Brennan: Why Toledo is the center of Michigan-Ohio State rivalry this week

TOLEDO, OHIO -

Greetings from the center of this weekend’s sports universe.

Forty-five minutes from Ann Arbor, three hours from Columbus, Toledo has been a border town in the nation’s greatest college football rivalry for at least as long as sports fans have been on a first-name basis with Bo and Woody. The two greatest coaching names in Michigan-Ohio State history have been dead for a collective 39 years, but it’s pretty clear we’ll never need to use their last names again.

Don’t be fooled by Toledo’s unmistakable presence on the Ohio map. Many Toledoans look north to vacation in Michigan and cheer on the Wolverines and the Detroit Tigers.

I was one of them. Many times, I wondered if my hometown might as well be Toledo, Michigan.

Toledo always has been the DMZ of "The Game." As proof, there can be no better statistic than this: Both of the current head coaches were born in the same Toledo hospital within seven months of each other. Jim Harbaugh was born in old Mercy Hospital on Dec. 23, 1963. Urban Meyer was born there on July 10, 1964.

Can Auburn-Alabama give you that? USC-UCLA? Oklahoma-Oklahoma State?

Like every rivalry, this one has seen some lean years, as in when Michigan dominated from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s, and now Ohio State, which has lost to Michigan only three times in this century.

The Bo-Woody years truly were the best: There were seasons when both teams were ranked in the top five nationally and, because conferences could send just one team to a bowl game back then, the winner went on to the Rose Bowl while the loser went home — even if it were ranked in the top five in the nation.

The stakes are different but just as high Saturday in Columbus. Ohio State is second in the College Football Playoff rankings. Michigan is third. This will be the fifth time Meyer has coached in this game. He hasn’t lost yet. Harbaugh is coaching just his second UM-OSU game. He’s 0-1.

Thirty years ago this week, Harbaugh was Michigan’s starting quarterback. "I guarantee we’ll beat Ohio State this Saturday and we’ll be in Pasadena on Jan. 1," he said back then.

Michigan won the game 26-24. It was the last time Harbaugh was in Ohio Stadium until this Saturday.

Harbaugh was asked Tuesday if he had any further guarantees.

"Having done it, I don’t recommend it," he said.

A quick spin through our suburban neighborhood reveals a maize-and-blue Michigan flag flapping defiantly across the street from its opposite number, a scarlet-and-grey "O." I’m tempted to ring their doorbells and ask them to get together and discuss whether they voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Anything to keep them away from the really contentious November conversation that could break out between them.

Seriously, during UM-OSU week in the Bo-Woody era, I saw kids get into some significant pushing and shoving in our school hallways. You’d wear your colors and glare at the students who weren’t dressed like you. When Ohio State people came over to visit, we’d sneak an "Oh How I Hate Ohio State" maize-and-blue bumper sticker on the back of their car. They’d call after arriving home to tell us it already had been spotted and destroyed.

If you cared about this rivalry, you learned at a young age how much sports really mattered. There was joy, unimaginable joy. I’m thinking of 1969, specifically, Bo's first year, and his memorable 24-12 upset of Woody.

And there were tears. Many tears. I don’t want to go into all the specifics of how Michigan broke my heart, but let’s just say I’m still getting over the Wolverines’ collapse in the closing minutes of the 1975 game in Ann Arbor.

In 2006, at the British Open in Liverpool, our innkeeper regaled us with stories of the fierce rivalry between local Premier League teams Liverpool and Everton: families divided, arguments in pubs, restaurants and classrooms, everyone wearing their team’s colors days before the game.

He flashed a sympathetic smile.

"It’s the greatest thing in sports," he said kindly. "Too bad you don’t have anything like that in America."

I piped up.

"Sure we do. It’s called Michigan-Ohio State."

Follow columnist Christine Brennan on Twitter @cbrennansports.

USA TODAY Sports


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment