BuckeyeSports.com continues its series on the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry with a look at the strong personalities of OSU's Urban Meyer and Michigan's Brady Hoke. Be sure to check out Part I on why this could be a historic year for the rivalry and Part II on the recruiting battles between the two schools and coaches..
When John Cooper was head coach at Ohio State, the Buckeyes went just 2-10-1 against Michigan – numbers that likely will follow the Hall of Fame coach to his grave.
Of course, on the flip side, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel was 9-1, posting equal mastery of Michigan Man Lloyd Carr and the well-meaning but ultimately doomed Rich Rodriguez.
In other words, to say there hasn’t been balance in the greatest rivalry in sports over the past two decades is a bit of an understatement. Throughout much of that time, both schools were led by coaches who either didn’t seem to grasp the importance of the game and treated it like any other (Cooper) or didn’t seem to have a handle on the culture of where they were working (Rodriguez).
And as they say, a rivalry isn’t really a rivalry if one team is always winning it, thus Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Doug Lesmerises says something was slightly missing a bit from the time Cooper took over to the time Tressel and Rodriguez left their respective towns.
“For how great it is, I think (the rivalry) could be hurt,” Lesmerises said. “I don’t think it’s indestructible. I think it needs to be two good, competent teams led by people who understand and appreciate the rivalry. The idea that John Cooper lost so much and didn’t get it and then Rich Rodriguez sort of lost and didn’t get it, I think it did make it dip for a while, but now it adds a heightened awareness.
“With Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke, that they both seem to be good at coaching football and that they both absolutely get it makes you appreciate that, ‘Yeah, this is what it really can be,’ because I thought it was in danger.”
There’s no doubt both Hoke and Meyer understand what they’re in for with the rivalry. Meyer is a native of Ashtabula, Ohio, who speaks often of how tuned in he was with the Ohio State-Michigan game as a child – so much so that he remembers one instance of listening to the game while doing holiday shopping with his family.
“This is all I knew growing up,” he said before last year's clash. "In the era when I grew up, there really wasn't much other than three channels on your television. There was this game. It was Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes, Pete Johnson, Archie Griffin. That's all.”
Hoke is cut from the same cloth in some ways. A native of Kettering, Ohio, he was always on the Maize and Blue side – personal choice, he says – but growing up in the Buckeye State has given him a keen awareness of what it means when the winged helmets and the Buckeye leaves are on opposite sides on a cool November day.
“That rivalry is special,” he said at his introductory press conference. “It’s like none other in football. Being engaged in that battle for eight years (as an assistant coach at U-M) and growing up in the state, you knew. Bo and Woody and the great fights they had. It is the most important game on that schedule. It is very important to me, almost personal.”
Of course, understanding the rivalry is one thing, but that wouldn’t really add up to a hill of beans if either coach wasn’t very good at coaching football. So far, though, it’s safe to say the two coaches have lived up to or exceeded expectations.
In Meyer, you have an unquestioned master mind of the college game, owner of two national championships and two more undefeated campaigns in 11 seasons, not to mention a career record of 116-23.
Hoke’s résumé isn’t quite as golden at 66-57 overall, but there are plenty of highlights – such as a 12-1 season at Ball State in 2008, turning around San Diego State from 4-8 to 9-4 in one season and his 11-2 mark upon taking over Michigan in 2011, not to mention some standout work on the recruiting trail while leading the Wolverines to consecutive top-five classes.
Combine his on-field record to this point, his recruiting success and his understanding of Michigan football and Hoke has re-energized the Wolverines fanbase.
“The guy captured fans’ hearts from the first press conference,” said longtime Michigan and Big Ten observer John U. Bacon, author of a new book on Big Ten football, "Fourth and Long". “That first press conference, I thought that was crucial, and he nailed it. He said all the right stuff. He knows the gospel and he sang the right hymnal, and of course he had a magical first season. Even though last year was not obviously what people wanted – and he’s the first guy to say that – very few really left the bandwagon, if any.”
Both coaches have also benefitted from the situations they have inherited, as well. Meyer followed up Luke Fickell’s 6-7 interim campaign while Hoke took over after Rodriguez went to just one bowl game in three years and posted a 15-22 overall record, though the program did seem to be trending upward upon his dismissal.
“They were put in situations to come in and be the savior,” Lesmerises said. “They didn’t just come in and replace a guy who retired or a guy who did really well and God forbid left for another job or something. The stature of both is elevated by the fact that there were problems right before they got there. Obviously, yes, they are doing a great job of turning those programs around, but I think in some ways it’s lucky for them that they were put in a situation where they could turn it around.
“If Meyer just comes in after Tressel, it’s like, ‘Oh, Tressel was 9-1, you have to go 10-0.’ It’s not the same as, ‘Oh gosh, here comes Urban to save the day,’ or ‘Here comes Brady to save the day.’ I think we’re all sorts of pumped up for this going forward because of how it started, and I think that adds to the lore of the whole situation on both sides.”
Add everything up and it’s easy to see why a heyday for both Ohio State and Michigan – not to mention the rivalry – is on tap.
The coaches have gone a combined 31-7 at their posts, have posted top-five recruiting classes in each full cycle they’ve had, and most importantly perhaps, they seem born and bred to be in the positions they are in.
“You don’t just have to understand (what a Michigan Man is at Michigan), you have to become one and become one quickly,” Bacon said. “That’s true for Ohio State, too. John Cooper did everything at Ohio State but beat Michigan pretty much, and the complaint of course was when he said the game is like any other. No, it’s not. If you think that, you’re going to have a hard time. John Cooper is a nice guy and a hell of a coach. In some ways, it seems very unfair, but in college football, you have to understand the culture.
“Rich Rod knew very little about Michigan and Michigan knew very little about him. There was no honeymoon, and it got worse from there. You can be a hell of a coach, but if you don’t get the local culture, it’s going to be difficult for you. Both Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer get their culture to the nth degree.”
Next up: A look at how the rivalry is going old school in recent years.