The drumbeat started low and slow, with hardly anyone at the time putting much stock in the insane ramblings coming out of the normally lucid and coherent Sweater Vest.
“There’s always going to be change,” Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said at the Big Ten’s media days back in early August when asked about expansion changing the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. “I don’t think — I can’t imagine that there would ever be a change from the fact that Ohio State and Michigan are going to square off and it’s going to be exciting and meaningful and all the rest.
“How it will be done exactly and where within the year and all those things, I’m sure if we look back in our history, most recently it’s been in the last regular season game. Prior to that, it wasn’t.“
While Tressel’s quotes caused a more-than-minor ripple, Michigan athletic director David Brandon shed all pretense and cannonballed into the discussion of moving the UM-OSU game from the end of the season — where it’s been for 70-plus years — to earlier in the season and allowing for the possibility that the two long-time and hated rivals could meet twice in a given season — once in the regular season, once in a conference title game.
“I think there’s a distinct possibility that game will be a later game in the season but not necessarily the last game of the season,” Brandon said. “That’s simply because I don’t think the coaches or the players or the fans or the networks or anyone would appreciate that matchup twice within a seven-day period.”
Brandon’s counterpart at Ohio State, Gene Smith, was a little more demure, but no less using a public forum to brace fans for what seems like the inevitable, when he said “we may end up playing the last game of the year, or not. I just don’t know that yet.”
The latest to chime in on this potential abomination is Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. And, just like Tressel, Brandon and Smith before him, Delany hinted strongly that the die has already been cast, and one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports is about to be devalued by moving up on the calendar when the conference announces its divisional alignments.
“I would put Michigan-Ohio State among the top five events in all of sports for rivalry,” Delany said. “It’ll get played. Now the question is, how best to play it? Are they in the same divisions or are they not? Do they play in the last game, the second-to-last game, the third-to-last game? How to do that is still under discussion. …
“You could make a good argument that Michigan and Ohio State should never really be playing for a divisional crown. If they’re going to play, play for the right to go to the Rose Bowl. When Tennessee and Florida play, when Auburn and Alabama play, only one of those teams is going to go to the championship game because they’re in the same division.”
How exactly has the Iron Bowl suffered by the two schools being in the same division, as Delany intimates? Last time we checked, ‘Bama-Auburn in many parts of this country is viewed as the greatest, most heated rivalry in all of college football, and they’ve somehow found a way to keep that hatred alive and well for nearly twenty years while residing in the same division.
And what’s to say that the two schools intertwined in a decades-long conference rivalry have to have the opportunity to face each other in a title game, anyway? There’s no sound logic or any semblance of a good argument in Delany’s attempt at justifying a move by shifting the attention to conference title match-ups. How much more would be on the line if a shot at the Big Ten title game hung in the balance that weekend after Thanksgiving? Certainly a whole helluva lot more than if The Game were the meat in a Indiana/Illinois or Northwestern/Minnesota October sandwich.
What happens to the 2006 game or the 1969 game or the myriad other classics if they were played at any time before the end of the regular season? Here’s a hint: they fade into oblivion and become a footnote to the rest of the regular season most years, with a slight chance that one could avenge the prior midseason loss in the conference title game. And the reason they’d fade? They’d be lost amongst what happened in the two or three or four games after The Game Lite was contested.
When those games were played had as much to do with the memories as how the games were played or ended. There was something on the line, either a Rose Bowl/BcS berth or the opportunity to ruin the other’s season; move The Game from the end of the regular season, and you lose that something being played for every single year on the off-chance that they meet up, what, once every four, five years with something on the line?
This is not the era of the Ten-Year War. There were no Penn State’s, Wisconsin’s, Iowa’s or Nebraska’s to speak of back in the days of Woody and Bo, at least not consistently. This is a more balanced Big Ten, rife with top-shelf programs that would make the conference’s seemingly desired target of a twice-a-year grudge match between its two flagship schools much less likely than the league’s officials would care to admit or consider.
Be warned, Big Ten: you move The Game, you will rip the heart and suck the soul out of the single greatest property the conference owns. And for what, a few more advertising dollars every few years when they do happen to stumble into a title showdown? One that will, incidentally, likely be contested in a sterile, domed, neutral location as opposed to yet another reason that The Game is what it is — The Big House and The Shoe.
The shame in all of this is not the fact that it’s nearly a done deal; the shame is the fact that it’s being considered at all.