Arvada, Colo., is an idyllic suburb of Denver — mountains, virtually no crime, and great schools.
Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight is sacked by Ohio State defenders Chris Worley (35) and Jerome Baker last season in Columbus. "There was no dip in intensity," ESPN broadcaster Chris Fowler said of the game. "There were no lapses or lulls."
It’s also 1,200 miles from Ann Arbor and Columbus, and nowhere in the vicinity of the Midwest. Those facts didn’t matter for Arvada resident Joel Klatt. The Ohio State-Michigan game was still appointment television.
Klatt, who played quarterback at the University of Colorado, will dive headfirst into the rivalry Saturday, calling the game on Fox with Gus Johnson.
“The Michigan-Ohio State game is the soundtrack to college football,” Klatt said. “I’m still almost giddy that the soundtrack the next few years will be composed by Gus, and I’ll be alongside. It’s the greatest rivalry maybe in all of sports, certainly in our sport. I can’t wait to witness it and be a part of it.”
This is the first year the Ohio State-Michigan game has ever been broadcast by a network other than ABC. Fox is paying the Big Ten $250 million per year over the next six years, and the network will have the No. 1 pick of games. In all likelihood, Fox will broadcast the Ohio State-Michigan game the next six seasons.
“That’s a tough one,” said Chris Fowler, the play-by-play voice for ABC’s game of the week, with almost a funereal tone to his voice.
When asked if he would miss calling the game, Fowler let out a series of chuckles, which stated the obvious.
“Oh, absolutely. So will my partner,” Fowler said, alluding to former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit.
As a young boy growing up in Pennsylvania and Illinois, Fowler has vivid memories of watching Ohio State and Michigan at the height of the Ten Year War. It was games like these that drew Fowler to the sport and attracted him to being a broadcaster.
Those Ohio State and Michigan fans looking for The Game on DirecTV or U-Verse will face what has become a familiar problem Saturday. The stalemate between the two cable providers and Toledo Fox affiliate WUPW-TV has extended into a third month, meaning subscribers will not be able to watch The Game on their cable systems.
“It wouldn't have mattered if I lived on Mars, the Ohio State-Michigan game from the time I was a kid was a huge part of every year,” he said.
If you’re born in Ohio or Michigan, the year revolves around a certain Saturday in November. Johnson discovered that at a young age. The Detroit native gathered around the television in the family home and saw the names of players and coaches become etched into the rivalry’s lore.
“I grew up here. This rivalry is part of my DNA,” Johnson said. “We watched the Michigan-Ohio State game as a family. It was like Christmas, only a lot more important.”
On Saturday, Johnson’s name will reside next to Keith Jackson, Brent Musburger, Chris Schenkel, Bill Flemming, and Fowler as play-by-play announcers who have described the action of the Ohio State-Michigan game.
Johnson said it goes beyond being a bucket list moment. He opted instead to define it as true life surpassing his dreams.
“I just remember Keith Jackson,” Johnson said. “I remember images of Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes. I remember Anthony Carter. I just remember names. I remember Art Schlichter, who I thought was sweet. That’s what I remember more than anything. To me, it’s about the characters, the leading men that are performing in this classic rivalry. I remember the lore of this game.”
In the immediate aftermath of Fox securing the rights to Big Ten games, both Klatt and Johnson saw their minds turn to the final Saturday in November. The personal connection for Johnson, as a Michigan fan, a native of the state, and a child of the rivalry, tugged at his heartstrings. But those feelings have reverted.
Now it’s about calling a big game — perhaps the sport’s biggest — and telling the story about why one game is so important to millions of people. Both teams have countdown clocks in their facilities, Urban Meyer admonished a Fox employee for wearing a blue shirt to a production meeting — and Ohio State was playing Maryland that week — and there are still residents of Michigan who eschew the “State” when referencing OSU.
“What makes it really special is these two teams hate each other,” Johnson said. “It runs deep.”
Fowler is well versed on the rivalry, having attended it several times as the host on ESPN’s College GameDay before witnessing it from the broadcast booth last season. As one of the foremost college football minds, Fowler has a grasp for history unlike most. When he steps foot on either campus the week of the game, there’s something noticeable in the atmosphere.
“The energy is different all week, and it begins with the meetings with the coaches and players,” Fowler said. “I joke with Urban that he has the far-away eyes Michigan week. Harbaugh does too. They both bring a personal intensity that’s amplified during the week. You can just feel it, they are wound up.
“You know what it means, and it must have been the same way when it was Bo vs. Woody. It’s that kind of alpha personalities, extremely invested, couldn't be more intense, uptight. It feels very different than a regular game.”
The same intensity is present inside former players, even decades after they last played against Ohio State or Michigan.
“You talk to Desmond [Howard], Eddie [George], or [Chris] Spielman, you bring the game up and their gaze changes,” Klatt said.
There’s never a shortage of topics when it comes to Ohio State and Michigan. Klatt and Johnson could fill five three-ring binders full of storylines — Woody and Bo, Harbaugh and Urban, upsets and anguish, Desmond and Woodson, Archie and Tressel.
When scarlet and gray meets maize and blue, the story often writes itself. Few games in sports lend themselves to more spicy plots than Ohio State-Michigan.
“Michigan and Ohio State is always going to be big,” Klatt said. “But when you compound that with the subtext of these two coaches and their personalities, and the way they've built their programs, and their recruiting battles the last two years, and the kids that have gone from Ohio to Michigan, and the kids who have gone from Michigan to Ohio State, and the narrative of Harbaugh being so successful but not having beaten his rivals — that’s what makes the game so interesting this specific year.
“You can have a highly ranked matchup and all the fixings for some great epic game like you had for TCU-Oklahoma. But there just wasn't the subtext like you get with Ohio State and Michigan on a field together.”
In 2006, Klatt’s NFL career came to an end when he was released by the Detroit Lions. He found himself back home in Colorado in November moving into a new house. On the morning No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan played, Klatt scrambled to complete the move, driving “like a bat out of hell” so he could watch the Buckeyes and Wolverines.
“I remember vividly speeding home. Like, literally driving like a crazy man,” Klatt said.
The fingerprints of Ohio State-Michigan stretch from sea to shining sea.
“This is American history,” Johnson said. “Seriously, this is part of American history. Every year this is a time capsule in the greatest rivalry in sports. Not the greatest rivalry in college football, not the greatest rivalry in the game of football. No, the greatest rivalry in sports is this game.”
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