The Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes will play each other this year for the 108th time—a rivalry that ESPN viewers have voted the best. Not just in college football. Not just in football. But in all sports, at every level.
Perhaps that’s because the roots of this rivalry predate football itself.
They go back to 1833, when Michigan was still a territory, making its pitch for statehood. In the process, the surveyors discovered they’d gotten it wrong the first time: Toledo should have belonged to Michigan all along.
When Michigan claimed the vital port for its own, Ohio—a state since 1803—blocked Michigan’s bid for statehood. Former president John Quincy Adams, who had returned to Congress, wrote, “Never in the course of my life have I known a controversy of which all the right was so clearly on one side and all the power so overwhelmingly on the other."
And that’s what sparked the Toledo War. The two sides raised more than half a million dollars for troops, they marched into the city, and then … the whole thing boiled down to a single penknife wound in the thigh of a Monroe County deputy. The Toledo War was barely a bar fight.
President Andrew Jackson was fed up. He offered Michigan’s leaders a deal: If they would let Ohio keep Toledo, he would grant Michigan statehood, and throw in the Upper Peninsula to boot. They accepted, grudgingly, but their attitude changed when they discovered the U.P. had huge veins of iron and copper. Their attitude toward Ohio, however, didn’t budge.
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Battle over the Pigskin
Since the Toledo War had been a bust, Michiganders were left to take out their hostilities on the football field. Michigan and Ohio State played their first game in 1897, but because Ohio State wasn’t a member of the Big Ten, it didn’t count for much. Michigan’s main rivals at the time were league foes Chicago and Minnesota.
But things cranked up again when Michigan left the Big Ten in 1907, forcing the Wolverines to fill their schedule with non-conference opponents, such as Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State—Michigan’s three greatest rivals to this day.
Ohio State took Michigan’s Big Ten slot in 1912. But by 1918, Michigan was back in the conference, and the rivalry with Ohio State was for real.
Michigan has played Ohio State every year since. Just a few games in, the rivalry was already strong enough for both schools to invite the other for the inaugural games in their new stadiums: Ohio State’s in 1922; Michigan’s in 1927 (both Wolverine victories). The Big Ten acknowledged this growing rivalry in 1935, when it began scheduling Michigan-Ohio State games on the last Saturday of every season.
Over the past eight decades, this rivalry has eclipsed all others. After Michigan dominated the Buckeyes by a 13-1-2 margin up to 1919, Ohio State achieved virtual parity with the Wolverines over the next five decades by winning 23 of the 50 contests and tying two.
The Golden Era (or, the Ten Year War)
The rivalry reached a fever pitch in 1969, when Ohio State coach Woody Hayes’ former player and assistant, Bo Schembechler, took over his mentor’s arch nemesis.
"I can tell you, when I took the job I’m sure that did not make Woody happy,” Schembechler told me, in a considerable understatement. “Here was one of his guys, knowing more about him and his team than anyone, going to coach Michigan. They were undefeated in 1968, winning the national title, and they had a better team in ’69.”
Because the Buckeyes had won 16 straight games, dating back to the 1967 season, no one thought they could lose—except for the men in the Michigan locker room. The Wolverines stunned the sporting world with a 24-12 upset on November 22, 1969—but as Bo told me: “That was not a fluke. We flat out kicked their asses!”
In the 133-year history of Michigan football, and 890 victories as of this writing, that remains the most important triumph of them all.
“When we beat the Buckeyes,” Schembechler said, “that established my program here. The rivalry became even bigger.”
During the ten years that both generals roamed the sidelines, from 1969 to 1978, the rivalry that was already considered the best in college football reached its golden era, an incredible run when the winner of this single game was the Big Ten champion, every year. Six times perfect seasons were ruined, and three times they were preserved. And that’s why it’s called the Ten Year War.
The rivalry caught fire again in the 1990s. Four times that decade, Ohio State entered the game ranked in the top five, three times undefeated—and came out losers each year—a testament to the emotion of this unparalleled rivalry.
Despite the mutual hatred between them, both teams would be diminished without the other, and the play on the field has almost always been marked by mutual respect—no trash talking or cheap shots needed on that Saturday.
Since both teams have been in the Big Ten, the Wolverines have beaten Ohio State 45 times, and the Buckeyes have returned the favor 44 times (or 43, if you throw out Ohio State’s “vacated” victory of 2010)—just about as close as you can get. This year’s winner will be decided when the two teams face off on November 26.
John U. Bacon is the author of Bo’s Lasting Lessons (Business Plus, 2008), and most recently, Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). He won the Golden Apple Award in 2009, and provides sports commentary for Michigan Radio on Friday mornings.
Images courtesy of Bentley Historical Library, U-M Photo Services, and Eric Bronson.