last one came with 23 seconds left on the clock to seal it for Auburn.

As memorable as the game was, to me, it was the city of New Orleans that almost stole the show. My wife, Melodye, and I arrived on New Year’s Eve for the game which was to take place on Monday, January 2, as Sunday is pro football day and the Saints were playing at home.

Our hotel, a Days Inn in Kenner, LA, was in the grip of a most unusual cold snap that ‘The Big Easy’ was suffering through at that time. The pipes had burst in the modest facility and we were sent to the International Hotel on Canal Street. It was quite close to the banks of the mighty Mississippi River and it was a big step up from the little motel near the airport where we were scheduled to stay

To say a big time was had by all would be putting it mildly. We watched, in both awe and disbelief, at the proceedings which took place in the French Quarter, and, most popularly, on Bourbon Street. “Laissez les bon temps router!” Or, in English, “Let the good times roll!”

They did!

It seems as though we walked dozens of miles in ‘Nawlins’ those three days and nights in late 1983 and early 1984.IMG_2570

There were hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s and rum swizzles at the Seaport Cafe & Bar, but primarily there was beer at Molly’s Irish Pub on Toulouse Street. This was the first time we had ever run across those 24 ounce cans on Foster’s Beer, which is brewed in Australia.

As luck would have it, there was a group of Aussie sailors who were docked in New Orleans and we made their acquaintance through an Auburn student, from Baltimore, who was named Sarah. Sarah, and the sea faring lads from down under, combined with us to finish all of the Foster’s that Molly’s had in stock on the eve of the Sugar Bowl. Then it was into the Dixie beer, which was a step down.

There was also Shrimp Remoulade at Arnaud’s, this is where the dish was conceived, red beans and rice at Joe’s, and oysters at the Acme Oyster House.

We have since made several trips to New Orleans, including four more Sugar Bowls, but there will  never be another like that first one.

“Laissez les bon temps router,” indeed!

Auburn vs. Texas A&M – 1986 Cotton Bowl

As luck would have it, this was the 50th anniversary of the classic from Dallas. Oddly enough, that 1983-84 jaunt to New Orleans was the 50th playing of the Sugar Bowl.

The Aggies, under the leadership of then extraordinarily highly paid coach, Jackie Sherrill, laid a whuppin’ on Heisman winner, Bo Jackson, and the Auburn Tigers. Bo DID win another MVP for this game, yet again.IMG_2568

But what a trip!

We were living in Albany, NY at the time and we were accompanied by our dear friends, Don and Linda Meagher. The Meaghers were New York natives. We were about to introduce them to the world of hospitality, Texas style.

Melodye and I spent the first three years of our marriage in Ft. Worth, so we were very excited to be headed back that way for the first time since we left Tejas. We stayed at a La Quinta Inn in Euless, which is located about half way between Dallas and Ft. Worth.

We gorged on Mexican food at Raphael’s in Dallas, twice, and BBQ at the Southfork Ranch near Plano. The four of us used to always watch Dallas together on Friday nights, so this was a big treat for us.

One night, after dinner at said Raphael’s, I coaxed the crew into stopping by Carter Country in Irving, TX, the then home of the Dallas Cowboys. Carter Country is a combination bowling alley and honky tonk.

Don, not being steeped in, or necessarily comfortable with Texas culture was a bit wide-eyed when we pulled into the parking lot. Don surveyed the situation and said, “I don’t know. There are an awful lot of pickup trucks here.” I assured him that the crowd here could add and subtract and that there would be no problem. There was not a problem. But, we were familiarized with a song that played on the jukebox between live music sets. It was/is entitled, ‘The Rodeo Song’. I’m not going fill you in on the lyrics to ‘The Rodeo Song’ as they are not fit for younger eyes and ears or those who are easily offended. Google it, if you so desire.

‘Well it’s forty below and I don’t give a…”

Take it from there!

The highlight of the Cotton Bowl trip was probably New Year’s Eve at Billy Bob’s Texas. Surely everyone of you good readers is up on this world renowned country and western palace. The mechanical bull and all that. I think Gilley’s was the first of these types of establishments. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Gary Morris and Reba McEntire brought in 1986 that evening. A good, no GREAT, time was had by all. Melodye truly enjoyed the champagne that was served up to us, in twelve ounce Billy Bob’s Texas plastic tumblers, at the stroke of midnight.

Ask her about it the next time you see her. Or, better yet, give her a shout on Facebook. She is such a good sport about my telling of our adventures together. There have been countless numbers of those and I look forward to many,  many more with great anticipation.

The next one will take place in the great state of Alabama. The Birmingham Bowl. We’ll see you here, next week, with a preview of that bowl game, and hopefully, we will see some of you, who help to make up the Auburn Family, in Birmingham.

Peace on earth to one and all!

 

 

 

 

 

The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry

I have attended twenty-five Auburn-Georgia games. My record is 13-11-1. Saturday, good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise (well, the creek HAS risen, but that’s another story), will be number twenty-six for me. And I hope my record improves to 14-11-1. More on that later.

Here is a look back at some of those games I attended which were memorable and had a huge impact.

1968

The 1968 game was the first one I was privileged to view in-person. My father drove me, and my friends Frank McGraw and Mike Collins, to The Plains that rainy November morning. The weather cleared during the game.

Auburn was 6-2 with designs on an Orange Bowl invitation. Those dreams were squashed by a suffocating Bulldog defense which allowed only 3 first quarter points. The visitors scored all 17 of their points in stanza number two. The final tally was 17-3.

The Herschel Years

Herschel Walker, arguably college football’s greatest running back EVER, toted the rock at UGA for three seasons, 1980-82, and Georgia was the victor in all three. The respective scores were 31-21, 24-13, and 19-14.

I was there for all of those losses.

1982

Moral victories (is there really any such thing?) are ultimately hollow, but often provide a ray of hope. That was the case in 1982.

Georgia was undefeated and had their sights set on a second National Championship in a three-year span. They had beaten Notre Dame to accomplish this, behind the running of frosh phenom, Walker, following the 1980 season.

The Dawgs led 13-7 in the fourth quarter when Auburn’s Lionel “Little Train” James fielded a punt at his own 13-yard line and took it to the house. Tigers 14-13!

The number one team in the country responded like the champions they were with an 80-yard march that ended with Walker taking it in from the three. The two-point conversion attempt failed.

The Tigers countered with a desperation drive, engineered beautifully by quarterback Randy Campbell, that fell just short, as Campbell threw into the end zone on fourth down only to have the pass batted away with 47 ticks remaining on the clock. Game over. Georgia, 19-14.

This was the afternoon that legendary Bulldog broadcaster, Larry Munson, screamed, “Look at the sugar falling out of the sky! Look at the sugar falling out of the sky!” as the game concluded, and referencing the, now upcoming, trip to the Sugar Bowl for the SEC Champion Bulldogs.

But… BUT, also as the game concluded, Auburn fans, as often we do, chanted “It’s great to be an Auburn Tiger!” over and over and over. And the mood at our, and other’s tailgates, was not one of sadness or despair, but one of optimism and hope.

One game was yet to be played on that 1982 schedule, and the opponent was the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Auburn fans knew, in their heart of hearts, as one, that the nine-game winning streak that the Tide lorded over the Tigers could very well come to an end in two weeks at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

It did! Bo Jackson went “over the top” to give Auburn a 23-22 lead which they did not relinquish. That was Bear Bryant’s last regular season game as head coach at Alabama, and the balance of power, within the state, began to shift.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Another monster game in “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.”

1983

I was NOT in attendance. We were living in Albany, NY and didn’t make the game, but it’s tale is a must tell when one consider’s the enormity of the event.

Auburn had not won an SEC Championship since 1957. Third-year coach Pat Dye brought a determined group of Tigers to play “between the hedges”. They were 8-1 and number 3 in the country. Georgia was undefeated and ranked number 4.

Georgia was looking for its fourth straight league title. The winner of this one would decide who would represent the SEC in New Orleans.

Auburn would, absolutely, not be denied this time. They were in full control of the game, from the beginning, and the 13-7 triumph was not as close as the score indicated.

The twenty-six year conference championship drought came to an end in Athens.

Auburn went on to defeat the Michigan Wolverines, and Bo Schembechler, 9-7, in the Sugar Bowl. They would be crowned National Champions by the New York Times.

Schembechler said Auburn would not be able to run on Michigan. Auburn did, indeed, run on the Wolverines and Bo Jackson was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

Fast forward to 2004. I’m back in attendance.

2004

Auburn… #3 and undefeated. Georgia… #5 with one loss.

ESPN College GameDay.

There is only one game in which the atmosphere was more electric on an Auburn football Saturday. That was in 1989 when Alabama came to town for the first time in the history of the series.

Auburn had already clinched a spot in the SEC Championship Game and was playing for a, potential, spot in the Orange Bowl in the BCS National Championship Game.

Auburn held Georgia scoreless for 57 minutes and wound up winning by a 24-6 count. It wasn’t that close. They dominated the Bulldogs on both sides of the ball.

Carnell “Cadillac” Williams carried the ball 19 times for 101 yards.

Ronnie Brown ran for 51 yards. He also caught 7 passes for 88 yards.

And how about Jason Campbell? 18 for 22 and 189 yards.

Most of us know the rest of the story.

Auburn went into Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama two weeks later. The Tigers should have played Southern Cal for it all. They did not, as the idiots in both the AP and USA Today Coaches Polls kept Oklahoma at number two, and college football fans were robbed of what would, most likely, have been a monumental ‘game for the ages’ in Miami.

Auburn WAS named National Champions by People’s National Champions and the GBE College Football Ratings, among others.

2013

‘Nuff said!!!

And that brings us to…

2015

It’s not 2004, or even 1982, but this year’s contest between Auburn and Georgia is very important. Without rehashing what is going on in Athens, with Mark Richt and his squad, Georgia needs this game… BADLY.

Auburn needs this game.

The Tigers went to to College Station and whipped the Texas A&M Aggies in a most impressive fashion.

The game plans for the offense and defense were excellent and they were well executed.

Jeremy Johnson returned as the starting signal caller and performed extremely well.

Jovon Robinson asserted himself as that ‘go to’ back that Auburn can give the ball to with complete confidence, and he will break a couple of long runs before the season is over.

The Auburn defense nabbed three picks off the arm of dynamic freshman quarterback, Kyler Murray and, very importantly, contained him in the pocket.

In short, the Tigers played Auburn Football, really, for the first time this year. Now it’s time for them to step up and do that consistently.

For the 119th time, Georgia awaits. The series stands at 55-55-8. Think it could get any closer?

There has been turmoil within the Bulldog program and Richt might be coaching for his job in these last two games, but you can believe that he will have his minions ready for Auburn. He always does. The Dawgs have won seven out of the last ten.

The stage is set.

I am of the opinion that Auburn will continue to build on what they have been doing for the past three weeks, the A&M game being their most complete one, and play their best game of the 2015 season. And I will run my record, in games I’ve attended versus Georgia, to 14-11-1.

Auburn 31, Georgia 20

 

 

 

 

 

 

Un-War "The Game of the Century"

Charlie Ward, Jim Flanigan
It is the Game of the Century, right? I’m told to “UnWar” that term, as it’s use or over-use has diluted its value. If we have a Game of the Century every year, then it’s really just the Game of the Year, and it doesn’t always add up to even that.
Anyone who follows College Football has likely heard the Auburn faithful exclaim War Eagle, but it was the Jim Rome radio show that had its callers end their rants with War Other Things. I haven’t listened to the guy’s show in a few years, but I recall that he’d periodically explain to the newbies that would ask, you say “War” and then something you like. Well, the War gimmick begat the UnWar gimmick, you know, for things you don’t like. I hope we’re all clear on this.

 
Back to unWarring the “Game of the Century”. If you’re not a fan of a particular team involved, how much do these games really resonate over time? You put two good teams on the field, watch them kick each other’s asses for about four hours, and then you answer the question, did it live up to the hype? If it didn’t, you don’t give it another thought or drop some sarcastic quip, along the lines of “Game of the Century, my ass!”. Either way, you probably aren’t telling your grandkids about it, fifty years from now. Now, if said game comes close to living up to its billing, you have some things to think about.
Now look, this isn’t about being a wet blanket and ruining the moment. If fans want to maintain the euphoria, that’s fine; take 24 or 48 hours for this game to be the greatest ever, but don’t hold on to that unless you only surround yourself with people who unconditionally agree with you or in that rare case that your game is and will actually remain the best, most meaningful game in a 100-year period. By definition, you can’t have a Game of the Century every year, though these days it seems like someone is trying to sell you on the idea that one gets played every week.

If you subscribe to the theory of our hero Peter from Office Space, where every day is worse than the day before, hence every day is the worst day of your life, then the opposite could also be true. Every Game of the Century is better than the Game of the Century before it, so every Game of the Century is the Game of the Century. I doubt that’s even somewhat true, but levels of epic are in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. It’s probably a damn good thing there’s no official authority on such matter.
It’s the greatest game ever since the last greatest game ever, right? Or, perhaps it’s the greatest one until the next greatest one? What sparked the line of thinking is the rematch, and we really shouldn’t refer to any sequel separated from its original by two decades like that, involving Notre Dame and Florida State this weekend in Tallahassee. Both the Irish and the Seminoles go into Saturday’s tilt with a sweet, juicy zero in the loss column, but this game hasn’t been sold to us at anywhere near the level the 1993 game in South Bend was.

If not that game, then it was that Florida State team that was hyped all summer and autumn as the team to beat. Bobby Bowden had no National Championships to his name, his school was void of representation on the list of Heisman winners. Now, they had a kicker, the since-forgotten then-frosh phenom Scott Bentley was the Sports Illustrated cover boy, needed to beat Miami (FL), the benefactors of woes such as Wide Right and Wide Right II. They had an eventual NBA point guard in Charlie Ward, who was no slouch in quarterbacking Bowden’s offense, with the help of an outstanding supporting cast that included Warrick Dunn, William Floyd, Tamarick Vanover, and Kez McCorvey. On the other side of the ball, they were stacked with a cast of NFL talent, led by Derrick Brooks. They were 9-0 with four wins over ranked opponents when they woke up on that snowy morning in Indiana 21 years ago next month.

Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame team was put together a little different. Though they too sat at 9-0, their road to the game that mattered more than any other in the 20th Century only saw them play #2 ranked Michigan, who finished #19, and no one else in the Top 25. Alas, a win over the only team that stood ahead of them in the AP Poll on November 13th would be all they needed; style points were irrelevant at this point. They were built differently too, if you aren’t a huge Notre Dame fan, the names you’ll know are limited to TV’s Aaron Taylor, long-time Denver Bronco Bertrand Berry, and current Tennessee Titans front-office man Lake Dawson. In other words, the Irish were led by a lot of good College Football players, whereas their opponent ran more of an NFL training program.
There’s hardly anything David and Goliath-ish about 1 playing 2, but the Catholic school 95 miles east of Chicago was decidedly the underdog, Vegas said the ‘Noles were 7 points better, in fact. Notre Dame quarterback Kevin McDougle did a wonderful job running the offense that day, but that day’s heroes had names like Lee Becton and Shawn Wooden, the Notre Dame safety that knocked down Ward’s final pass attempt of the day, which would have given Bowden a chance to walk away with a tie or even a victory in the days before College Football overtime. Instead, it was Notre Dame 31 Florida State 24, giving the Irish the win and the #1 ranking, which they would lose seven days later on that same field.

Notre Dame’s 41-39 loss to Boston College a week later would doom their championship hopes, and Florida State would rebound well enough to get a title shot at Nebraska, which they won, but that didn’t do anything to taint what happened on that Saturday afternoon or the hype machine building up to it. In fact, you know that pre-game show ESPN does on campus every Saturday morning? Well, that was strictly a studio show until they decided to take the show on the road to South Bend that day, starting what has become almost as much of an institution as the games themselves in College Gameday. It was Notre Dame’s first game of that magnitude, and remains the biggest game of all of my 36 years, but the Irish arguably played in other games given a century-long superlative, against Michigan State in 1966, Army in 1946, and Ohio State in 1935.
GameoftheCentury2
Speaking of the Buckeyes, fans of recency so desperate to live in the moment of every “Greatest Ever” might appreciate their 2006 encounter with Michigan, who sat just one slot below #1 Ohio State in the rankings. You don’t need any any circumstances, let alone a really low number next to your name to make an Ohio State-Michigan game something special, but when Michigan’s long-time coach Bo Schembechler passed away 24 hours before kickoff, a “win it for Bo” element came into play for that game in Columbus. Much like Notre Dame 13 Novembers earlier, the home team held serve most of the way and survived a dramatic finish, earning themselves a trip to the National Championship in another 1 vs 2 battle. Like Notre Dame, the winner in this one would not win the title; in fact, this game’s aftermath spoils the game’s lasting effect because it did not yield the sport’s eventual champ. Also, I’m pretty sure most Big Ten purists don’t want a 42-39 game headlining the annals of the league’s rich history of 3 yards and a cloud of dust.

Given the final BCS standings for the 2011 season, it was inevitable that one of the teams competing at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 5th would be crowned a champion, but even with #1 at stake in the regular season, the winner of LSU-Alabama wasn’t guaranteed much beyond an SEC West division title and a berth in the Conference Championship. While this one had the makings of something great, two undefeated teams in the consensus best conference in the land, a close final score in a defensive struggle was not enough for the ends to justify the means. College Football isn’t baseball, where 1-0 games are often considered works of art, so with a 9-6 final in favor of the Tigers, and needing overtime to do it, makes this come up short.
The good news is, there are are a lot of years, hence a lot of games, left in this century. Maybe we’ll get one yet. Until then, WAR the future and the many great seasons of great College Football that inevitably comes with it, WAR the great games of yesteryear, and definitely unWAR trying to make the present into something it isn’t.

Rivalry Week: Ohio State vs Michigan

What does Michigan mean to me?

Well, it’s funny really. I’m an Ohio State student, a Buckeye to my core, yet Michigan means a lot of different things to me. Most of those things involve no disdain, hatred or even a dislike of That School Up North.

Growing up, my grandfather taught me to root for Michigan 364 days-a-year. “That way,” he said, “it’ll mean more when we beat ‘em.”

While this was certainly true, he continually told me how pretty Ann Arbor was and how he and his buddies would take a trip up there now and then just to enjoy the atmosphere. In fact, it was these trips that converted one of my own into a Wolverine.

My Uncle Ray tagged along on one too many trips to Ann Arbor and was sold. The Buckeye-fandom of his youth was no more and he became a Wolverine, eventually buying season tickets and becoming a generous booster to the university. We pick on each other often.

My own mother, my dear, beloved mother, divulged to me just months ago that it was her dream as a child to go to Michigan. She tagged along with my Grandfather as well, admiring the beautiful campus and dreaming of one day becoming a Wolverine.

My sister almost caught the Wolverine fever as well. Whether or not it was simply an attempt to butt heads with her Buckeye brother might always be a mystery, but earlier this summer my sister- a senior in high school- was seriously considering applying to Michigan. A trip to Ann Arbor squashed that idea, as the massive campus wasn’t to her liking, but again, my families connection with Michigan continued.

And then there’s me.

I remember being very little, with no idea what the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry meant. My mom would have it on at home and say, “Look Hayden, Ohio State’s beating Michigan.”

Of course, I had no idea how I was supposed to feel about that- other than happy that the Buckeyes were winning-  but as I grew older, I certainly had a deep and special appreciation for the rivalry thanks to one of my best friends.

When I was in fourth grade, a boy came to my school named Ali- yes, like Muhammed Ali.

Having been a student at the same school for six years up to that point- (I finished with 14 years under my belt)- I came to be very comfortable with everyone. I really felt as if I was an ambassador for the school and when there was a new kid around, I tried to be as friendly as possible to make him or her feel welcome. In this particular case, Ali and I hit it off quickly and became good, good friends.

You see, Ali was from Detroit, Michigan.

Finally, there was someone I could relate to. My family was from Cleveland, his family was from Detroit. We understood the Midwestern culture and we had a deep and burning passion for it.

Nobody else in our school could truly understand exactly where Ali was coming from- nobody, that is, except for me.

I’m not saying that I was Ali’s best friend, but we were very close because we both held a deep appreciation for our “home away from home.” While the glitz-and-glam of our spring break destination of a home surrounded us, Ali and I dreamed of our snowy Rust Belt.

I know, we’re weird.

Anyways, it was a special bond between Ali and I and it was through that unique friendship that my relationship with Michigan truly blossomed.

In South Florida, there is a chain of bars-and-grilles known as Bru’s Room. “Bru” is short for Bob Brudzinski, the former Ohio State and Miami Dolphin linebacker who owns these restaurants and has made a fortune off of some amazing wings.

Welcome to Michigan!! (Photo: Flickr/timtonjes)
Welcome to Michigan!! (Photo: Flickr/timtonjes)

As an Ohio State graduate, Brudzinski designated one of his South Florida bars as the official gathering spot of the South Florida Ohio State Alumni Association. Week-after-week, the Bru’s Room in Margate, Florida was packed with the Buckeye faithful of South Florida. Local DJ’s spun TBDBITL’s greatest hits, alumni walked around the bar with the world reknown Buckeye beads and the men of Scarlet and Gray were proudly on display on movie-theater sized big screens.

It was almost as if we were in Ohio Stadium, just thousands of miles away.

Being in South Florida, there wasn’t really a place to watch Ohio State games, outside of Bru’s Room, so that’s where we went- my Grandpa and I, my mom and I, my siblings and I- almost every single Saturday throughout the fall.

Eventually, after getting to know the people there, all of whom were friendly, I decided that I was going to bring Ali to Bru’s Room to watch the Michigan game.

While it was an Ohio State bar and Ali was reluctant at first, he agreed to come and an amazing tradition was born.

Ali was always treated kindly at Bru’s and year-after-year, no matter the result of the game, Ali and I would make the trip to Bru’s Room for the Ohio State-Michigan game.

The culmination of our annual tradition was in 2006 when Ohio State and Michigan met at the top of the college football world in Columbus. It was that game that afforded us the understanding that this thing, this relationship through this rivalry, was special.

It was our thing. No one understood what we loved so much about the Midwest and no one understood what was so special about this rivalry.

I didn’t want anyone else to be a part of it.

For four or five years in a row, Ali was the most respectful and kind fan in the world- the only kid I ever know that could take the seven consecutive losses with such dignity and grace.

My mom would often comment, “why does Ali come to Bru’s room even though Michigan loses every year?”. “It’s because,” I said, “this is special. We’re going to look back upon this and remember these times. There’s going to be a time when we can’t be together to watch the game.”

Eventually that time came.

During our senior year of high school, the last year we would be able to watch the game together, we couldn’t. I don’t remember the circumstances, but something kept us both away from Bru’s Room.

It was an emotional day and that was when we knew that it was truly the end of an era.

Those were memories that I know we both cherish to this day. Every time the Scarlet and Gray face off against the Maize and Blue, I think of Ali and the incredible times we had.

It was thanks to those memories and thanks to Ali that I gained an appreciation for the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and as the years went by, I brought it upon myself to learn as much as I could about “the Game”. I learned about the origins of the battle, of the great generals who lead their teams into battle and the soldiers who made the battles so historic.

Every year before “the Game”, I would sit and watch documentaries about the rivalry. I learned why the game meant so much over the years. I learned to truly embody that respect that my grandfather taught me as a child.

I understood that Ohio State was nothing without Michigan and Michigan was nothing without Ohio State. They’re one in the same.

Now that I have been blessed with the opportunity to attend the Ohio State University, the Rivalry has taken on a new chapter, but that may be for another time…

The bottom-line is this: I love so many people who have a connection to Michigan in one way or another. How am I supposed to hate a school that’s special to so many around me?

Michigan is my best friend. It may not be me, it may not be my family, but Michigan someone I appreciate and love with all my heart.

For three hours, we’re bitter enemies. For the rest, we’re best of friends.

That is what Michigan means to me.

Go Bucks!