TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As far as rivalries go, it was the pinnacle.
They called it the “10-year war” between Michigan and Ohio State, and in terms of the national landscape of college football, no matchup was better. Only once from 1969-78 was one of the teams not ranked. The games were always close, one even ending in a tie, and it even became personal.
What elevated it was Michigan, sick of losing to Woody Hayes, hiring his former assistant Bo Schembechler. The war was on, and its legacy has more than endured the test of time.
Alabama and Auburn have topped it, and those who can’t understand why need to make a pilgrimage to find out.
This is a rivalry that’s so intense that the teams stopped playing for 41 years, and it’s always personal.
“I don’t think that you really understand the significance of a rivalry until you’re involved in it, whether it’s Ohio State-Michigan, Michigan-Michigan State, whatever rivalry it is,” said Nick Saban, whose first big rivalry was Menongah and Farmington in West Virginia, high schools that no longer exist.
“To the people in that rivalry, that game is as important as it is to anybody else.”
Just take that intensity and put it on a grander scale. That’s what Michigan and Ohio State did.
For example, in 1968, Ohio State was in the midst of a 50-14 rout of Michigan when Hayes decided to go for a completely unnecessary 2-point conversion. The play failed, so naturally reporters asked him about the decision after the game.
“Because they wouldn’t let me go for 3!” he responded.
Have you heard the story about the time Hayes supposedly threatened to push his car across the state border rather than buy gasoline in Michigan? Some people still won’t mention Michigan by name, rather as “that school up north.”
In 1974, Hayes was among those to greet President Gerald Ford, a former Michigan lineman, at the Columbus airport. In the next day’s newspaper the photo caption was: “Woody Hayes and Friend.”
“They brainwash you into hating those suckers, and then you really believe it,” Ohio State linebacker Steve Tovar once said, and he never even played for Hayes.
There’s no love lost between the two football powers because they’ve been dominating the Big Ten for as long as anyone can remember. The more riding on the games, the bigger the rivalry. Michigan has won 42 league titles and Ohio State 35, with no one else having more than 18 (Minnesota, which last topped the conference in 1967).
The 10-Year War (Woody vs. Bo, 1969-78)
|1978||No. 6 Michigan at No. 16 Ohio State||Michigan||14-3|
|1977||No. 4 Ohio State at No. 5 Michigan||Michigan||14-6|
|1976||No. 4 Michigan at No. 8 Ohio State||Michigan||22-0|
|1975||No. 1 Ohio State at No. 4 Michigan||Ohio State||21-14|
|1974||No. 3 Michigan at No. 4 Ohio State||Ohio State||12-10|
|1973||No. 1 Ohio State at No. 4 Michigan||Tie||10-10|
|1972||No. 3 Michigan at No. 9 Ohio State||Ohio State||14-11|
|1971||Ohio State at No. 3 Michigan||Michigan||10-7|
|1970||No. 4 Michigan at No. 5 Ohio State||Ohio State||20-9|
|1969||No. 1 Ohio State at No. 12 Michigan||Michigan||24-12|
However, Bo never won a national championship. Hayes had three teams finish atop either the AP Top 25 or coaches’ poll over 28 seasons, but none during the war years. Seven of his teams finished in the top 5, and four of Schembechler’s teams did as well, but combined they went 2-12 in bowl games.
Now compare it to this 10-year run of Iron Bowls.
|*2017||No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Auburn||TBD|
|*2016||No. 16 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama||Alabama||30-12|
|*2015||No. 2 Alabama at Auburn||Alabama||29-13|
|*2014||No. 15 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama||Alabama||55-44|
|2013||No. 1 Alabama at No. 4 Auburn||Auburn||34-28|
|2012||Auburn at No. 2 Alabama||Alabama||49-0|
|2011||No. 2 Alabama at Auburn||Alabama||42-14|
|2010||No. 2 Auburn at No. 9 Alabama||Auburn||28-27|
|2009||No. 2 Alabama at Auburn||Alabama||26-21|
|2008||Auburn at No. 1 Alabama||Alabama||36-0|
* Rankings reflect College Football Playoff rankings
On face value, the Big Ten games have the edge. They were closer, with more upsets and both Michigan and Ohio State were consistently at the top echelon of college football. Auburn has been more erratic this past decade.
But this is the era of conference championships and the College Football Playoff. Only three of the Michigan-Ohio State games featured a team that was ranked No. 1 or No. 2. All of the Alabama-Auburn games have.
Only once has the winner of the Iron Bowl not advanced to the SEC Championship Game, 2011, when Alabama won the national title anyway.
The stat that trumps everything, though, is this: The winning team in seven of the last eight Iron Bowls has gone on to play for the national championship. Alabama did so five times and Auburn twice, with both having endured one loss.
There’s never been a stretch like that in college football history.
My goodness, the Iron Bowl in Auburn this year is going to be epic.
— Peter Burns (@PeterBurnsESPN) November 11, 2017
Moreover, the Alabama-Auburn games have had epic moments: The Kick Six. Roy Upchurch’s touchdown to cap the drive. Cam Newton’s comeback. Amari Cooper topping all in the shootout.
So as great as Glenn E. Schembechler vs. Wayne Woodrow Hayes was, the path to the national championship didn’t go through Ann Arbor and Columbus like it now does through this state.
“Everybody kind of knows what’s at stake,” Saban said.