For many Ohio State football coaches, success isn’t measured in wins per year or bowl victories. Instead, success is measured by a coach’s record against Michigan.
The storied rivalry has become so important in part due to the outcome’s national implications year to year. Since 1935, the game has determined the Big Ten champion 22 times and had an effect in determining the eventual conference champion an additional 24 times.
Theses statistics have become even more pronounced recently, as either Ohio State or Michigan has claimed at least a share of the Big Ten title every year since 2001.
Consequently, many coaches’ careers have been validated or ruined based on their ability to beat that school up north.
John Cooper was one such coach who suffered mightily for his lack of success in the rivalry. In Cooper’s 13 seasons as Ohio State’s coach he had a career record of 111-43-4.
But he was only 2-10-1 against Michigan and failed to ever win a game in Ann Arbor. Cooper was fired following the 2000 season.
Where Cooper failed, his successor, Jim Tressel has excelled. While Cooper downplayed the rivalry, Tressel has embraced it since his first year at the helm.
“I can assure you that you’ll be proud of our young people, in the classroom, in the community and especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan,” Tressel announced, shortly after being hired in 2001. That year, Tressel led the Buckeyes to a 26-20 victory. The win in Ann Arbor served as the Buckeyes’ first in 14 years.
Tressel has dominated Michigan during his tenure, posting a 7-1 record against the Wolverines. He is one of only three Ohio State coaches to maintain a winning record in the rivalry, among those who coached at least eight games. The other two coaches are Woody Hayes (16-11-1) and Earle Bruce (5-4).
“I’ve known before I was even part of the series of the significance of the game, and the excitement of the game,” Tressel said. “It’s part of you if you like football and you’re from Ohio State or you’re from Michigan, if you’re in the Big Ten. You just grow up knowing that we’re fortunate to be a part of this game.”
Tressel went on to say that memories of past Ohio State-Michigan games are in the forefront of past players’ and coaches’ minds. Those memories are even more predominant than bowl games and national rankings, and that’s what is at stake every time the teams play.
As for this year’s game, Tressel explained the Buckeyes will not be overlooking a struggling Michigan team.
“There’s a reality in life that if you’re taking anything for granted, you’re probably not thinking right,” Tressel said. “I’d like to think our guys don’t take anything for granted, although I’m sure we all do take things for granted, but this wouldn’t be one of them.”
Tressel downplayed the possibility of the team being overconfident, having already secured a Rose Bowl berth.
“I’m not worried about overconfidence because we’ve got enough guys that have played in this game that they know better than that, so if there is and overconfidence, it will get knocked out of their throwback uniforms on the first play.”
Tressel’s ability to keep his players from being overconfident has helped lead the Buckeyes to five straight victories over Michigan. The five-game win streak is the Buckeyes’ longest in the history of the rivalry, which they will look to continue Saturday.