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Ohio State-Michigan returns to its Ohio roots

Andrew Holleran / Photo editor

On Saturday, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and Michigan coach Brady Hoke will square off for the first time. It will be the 109th meeting between OSU and Michigan, but this time around The Game will feature a homegrown flavor that’s been absent for decades.

For the first time since 1978, both OSU and Michigan employ non-interim head coaches that hail from the Buckeye state.

Growing up in Ohio, or Michigan, is certainly not a prerequisite for having success in The Game, but history says it helps.

Before Hoke arrived on campus, current Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez took a stab at the Michigan job. But Rodriguez, a native of Illinois without any prior ties to Michigan, was viewed as an outsider by some of the school’s most devout supporters from the get-go. He posted an 0-3 record against OSU and was fired after the 2010 season.

“The biggest complaint against Rodriguez from his critics was that he was not a Michigan man, he didn’t understand the tradition,” said John Bacon, author of the book “Three and Out,” which details Rodriguez’s tenure in Ann Arbor.

Buckeye fans can sympathize. 

When former OSU coach John Cooper was hired in 1988, he said that OSU-Michigan was just another game. Just another game became just another loss far too often, and Cooper was fired following the 2000 season, in part because of his 2-10-1 record against the Wolverines.

Like with Rodriguez, fans were frustrated that Cooper didn’t understand or embrace the magnitude of The Game.

“The fan bases at both schools, frankly, can be a bit snobbish about this,” Bacon said. “If you don’t get it, they can’t understand why you don’t get it.”

Meyer and Hoke shouldn’t have such a problem. Both grew up in Ohio and said they were immersed in the rivalry at a young age. Later on, each spent time as assistant coaches at their respective schools.

“When you’ve grown up in the rivalry, you understand that it’s the most important game of the year,” said Hoke, who claims to have always been a Michigan fan.

No one questions whether or not the coaches “get it.” The answer is fairly clear. When he first took the Michigan job, Hoke displayed a penchant for calling OSU “Ohio,” which Wolverine fans have since adopted. Meyer speaks of the rivalry as if it were a value.

“The one thing about this rivalry, you’re taught at a very young age who the enemy is,” Meyer said. “However there’s a deep-rooted respect for the enemy. That’s the way I was raised.”

Both Meyer and Hoke fondly remember the last time The Game featured two Ohio-born coaches. The 1978 matchup was the last in a period called the “Ten year war,” a back-and-forth battle between former OSU coach Woody Hayes and former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, and the most iconic era of the rivalry to date.

“I knew at a young age that I wanted to be a coach,” Meyer said. “Those were the first two out of my mouth when I said what great coaches were.”

OSU football historian Jack Park said that since the conclusion of the Ten Year War, OSU and Michigan fans alike have longed for a comparable coaching battle. With Meyer and Hoke in tow, the search could be over.

“It was a stunning 10 years, I just cannot imagine that ever recurring,” Bacon said. “That said, I think that the rivalry might be headed to its second-best era.”

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