Archie Griffin Talks Rivalry, ‘The Game’ and 12-0
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — With his fists clenched and his eyes wide, Archie Griffin took the field at Ohio Stadium with the whole world watching.
A Columbus native turned freshman running back at Ohio State, Griffin had been in this position before, but not like this. Not against these guys. Not in this game. Not with so much on the line.
“I got nervous, I’ll be the first to tell you,” Griffin said in an exclusive interview with the-Ozone this week.
“Most games I got nervous, but Michigan I was a little more nervous than normal. There were a couple times I threw up before the game, and those are the times I actually played my best, to tell you the truth.”
The Buckeyes had lost two of the last three to Michigan – both in Ann Arbor – when Griffin arrived as a rookie in 1972. He would share the OSU backfield with fullbacks Randy Keith and Harold "Champ" Henson that season, as the team opened the season with seven-straight victories.
It was in week two against North Carolina, when Woody Hayes thrust Griffin into the lineup, and ultimately on to greatness. In just his second collegiate game, the 5-9 halfback ran for a school-record 239 yards – a record which would stand for 27 years – in a 29-14 victory at Ohio Stadium.
Even that wouldn’t prepare him for his first Michigan Week.
“I remember that week we had former players come in and talk with the team that week,” Griffin said.
“I remember one of them came in and talked to us, and he was really fired up, this was on a Monday. Tears were coming down his eyes and I remember him saying, ‘this is more than a football game, this is war.’ ”
The young freshman looked around the locker room at the faces of his new teammates, guys who had been through the wars and fought the good fight against that school up north. Guys like Randy Gradishar and Fred Pagac and John Hicks. There were tears welling up in many of their eyes, and Griffin realized he didn’t know anything he thought he knew about ‘The Rivalry.’
“I’m thinking, ‘Man oh man, what am I getting myself into,” he said with a chuckle.
But there would be no easing into this rivalry, no dipping the toe in the water for Griffin, who was called upon to carry the football early and often against the Wolverines in his first appearance. Griffin’s 18-yard run in the second quarter set up a 1-yard touchdown from Hanson, but the future Heisman Trophy winner would score the game-winner himself.
With the Buckeyes clinging to a narrow second-half lead, Griffin made a move to the right and took off for the end zone. He outran the Michigan defense on his way to a 30-yard touchdown run, and with that, victory. Ohio State would win the game, narrowly, 14-11 in the first of Griffin’s four tries against the school up north.
Griffin finished with 75 yards, but it would set the stage for a nearly magical career against the hated Wolverines.
“This week is the week you wait for, really,” Griffin said.
“When you come to Ohio State you look for opportunities such as this to play on a big state, to play against a school like Michigan, who has a terrific tradition. You know you’re going to be playing against some great competition, so this week always excited me.”
The next year, Griffin would rush for 165 yards on 30 carries, but the game in Ann Arbor ended in a tie. It ruined an otherwise perfect season for the Buckeyes, but it would mark the only time Griffin would not taste victory against the Victors.
“That’s one of the things I’m most of proud,” he said.
“I hope anyone who can say that is very, very proud of that, and I know they are.”
Ohio State would win a close one in Columbus the following year, 12-10, but it was Archie’s brother a Ray who kept his older brother from finishing his career with a 2-0-2 record against his archrivals.
“We weren’t playing very well on offense that day and we were down 14-7 with three or four minutes to go,” Archie said of the game in Ann Arbor his senior year.
“Our offense finally made a drive to tie the game and Michigan kind of got a little desperate. They felt like they needed to win that game because they didn’t want to have another tie. I think they had a tie with someone earlier in the season, so if they would have tied with us we would have gone back to the Rose Bowl anyway. I don’t think they wanted that to happen, so they started to pass and Ray made that huge interception.”
Ray Griffin, who had switched from running back to safety because he was behind his brother Archie, intercepted Michigan quarterback Rick Leach and returned the ball inside the Wolverines 10 yard line.
“Pete took it over for the touchdown to pretty seal the game for us,” Archie said.
“That was a huge play.”
Every Play Was Huge
Griffin finished his OSU career with a 3-0-1 record against the Wolverines. He also won a pair of Heisman Trophies and became the school’s all-time leading rusher. He became an icon and one of the most beloved figures in Ohio State history.
One thing he will always remember, however, is the way his coach prepared for every Michigan game like it was the last game he would ever coach. Like it was the most important game of his career. Like it was war.
“You could tell he was more focused. He wanted to make sure the players were more focused,” Griffin said.
“One of the great things about Woody was he could read players really well. He could tell when a player needed a little levity or when you were too tight. One thing he always said was, he would always tell you to ball up your fists real, real tight. How long can you hold that?”
The answer not very long. It feels tight for a while, but over time the fist becomes less and less clenched.
“So he wouldn’t want you to get too tight too early,” Griffin added.
“He wanted to build you up along the way, and by the time the game came around, he wanted your fist to be really tight so you could use all your power.”
Much like Jim Tressel, Hayes would prepare his team for Michigan all year long. There were periods of every practice where the legendary coach would stop everything they were preparing for the upcoming game to focus on the season finale.
There was even a week where he cancelled all game preparations Northwestern to focus on that pesky school and the pesky coach who seemed to challenge him in ways no one else had in this rivalry.
It might seem like Hayes’ obsession was over the top, but Griffin said head coaches mean everything for this rivalry because they set the tone for their assistants and their players.
“Oh yeah, they can see that. They can see how bad coach wants it,” Griffin added.
“I think coaches make a huge difference because the coaches are the ones who prepare you for this game. You have to have the right game plan to win this game and you have to have the right attitude going into the game.”
That’s something Griffin doesn’t have to worry about with Ohio State’s new head coach.
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