COLUMBUS – All these years later, it’s easy to forget how big it was when Ohio State beat Michigan in 2001 in Jim Tressel’s first season as OSU’s coach.
Two national championships, two other championship game appearances, playing in big bowl games almost every year and dominating the rivalry with Michigan like never before has overshadowed the 2001 game.
But that 26-20 win in Ann Arbor changed the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and Michigan hasn’t been able to find a way to undo the momentum that OSU seized on Nov. 24, 2001.
Michigan won 10 of the 13 games between the two rivals during the years John Cooper was Ohio State’s coach. Ohio State has won 12 of 14 against the Wolverines since 2001.
Cooper got two wins and a tie in 13 games against the Wolverines. Ohio State fans grumbled that besides not getting enough wins he didn’t get the importance of The Game.
Tressel sent a message that as an Ohio native and former Ohio State assistant coach, he got the Michigan rivalry on the day he was introduced as Cooper’s successor on Jan. 18, 2001.
Speaking at halftime of an Ohio State men’s basketball game at the Value City Arena, he said, “I’m so proud, so excited and so humble to be your football coach at Ohio State. I can assure you that you will be proud of our young people in the classroom, in the community and, most especially, in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Mich., on the football field.”
The crowd went wild. But if Ohio State hadn’t backed it up on the field in November, it would have only multiplied the derision emanating from Michigan fans.
Ohio State went into the 2001 game unranked with a 6-4 record. Michigan was 8-2 and ranked No. 11. The Buckeyes also were starting backup quarterback Craig Krenzel with starter Steve Bellisari still in Tressel’s doghouse after being arrested for DUI and blowing a very drunk .22.
Ohio State built a 23-0 halftime lead and held on for the win. Maybe the defining moment, the signal that the OSU was going to be as aggressive as Tressel’s words in January came when he went for it on fourth-and-one at Michigan’s 45-yard line early in the second quarter.
Jonathan Wells burst through the line and went 45 yards for the touchdown and a 21-0 lead. In one final gesture, after OSU held on for the win, Tressel had the team sing Carmen Ohio to the Buckeyes fans in the crowd. It was the first time they had done that outside Ohio Stadium.
Many, many other things besides the 2001 game have gone into OSU winning 12 of its last 14 games against its rival.
But 2001 was a first step. And now, the cleats are on the other feet. Michigan has brought Jim Harbaugh in as its coach to restore the football program to the level expected in Ann Arbor.
A younger Harbaugh guaranteed a Michigan win in 1986 and delivered when he was the Wolverines’ quarterback. He has made no promises this year and if he knew how many days until the Ohio State game on the day he was hired, he didn’t share it.
But if Harbaugh and Michigan can win on Saturday, it will change the rivalry.
It would do the same thing for Michigan’s confidence that the 2001 win did for OSU. Like Ohio State, the Wolverines might catch a wave and ride it for a good, long time.
And in the age of the internet, Twitter and the myriad ways of communicating that weren’t around in 2001, the shock waves of a Michigan win would spread faster and farther.
The most important thing for Ohio State on Saturday is to win the game and salvage as much as it can out of this season after last week’s crushing loss against Michigan State. But keeping Michigan and Harbaugh from making this year their 2001 is important, too.