Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Remembering The 'Ten Year War'

The date is November 26th, 2006.  Michigan is about to take on Ohio State in what will be the most hyped game of the season.  The marks the first time the two schools have played each other ranked #1 and #2 in history.  Two living legends stand on each sideline, Lloyd Carr and Jim Tressel.  Two Heisman contenders take the field, Mike Hart and Troy Smith.  Each team representing some of the most historic college football programs in the nation.  They compete in Ohio State's legendary Horseshoe.  The winner will have an auto-bid to the National Championship game.  The loser will not be as lucky.


The date is November 23rd, 2011.  Ohio State has just lost to Michigan for the first time in nearly a decade and is reeling after a 6-6 season.  Michigan's first year coach Brady Hoke seemed destined for success after a 10-2 season, in great position for a BCS bowl, and a victory in his first edition of "The Game".  The Buckeyes respond by hiring former Buckeye assistant coach Urban Meyer.  With the hire of Meyer comes a legacy of winning.  Two national championships, four BCS game appearances, and an amazing record of 104-23 as a head coach.  Rumblings arise arguing that a repeat of the classic "Ten Year War" between Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes will soon occur between Hoke and Meyer.  

The date is December 27th, 1968.  Michigan finished the previous season with an 8-2 record, but again lost to arch-rival Ohio State.  They may have beaten the Buckeyes in 1966, but since coach Bump Elliot had been hired, the Wolverines had just five winning seasons over a decade and had a 3-7 record against Ohio State during the same period.  There was no doubt that something needed to change if Michigan was going to keep pace with Woody Hayes' Buckeye teams that had just beaten Michigan, won the Rose Bowl, and won the National Championship.  Athletic Director Don Canham decided to hire a former assistant of Woody Hayes named Bo Schembechler.


All of these moments represent some of the most important moments in the Michigan - Ohio State rivalry.  The first represents perhaps the greatest single game spectacle in "The Game", the second represents the future and potential for greatness in the rivalry, and the final moment represents the beginning of the "Ten Year War" and something that will forever impact the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State.  One player, one coach, and one game don't characterize the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State.  However, the players, coaches, and games that occurred during one ten year period shaped this rivalry more than anything else in its history.


First, for those who don't know much about the topic, let's go through a few basics to allow for a better understanding.  Michigan and Ohio State have had some very hyped games outside of the Ten Year War, but never as consistently as during that period.  Out of the 20 teams that participated in the Ten Year War, only 1 of those teams was unranked before "The Game".  Meaning, that every game in the series, except one, featured two teams ranked in the Top 25.


Going even further, these were not just ranked teams.  These were some of the most elite teams in the country facing off on a regular basis.  In fact, 17 of the 20 teams in the Ten Year War were ranked in the top ten, 14 of those teams were ranked in the top ten, and three were ranked #1.  That's simply astounding.  The Wolverines and Buckeyes met 7 times in that 10 year period when both teams were ranked in the top 5 in the country.  Here's a quick comparison.  The Big Ten Conference had exactly one game where both teams were ranked in the top ten in the nation, Nebraska vs. Wisconsin, last season.  Wisconsin did face #5 Oregon in the Rose Bowl, but that was a bowl game.  The Ten Year War had seven games that featured teams both ranked in the top ten.  If the current Big Ten replicated the Ten Year War from this moment, Nebraska and Wisconsin would have to play each other six more times over the next nine years and both be ranked in the top ten.  Yes, pretty unlikely in today's college football.


Yes, the teams were fantastic, but that was only one element of the Ten Year War.  The games were also hard fought and often came down to plays in the 4th quarter to decide the game's result.  Something that cannot be said about the Big Ten's only top ten match-up in 2011, where the game was decided by 31 points.  All but three of the games in the Ten Year War were decided by one score or less and four of the games were decided by three points or less.  This means the top teams were playing incredibly close on a consistent basis.  Let's just do another quick comparison to current situations.


I took the top ten bowls according to a list created by ESPN.  These consist of the nation's "top" teams where they are seeded against "equivalent" teams, these games should theoretically be pretty close.  Of these ten games, only five were decided by one score or less and three of these games were decided by three points or less.  I understand that these are different times, but outside of the 1976 matchup, every single game in the Ten Year War was pretty close.  Yes, defense was the main part of the game at that point and scores were lower, but it's incredible to think that nine games between the top teams in the country over ten years were at least pretty competitive, with five being pretty close, and three being extremely close.


However, these are still only part of the legacy of the Ten Year War.  A perfect example of this can be seen from 2001-2007 in the Michigan - OSU games.  Five of those seven games were match-ups between ranked teams and all but 2 of the 14 teams were ranked entering the game.  In fact, Michigan was ranked entering every single one of those match-ups.  Along with this, this time frame included the #1 vs #2 match-up described at the beginning of this post and had four games decided by one score or less, including the #1 vs #2 game.  However, the Wolverines recorded just one win over that time frame.   The series may have featured top teams in pretty close games, but the series itself wasn't competitive.


This was not true of the Ten Year War.  The series had as many twists and turns as an old highway and always had the potential for an upset.  In fact, four of the games featured a victory by the "underdog", three games had a victory by a road team, and one game even ended up being a tie.  Bo Schembechler may have won the series by a margin of 5-4-1, but there's no denying how evenly split the games had been.  Just check out the analysis of each specific game below:


Ten Year War Results


The games were, without a doubt, among the best teams in the nation, close games, and split pretty evenly between the Wolverines and Buckeyes.  The games also involved some of the greatest players in Michigan and Ohio State history.  But this still wasn't the most important aspect of the Ten Year War.  Every one of these aspects added to the games, but it wasn't what made the Ten Year War so special.  The roots of the Ten Year War can be traced to the basic rivalry between the schools and coaches.

Michigan and Ohio State had been rivals for decades.  The Ten Year War drastically increased the level, but the schools have been rivals for decades.  Some link this to the dispute over Toledo, but it's probably more related to the fact that the states are located next to one another and deal with each other so frequently.  Stir these factors into football games and a great college football rivalry arises.  

But what made these games so special were the coaches involved.  Every coach adds certain aspects to the games, but Bo and Woody went beyond that.  Bo had been a former assistant to Woody and it almost seemed like a personal betrayal for Bo to go to Ann Arbor after Woody had taught him the game.  Add onto this Woody's insane displays, such as tearing apart first down markers, rolling around on the ground, and punching a cameraman in the face, and it's not hard to see how a fierce rivalry could be created.

The Ten Year War is now something for the history books and both coaches have passed away, but the legacy of them and these games will last much longer.  Some of the very traditions that fans go crazy over began during this series, such as the ability for a team to go to the Rose Bowl two years in a row (Wisconsin would have been ineligible last year),  tie-breakers for the Rose Bowl berth (Wisconsin used this tiebreaker for their 2010 Rose Bowl), and Michigan's coveted 100,000 attendance streak started during this series.  These are just some of many things that began or were influenced by this series, but it really should give fans a sense of how long lasting these impacts have been.  The statement, "Legends never die", never rings more true than when one is discussing Bo, Woody, and the Ten Year War.

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