Yesterday Luke made a terrific post about the general ridiculousness and stupidity of moving the Ohio State/Michigan game to a date other than the last game of the season. It got me pretty angry for a number of reasons, but then I thought of an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln that I read about when I was a kid:
Secretary Stanton was particularly angry with one of the generals. He was eloquent about him. 'I would like to tell him what I think of him!' he stormed. 'Why don't you?' Mr. Lincoln agreed. 'Write it all down - do.' Mr. Stanton wrote his letter. When it was finished he took it to the President. The President listened to it all. 'All right. Capital!' he nodded. 'And now, Stanton, what are you going to do with it?' 'Do with it? Why, send it, of course!' 'I wouldn't,' said the President. 'Throw it in the waste-paper basket.' 'But it took me two days to write ---' 'Yes, yes, and it did you ever so much good. You feel better now. That is all that is necessary. Just throw it in the basket.' After a little more expostulation, into the basket it went.
So I sat down and started to think about all the ways I was angry about this, things that I haven't been able to talk about and things that Delany has said and things that I remember from my childhood that might be gone and things I've read from other people online. And with all due respect to Mr. Lincoln, I'm afraid that the result is still the same. Still mad. But to avoid covering the same ground Luke has, I just want to concentrate on two very specific things to highlight what I feel are some important issues that people aren't talking about yet; this interview with Jim Delany and this article by Spencer Hall of EDSBS, mentioned in Luke's post yesterday.
Delany Not Getting It
One of the things that I think needs to be pointed out in this whole thing is that it is evident that Jim Delany and the rest of the people deciding how the conference should be scheduled don't seem to have a grasp on what exactly Ohio State and Michigan fans are angry about, and more importantly, what they value. First he says:
Jim Delany: Dave [Brandon] played at Michigan and he played in that game. So as much as any fan knows the significance of that game, Dave understands that. Number 2, the reason the Big Ten is great is because of our fans.
Which is great, and I think that Jim Delany sincerely thinks that what he is doing is an honest appraisal and weighing of the desires of the fans versus the practical needs of the Big Ten. Except he is completely wrong about exactly what the desires of the fans are all about.
What are your feelings on when it should be played? Delany: [...] you could make an argument in favor of them being in the same division and playing it late. 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.
What fan is making this argument? The idea that a Rose Bowl has to be in the odds for me to want to watch Ohio State beat Michigan is absolutely insane. I would gleefully watch Ohio State beat Michigan even if all that was at stake was a half eaten sandwich from Subway. I would be sweating bullets at halftime even if all we got from it was a sloppy kiss from one of my Italian great aunts. I would be on the edge of my seat in the fourth quarter even if the only reward at the end of the game was a signed headshot of Gary Busey. I hate Michigan. I want to beat Michigan. There doesn't have to be a reason for this other than the fact that they are Michigan. This is how sports rivalries work.
So that would create the potential for a rematch? Delany: What I'm saying is 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. ... But for those who argue for [Ohio State and Michigan] being in the same division, they're really arguing that they should be playing to go to the divisional championship game, not to the Rose Bowl.
No, Mr. Delany. We aren't. We really aren't. This is entirely a timing thing. If that's the result of Ohio State and Michigan playing in the same division, fine. But I spend my entire season as a fan looking forward to the Michigan game. It gains something special by being the last game, a weird and exciting inertia that other games (including our fake rivalry with Penn State) don't have. We spend all year looking forward to the game, and when it finally comes it is a huge party and a celebration of football. It's the culmination of everything we've seen throughout the season. That's what I really enjoy about it. Look, I love the Rose Bowl, but the reality is that its importance has been greatly lessened by the BCS; the “playing for the Rose Bowl” logic only works if the Rose Bowl is the most important bowl that can be reached by a Big Ten team. It isn't anymore. And secondly, last year we actually did “play for the Rose Bowl.” But if you'll recall, it definitely wasn't against Michigan. Delany repeats the Rose Bowl argument a few more times and then says this:
I understand the sensitivity and I understand the point of view. I played in three Duke-North Carolina [basketball] games and they were late, and sometimes they’re for the ACC championship and sometimes they're not. But the most important thing is that they're played.
Guess what? Basketball isn't football. UNC and Duke play each other at least twice a year, every year: 229 times in the history of their rivalry, in fact, and that still isn't as old as the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry (which has been played 106 times). Because of the amount of games played in college football and the way championships are done, each game has extremely high stakes. UNC can lose spectacularly to Duke three times during their season and still win a National Title. The same doesn't apply to Ohio State and Michigan football. The important thing is NOT “that they're played” at some point in the season. The important thing is the rivalry itself and the significance that the fans attach to it, and Ohio State versus Michigan being the last game of the year is a huge part of that significance. Jim Delany doesn't seem to understand this.
Spencer Hall Also Not Getting It
I love Spencer Hall. EDSBS is a great, great blog and Hall (along with Matt Hinton) is one of my absolute favorite football writers. At some point I want to be able to write with the style and easy humor that those guys do. With that said, Hall is 100% totally wrong here. The crux of his argument is that the Big Ten suffers from an image problem that can be alleviated by the inclusion of a Big Ten Championship game (a requirement, now that the Big Ten has 12 teams) and splitting up Ohio State and Michigan into different divisions.
Tradition, however, has gotten the Big Ten little traction in terms of national perception. ... Michigan and Ohio State splitting up into two different divisions may weaken the magnetic bond of hatred between the two teams, but it could also strengthen the Big Ten's profile nationally, which would be better for the conference as a whole.
Hall should know better than anybody that the perception of strength and prominence in college football is completely fluid and arbitrary. The Big Ten, whatever image issues it might've gained in the past four or five years, is still a hugely important (and massively successful financially) product nationally and some high profile losses, mainly by OSU, aren't going to change that.
Please remember our traditionalists here: they will claim that this is a zero-sum game, and that there is a finite amount of enthusiasm to go around. This is not how the irrational economics of sports works. See baseball for an example of how teams can play approximately three thousand times during the season, decide definitively who the better team is through repeated trials, and still hook slobbering fans on a rematch in the playoffs simply through different packaging.
Again, football is not baseball. It is not basketball. It is not hockey. As I talked about earlier, part of what makes the Ohio State/Michigan game rivalry special is the dynamic that comes with it being played as the last game of the regular season. I'm not particularly surprised that Hall and Delany don't get this, but that doesn't mean they can dismiss it either.
Meanwhile, the current system in the Big Ten ensures that one loss in the rivalry game means the loser misses a shot at greater glory. If the rivalry game is all that matters to you, the concept of greater glory means nothing, but for the Big Ten that greater glory and the ad revenues for the conference are very, very important indeed.
Here's the thing though: Despite all the image problems the Big Ten supposedly has, despite the idea that the loser in the rivalry will miss out on BCS riches, despite the concept that the Big Ten isn't making an impact on the national stage, the Big Ten has actually made more BCS appearances than any other conference, with 21. That's 2 more than the SEC, 4 more than the Big-12, and 7 more than the Pac-10. In addition, it's not just OSU propping up the numbers here. Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan have all played in at least two BCS games. In fact, since the 2006 championship debacle in Arizona, the Big Ten has played in two BCS games every year. What I'm saying here is that the idea that the Big Ten needs to change wholesale what defines it to meet national expectations is a complete and utter myth. There is nothing, nothing, that says Ohio State and Michigan can't be in the same division and play each other at the end of the year beyond a simple and base desire for more cash. I, for one, am not prepared to rip the guts out of the best rivalry in sports because of a perceived image problem that doesn't exist and to pour more dollars into a conference that is already making money hand over fist. Because ultimately this should be about the fans, and with all due respect to the fans of other Big Ten rivalries, the Ohio State/Michigan game needs to take precedence.