Buckeyes: Can We Not Party Like It’s 1969?

Relatives of mine can never forget the Sunday before Thanksgiving, 1969. They had been scheduled to move from Northwest Ohio to Columbus but the time frame was pushed up due to a family tragedy. They drove down Route 23 to Columbus on that rainy Sunday. Immersed in their own shock they hadn’t really been able to focus on the events of the day before, but a separate, mournful parade of Ohio State fans making their return from Ann Arbor made clear that the Sports Planet Earth had trembled the day before. The Ohio State Buckeyes had lost.

The 1969 Buckeyes returned their “Super Sophs” from an undefeated national championship team the previous season. Rival Michigan had ceased to put up much resistance against the Buckeyes over the preceding years, leading to the hiring of a Northern Ohio native and Woody Hayes protégé. Bo Schembechler quietly went about reminding his Wolverines of the distance they had to travel. The goal, at the end of the year was to do the impossible and defeat the undefeated and prohibitive favorite Buckeyes in the end of the season rivalry game.

Michigan bumbled along at first, losing badly to Missouri and convincingly to a very mediocre Michigan State. After five games they stood at 3-2. Big wins in the games leading up to the Ohio State clash certainly gave evidence that something was happening. Still, few anticipated the 24-12 upset of the Buckeyes, a team whose narrowest margin of victory that year was a 35-7 thrashing of Minnesota, in Minneapolis.

Virtually no one thought a Michigan victory possible then, and virtually no one thinks it possible now—except perhaps Las Vegas which stunningly lists Michigan as fifth in the National Championship betting odds. Perhaps they remember 1969.

Consider—Ohio State returns a wonderfully talented group of youthful Buckeyes, fresh off a title run as spectacular and unexpected as Woody’s 1969 New Year’s Day thrashing of OJ Simpson’s USC’ Trojans. Michigan, which has played at a pedestrian level for years now, has nonetheless managed during that time to rise up for competitive games with the Buckeyes. Trying to shed its recent mediocre past, TTUN has turned to a Northern Ohio native and Schembechler protégé—a man who combines Schembechler’s curmudgeonly demeanor and quiet thirst for domination with the naïve spontaneity of the late Detroit shooting star Mark Fidrych and the volatile unpredictability of a Mike Tyson.

Somewhat like Schembechler, and somewhat obviously not, Jim Harbaugh is humbly going about the business everyone knows he is about—smashing the expectations and hopes of a team he has successfully trolled before (remember the “guarantee of a Michigan victory?).

The 2014 Buckeyes did not beat Michigan by 36 points, and thus, presumably, there currently is no Michigan locker doormat emblazoned “50-14.” There is also no suggestion Urban Meyer uttered, “cuz I couldn’t go for three.” So, even given the eerie similarities, there is much that is different between now and 1969. Chief among the differences–Woody did not have the harbinger of ill will from the past that Urban has. Armed with that forewarning, can he manage to avoid a reboot of 1969 and another mournful drive down Route 23?

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