COLUMBUS: Urban Meyer already has a complex relationship with the Ohio State-Michigan game, even though this will be his first as the Buckeyes’ coach.
First, there is the bond many of us in both states savor, the memories of games anticipated and experienced with friends and family, in one or both of the school’s venerable old stadiums or curled up in front of the family television.
Meyer was born in Toledo and grew up in Ashtabula, so in that way, he is just like the rest of us.
“This is all I knew growing up,” he said. “It’s all anybody knew. In the era when I grew up, there really wasn’t much other than three channels on your television and this game. It was Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes, Pete Johnson, Archie Griffin. That’s all. I remember the games. I remember it coming down the pipe. I remember everybody talking about it. So it’s incredible memories growing up.”
Age isn’t a requirement to know what Meyer is talking about; fans’ personal timelines can start anywhere. Older fans might still smile about the Buckeyes’ win in the revenge game in 1970, and others may gush over the 1979 win in Ann Arbor that sent coach Earle Bruce’s first Ohio State team to the Rose Bowl. Or maybe they were raised on the tension that accompanied the 2002 game when the Buckeyes clinched a spot in the national championship game they eventually won or got hooked when Ohio State won 42-39 in the No. 1 vs. No. 2 game in 2006.
Football aficionados in both states have been there, so when Meyer and Michigan coach Brady Hoke — a Dayton native who rooted for Michigan as a kid — talk about their “incredible memories” of the game growing up, we all know what they are feeling.
But Meyer enjoys an intimacy with The Game that only a coach or a player can have, and for him it is both painful and beautiful.
He was a graduate assistant on Bruce’s staff in 1987 when Michigan week Monday became one of the unforgettable days in school history. Twenty-five years later, Meyer recalled the moment in his weekly news conference just a few steps from where it unfolded.
“I can tell you [about] walking into Coach Bruce’s office right here — this facility just opened, and [Athletic Director] Rick Bay was leaning up against the wall and looked at me and said, ‘Close the door,’ ” Meyer said. “ ‘Are you the last one?’ I said, ‘Yes, yes, sir.’ And I sat down.
“I saw a bunch of coaches with their arms on the table, with their face in their arms, and tears and the whole deal. I was like the last guy to walk in, and he said, ‘Coach Bruce will no longer be the coach after this game, and I have resigned as athletic director.’ ”
Meyer pointed to a door that lay just a 10-yard slant to his left.
“Like it was right there, right out that door,” Meyer said. “I knew Mr. Bay very well and have great respect for him. Just an incredible moment in Ohio State history.”
The Ohio State-Michigan game means different things to different people, but on that day it meant that Meyer would coach the Buckeyes just one more week, that he would make six more coaching stops before he made it back there.
Bruce is still his mentor, and maybe the biggest reason he has such a deep appreciation of the rivalry. Bruce attended the famous Snow Bowl in 1950 as a spectator. He coached on Woody Hayes’ staff from 1966 to 1971 — Hayes made hating Michigan a lifestyle — before serving as coach. “Coach Bruce reminds me,” Meyer said. “I get one of these” — he balled up his fist and shook it — “almost every day when I see him. I got one yesterday, and it almost hit me. It’s good.”
Bruce woke up the ghosts in Ohio Stadium with a stirring speech before thousands of frenzied spectators at senior tackle in 1996. The Michigan players saw the speech on television at their hotel and said it even inspired them that Saturday.
Meyer likes the Ohio State senior tackle tradition so much that he took it with him to Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, and today he plans to have Bruce speak at this one.
It almost seems unnecessary to say that the rivalry is in good hands.