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Michigan and Ohio State ...

... When Bo was Unknown and the Big House Wasn’t so Big


Even University of Michigan fans and alumni had to be impressed when The Wall Street Journal splashed a color picture of a face-painted guy in maize and blue and the headline "The Biggest Game Ever" across a section front Friday.

The Wall Street Journal! A business newspaper with a global readership. And that was before legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler died on the eve of the Ohio State game.

I was a sophomore at Michigan when Bo was hired in 1968. That was before the Big House was a Big Deal. It was painted gray and, unless Michigan was playing Michigan State, it was often about 30,000 fans shy of its then 101,001-seat capacity on autumn Saturday afternoons. In one of the first Schembechler obits, somebody noted that Michigan athletic director Don Canham gave 25,000 tickets to Ohio State the week before the 1969 showdown to make sure the game was a sell-out.

If so, it was no thanks to me. I had a meal job at the Law School and worked before and after the game, which I watched on television. I think I got $20 for my ticket. Michigan upset top-ranked OSU, and the legend of Bo and the Big House and the rivalry with Woody Hayes was born.

There was probably plenty of hype before that game, but not as much as now because Michigan had lost a couple of games already that season and Ohio State had won 50-14 the previous year in Columbus.

The players were not as outsized either, in both the physical and mythical sense. The star of the game was a defensive back named Barry Pearson who had three interceptions. Another star was a noseguard named Henry Hill, who came out as a walk-on and played at about 215 pounds. Dan Dierdorf, the future NFL Hall of Fame tackle, was Michigan’s biggest starter, at about 250. If you were a student and played intramurals, you were apt to line up against football players on the basketball court, paddleball court, or in some goofy sport like water polo fairly frequently. It was no big deal.

Bo was a hardass compared to his predecessor, Bump Elliott, and a couple of guys I knew quit the team. But he won consistently and filled the stadium, which was expanded and painted maize and blue. I think every game since 1971 or something like that has been a sellout.

It's weird, of course, that he died the day before The Biggest Game Ever. But the omens were already running Michigan's way. A classmate and friend of mine, David Fogel, died a year ago. I got an e-mail from his widow and daughter today saying that a picture of him and some kind words about his life as a hardcore Michigan fan were going to find their way to the locker room Saturday.

His two biggest sports loves were Michigan football and the Detroit Tigers. Looks like it's our year. Go Blue. — John Branston

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