[NOTE: This was part of a series written in 2005 by John Porentas and Tom Orr, based on one-on-one interviews conducted with both coaches. You can also read "Earle Bruce and Bo Schembechler on Their Most Memorable Games" and "The Buckeyes Send Earle Out a Winner”]
This Saturday, Ohio State and Michigan will square off for the 102nd time on the football field.
But if you ask players, coaches and fans of both schools, most will agree which of the previous 101 was the most significant in turning the rivalry from a regional event into a national spectacle.
It marked the beginning of one era, the end of an impressive streak, the death of one team’s national championship hopes, and the birth of a rivalry unlike any other in sports.
Bo Schembechler’s first team at the University of Michigan came into the Ohio State game as huge underdogs. They lost two games earlier that year (at home against Missouri and at Michigan State) and were facing one of the greatest college football teams ever assembled.
OSU rolled into Ann Arbor on a 22-game win streak, a perfect 8-0 on the season. None of the eight wins had even been close; the Buckeyes simply demolished everyone on their schedule, winning every game by 27 or more points.
The “Super Sophomores” were now a Junior Juggernaut, and all they needed to repeat as national champions was beat the Wolverines. The Big Ten’s no-repeat rule meant that OSU could not go back to the Rose Bowl that season (they went that January and beat USC to win the national title), so win or lose the Michigan game would be the season finale.
But when the game kicked off in Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes didn’t look like an unbeatable, dominating force any longer.
Michigan jumped out to a 24-12 halftime lead, and that score held up for the final 30 minutes.
When the game ended, the Wolverines had pulled off one of the most memorable upsets in college football history.
This month, former OSU coach Earle Bruce (an assistant coach for the Buckeyes in 1969) and former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler sat down with The OZone to reminisce about the OSU-Michigan series. Both are members of the College Football Hall of Fame, and coached in the series for more than four decades combined. Schembechler worked as an assistant for the Buckeyes for five seasons and coached Michigan for 21. Bruce was an assistant at OSU for seven years, and the head coach for nine more.
Both men singled out that 1969 game as one of their most memorable.
“I would say the toughest loss for me in the Michigan game, when I was an assistant coach had to be 1969,” Bruce said. “That was the best team that Ohio State’s ever had. I can’t imagine a team being any better than the 1969 team at Ohio State, other than we lost to Michigan 24-12. That was Bo’s first year and he did the most outstanding coaching job he’s ever done. He had his team prepared, they played 60 minutes of football and dominated us.”
Schembechler remembered that Michigan enjoyed success using a very unconventional strategy against legendary OSU safety Jack Tatum.
“(UM tailback) Billy Taylor had a good day in ’69,” he said. “What we did, we ran into the Jack Tatum blitz. We ran the tailback draw into it. The end was coming inside our end and here comes Tatum, and we kicked him out and ran inside him. Everybody (all year) was staying away from Tatum, and when they tried to do that he always ran them down. We decided to run more plays to him. I think it helped a little.”
For Bruce, the memory of the playcalling and execution was not nearly as fond.
“We made some dumb mistakes in that football game, we threw five interceptions on one particular play and weren’t able to come back,” Bruce said. “We got down to the nitty gritty of making a third and three, a third or four, and we couldn’t make it.”
He was asked why a team would continue to go back to the same play they threw for an interception so many times.
“I didn’t understand that, because he (Woody) was told that we didn’t want to throw that pass,” Bruce said. “We had a quick out to Jankowski from the slot and they played their rover-back in between and he was in a position where we couldn’t win that battle. We kept throwing it in there and it burned us. The rover played that play. Bo did the best coaching job ever against Ohio State in any area, because he put his guys in places to have success.”
The loss stung Buckeye head coach Woody Hayes particularly hard. Schembechler recalled an event years later, when Hayes’ aggravation about that day was still quite evident.
“They had a banquet for Woody following his retirement; the players a few months later had a dinner for him,” Schembechler said.
“At this dinner there were his ex-players and the guys that coached with him. There was no press, no alumni, there was nobody else in that room. It was a football banquet.
“When he got up to talk, I sat at the dais because I spoke for the assistant coaches. He says something like, ‘They always ask me what was the greatest team that we ever had. It had to be that ’69 team.’
“He said, ‘We had (Rex) Kern at quarterback and Jan White at tight end, (Jim) Stillwagon at middle guard and (Jack) Tatum at strong safety, and (Mike) Sensibaugh at safety.’ He went down and named all these guys.
“Then he looked down at the end of the dais and said, ‘God damn you, Bo. You will never win a bigger game than that.’
“He was right,” Schembechler said, laughing. “That’s what he said, and he was right. That established my program at Michigan. That did it.”