ANN ARBOR, Mich. - If, come Friday morning, the bulletin board in the Ohio State locker room is nothing but mismatched thumbtacks and naked cork, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr will be a happy man. That's just the way he planned it.
The days building up to the clash between two of college football's most bitter rivals are managed like a hotly contested political campaign.
There is a temporary ban on private, one-on-one interviews where a player might drop his guard if he steps out of the glare of the television lights. The team spokesmen are hand-picked for their media savvy, and for their understanding of the “loose lips sink ships” philosophy.
Every safeguard is used to avoid the sins of the past and prevent a verbal firefight in advance of the kickoff, like something touched off by the bravado-laced comments of a Charles Woodson or a David Boston.
Now they even use “talking points” and selective amnesia, techniques perfected by media dodg-ers over the last few years on the na-tional political stage.
Six Michigan players used “hard-fought games” about 37 times yesterday while describ-ing past Ohio State battles; “they'll give us their best shot” was re-peated 20-some times, and they threw in an abundance of “great athletes, they do a great job, great players, great game, great quarterback” until a UM victory seemed almost impossible.
Then they more or less admitted the pre-Ohio State stuff comes right out of the middle pages of the vanilla milquetoast manual.
Running back Anthony Thomas, when asked if he ever says anything the least bit controversial: “No, I think I do a pretty good job of avoiding anything like that.”
That is the game plan for Ohio State week.
Asked about legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, Thomas pleaded ignorance. “I don't know nothing about him,” said Thomas, who has 1,491 yards rushing this season and 4,228 in his career, and needs 165 against the Buckeyes to tie Jamie Morris at the top of the UM career list.
They trotted out the obligatory Ohio kid playing for Michigan - in this case defensive end Dave Petruziello from Mentor Lake Catholic. Petruziello admitted he was aware of the rivalry as a kid growing up in the Cleveland area, but there was no real grudge to bear when a player seemingly passed up by the Buckeyes ends up in Ann Arbor donning maize and blue.
“Grudges ... that's not part of my ... I'm not like that,” he said. “The rivalry itself is more about tradition. It's not a hating one, it's more about how important the game is.”
Before an announcement was made that the two teams might hold hands and make a joint appearance with the “Up With People” singers at halftime, Monroe's Eric Wilson even related a fondness for the Ohio State crowd.
“It's a loud place to play, but sometimes you like the crowd against you. It gets you fired up,” he said. “When we go to Columbus, it's a fight, and we know that.”
Offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson, a Floridian, tried to come off as a detached third-party observer of this whole Michigan-Ohio State phenomenon.
“This is a big, national game and I've followed it since I was young,” he said. “It's a high-intensity game. And I don't think you can add any more intensity to this game.”
Hutchinson then made a play for a news blackout until game time.
“You can play the game today, tomorrow and Wednesday, and by the time the game rolls around, you're out of energy.”
If this was a fishing expedition by the members of the media, they came home with an empty stringer.
Wilson was philosophical about the strict code the players have to adhere to during Ohio State week. He knows trash talk never ends up in the trash.
“You have to understand, you don't want to be the one on the bulletin board,” he said.
As of this morning, that bulletin board is bare.