Legends and Leaders, Chapter 7: Heavyweight Headache

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(NOTE: This is the seventh chapter in a multi-part series on how the Big Ten Conference divided into two football divisions)

CHICAGO —None of the Big Ten’s long-standing programs boast more success or tradition than Ohio State and Michigan. The same holds true of their rivalry.

If any game was designated for protection throughout the Big Ten’s realignment process, it was Michigan-Ohio State. The teams have concluded their seasons against one another every year since 1943. The heavyweight duo have combined to win or share 77 Big Ten football titles. It’s the league’s flagship rivalry, and every athletic director knew it when they met Aug. 1 and 2, 2010.

“Let’s be completely truthful in all this: Michigan and Ohio State mean an awful lot to this conference, not that Northwestern or Iowa or Minnesota don’t,” Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips said. “We all feel strongly about our institutions, but you have to understand the history and tradition of the conference. I think you just have to be aware of that when you’re going through it. So did we favor one school or another? I don’t believe any of that happened, other than I don’t think you can turn a blind eye to Michigan and Ohio State.”

“I know our place in football in recent history versus Ohio State and Michigan, and I think Indiana knows the same,” Minnesota Athletic Director Joel Maturi said.

Everybody figured Michigan and Ohio State would play every year, but the subsequent questions were multilayered. Would the two compete in the same division or opposite divisions? Would the two finish the season against one another? Would two consecutive Ohio State-Michigan games taint a future Big Ten title matchup? Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany answered those questions on Aug. 1, 2010 by saying, “that’s why our athletic directors are going to be meeting.”

The first decision separated the pair into opposite divisions. Because of their shared history, some discussed — including Delany — that the schools never should compete for a division title.

“Logic would say, you want to have them on opposite sides,” Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis said. “You want to have an opportunity for those two teams to play in a championship game.”

But separate divisions posed another problem — the schedule. If the teams continued to play in the regular-season finale, the possibility lurked for an Ohio State-Michigan rematch one week later. At first the league examined moving the game to early November, which became public during August. That scenario created a groundswell of dissent among Ohio State and Michigan fans.

Public attention swarmed to Michigan-Ohio State. Some accused the schools of determining the Big Ten’s entire realignment. Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke took exception to that, calling it a “media myth.”

“Michigan and Ohio State do not dominate things,” Burke said. “We’re an end-of-the-season game, too. We always played Indiana in the final game of the season. If there’s any belief that somehow this is being orchestrated by Ohio State and Michigan, that’s baloney. Just flat-out not true. That’s people hearting footsteps that don’t exist.”

Nearly 13,500 fans joined a Facebook page called “Don’t Mess With the Michigan/Ohio State Game!” Delany, Michigan Athletic Director David Brandon and Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith all received thousands of notes from fans urging them to leave the game as the regular-season finale. It was tough to ignore.

“I didn’t need to run a poll to know how important it was to our fans,” Brandon said. “That game’s been held on the last (regular-season) Saturday in November for a long, long time. Gene Smith didn’t need to run a poll, either. But again we looked at number of scenarios and one of the scenarios that was out there in earlier stages was one where rivalry games would have been moved up in schedule and it still would have been in November as I recall, but it would not have been the last game. That was certainly one of the potential outcomes.”

The divisions were solidified by Aug. 13, 2010, but the Michigan-Ohio State scheduling decision lingered beyond the divisional question. Eventually, league officials decided they could live with a potential rematch and kept the game as the finale.

“On Aug. 23 we knew where we were going with that game,” said Mark Rudner, the Big Ten’s senior associate commissioner for television administration. “That game was staying at the end.”

“I’m not worried about repeats, Michigan and Ohio State,” Delany said.

The athletic directors said the fans were crucial to the final decision, and both agreed the game needed to end the regular season.

“In the final analysis, I know Gene and I felt really strongly that it needed to be the last game, and that tradition was important, not only to the two schools, but to the conference,” Brandon said. “Ultimately our colleagues and the league office agreed.”

“We all felt the Ohio State-Michigan game was advantageous to keep at the end of the season after a lot of discussion,” Smith said.

COMING TUESDAY: Dollars and Sense. Financial issues play a huge role in college athletics today, but how much were they discussed when the league formed the divisions? 

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