Players say John Cooper tried to treat the Michigan game as just another important game.
COLUMBUS - The approach to the Ohio State-Michigan game, from a coach's perspective, has taken on different identities at Ohio State over the last 50-plus years.
It goes back to the late Woody Hayes, who was 16-11-1 against Michigan, to Earle Bruce (5-4) to John Cooper (2-10-1) to Jim Tressel, who is 1-0 going into Saturday's game in Ohio Stadium (12:15 p.m.).
During the Hayes era at Ohio State (1951-1978), when the Big Ten actually consisted of 10 teams, it was often referred to as, “The Big Two and Little Eight.” Michigan and OSU dominated the conference in football. Hayes supposedly devoted at least one day a week throughout the entire season to the Michigan game, sometimes more.
Bruce was a Hayes disciple, and employed Tressel as an assistant coach at Ohio State from 1983-85, before Tressel took the head coaching position at Youngstown State.
A few Ohio State seniors said Monday that the emphasis on “the game” has changed from the Cooper reign to the Tressel era. The overriding theme was that Cooper tried to downplay the Michigan game to the extent that it should be considered just another big game on the schedule. He didn't like the all-encompassing, win-or-die aura that surrounded it under Hayes and Bruce.
“I think coach Tressel puts a little more emphasis on the bigness of the game,” OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel said. “Coach Cooper just tried to play it off. It's a huge game, especially when we've had national title implications on the line.
“Coach Cooper, it seemed, tried to take the attitude that it's just another good football team and we need to go out and take care of business.”
Senior free safety Donnie Nickey agreed: “I think the pressure [Cooper] faced from all of the Michigan stuff forced him to try to downplay it because he wasn't successful against Michigan. You could tell there was a sense he was trying to downplay it when it was really a huge game.
“I think that happens. I think coach Tressel had a fresh view. This is Michigan. For a head coach this is your job. This is how you stay in Columbus. Coach Tressel up-played the game. He put the ball in our court and challenged us to step up in the big game.”
Cooper, who still lives in Columbus, was fired after the 2000 season - largely because he won only twice against Michigan in 13 attempts.
Cooper admitted yesterday he used a number of different approaches to the Michigan game.
“During the time I was there we tried everything,” he said. “We hyped it as the biggest game in the world [and we treated it like it] was just another big game. We brought in former players [as] speakers, we tried everything but painting the tackling dummies blue.
“I don't know if I ever lost to a bad Michigan team. Usually teams go in cycles, but it hadn't happened up there. I don't think Michigan had a bad team while I was at Ohio State, and I'm not using that as an excuse.”
There were only three times UM wasn't ranked when it played OSU during the Cooper regime. But in 1993, 1995 and 1996, the Buckeyes' only regular-season loss was to Michigan.
If it weren't for the Michigan game, Cooper would probably still be the coach at Ohio State. Eighteen of OSU's 22 starters Saturday were recruited by Cooper.
Tressel remains rather coy about how he prepares his team for the Michigan game.
“There was no question that if you worked for coach Bruce that this was not just another game,” he said. “It was a game that wasn't just talked about the week of the game.
“We were all probably a little uptight. Anytime you get ready for something important ... I'm sure people going to take their bar exam, they're uptight and excited, but they're prepared. They're the ones who pass it. Our bar exam is this game. You'd be lying if you told anyone you weren't uptight.
“We talk a lot about the history of Ohio State football. We talk a lot about what has made the great teams great and where, perhaps, teams that could have been great fell short. It's an on-going process. I think kids want to know, what do we need to do to succeed? I can't let out of the bag exactly what we specifically talk about. That wouldn't be in our best interests.”
Saturday's game is, of course, much more than just Ohio State-Michigan. The second-ranked Buckeyes (12-0, 7-0) can advance to the national championship game if they win.
Bruce was in a similar situation in 1979. He beat then-13th-ranked Michigan and took an unbeaten Ohio State team to the Rose Bowl with a national championship on the line. The Buckeyes lost to USC 17-16.
Bruce was one of the speakers Cooper brought in the week of the Michigan game, and Bruce accepted Tressel's invitation to speak to the team Sunday night.
“I told them as an alum and not as coach, you look at the Michigan game as the game,” Bruce said yesterday.
“We've had 11-1 football teams and 10-1 teams that have lost to Michigan and they're not even mentioned in a second breath. Twenty years from now you can't say, `What if, what if.' Now's the time to go out and do it. Don't let any what-ifs enter into this game.”
OSU All-American strong safety Michael Doss said after Bruce's speech Sunday he was ready to strap it on and go play right then, he was so moved.
Bruce, wearing a red Buckeyes sweatshirt, was every bit the old coach yesterday after Tressel's weekly press conference.
When made aware of Cooper's approach to the Michigan game as just another very important contest, Bruce was ready to strap it on himself.
“If he did that I would have to tell you this. This is the game,” Bruce exclaimed, the tone of his voice rising rapidly. “Anybody that has been associated with Ohio State football would have to know the importance of this football game. And it is the game and it is the big game, and sometimes people say it is the only game.
“I don't believe that because you have to play 10 or 11 others now, but it is daggone important. It lets you walk the main streets of Columbus, Ohio, or if you lose you go to the alleys, buddy!”