FINDLAY, Ohio – In October 2012, as the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers were on a collision course for the Super Bowl, the Big 33 Football Classic shuttered its doors to the state of Ohio. The decision put in jeopardy a long held tradition and point of pride: all 48 Super Bowls has included at least one Big 33 alum.
After a 25-year relationship with the state of Ohio (1972-76, 1993-2012), Pennsylvania gave the Buckeye State the boot in favor of Maryland. There’s speculation as to why the affiliation dissolved, ranging from Ohio’s success – four straight wins – to the Keystone State no longer being able to fulfill its contractual obligation for Ohio’s scholarship fund.
“It’s kind of out of the blue,” Grafton Midview head coach Bill Albright, then-president of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association, said. “When we left [in 2012], we thought they were happy with the contract arrangements. We thought we were in good standing. Then I got [the] letter.
“I’m disappointed for the players and coaches because it was fun. Obviously, something changed.”
And another momentous shift will occur Saturday afternoon at the University of Findlay’s Donnell Stadium – the first Border Classic, pitting the best from Ohio against the best from Michigan, will take place.
The Ohio North-South Classic in Columbus became the OHSFCA’s priority when the Big 33 was no longer a possibility. But the coaches still yearned for a showcase game against another state. A border state was considered, and it wasn’t Indiana, Kentucky or West Virginia.
“In all honestly, [Michigan] was the only choice,” said Mohawk head coach Erik Baker, who’s also Region II director of the OHSFCA. “There was no, ‘If they don’t’ discussion. We just couldn’t imagine a scenario where the Michigan guys thought this wouldn’t be a fun thing. They’ve been great to work with. It was a natural decision to involve them.”
And so the Border Classic was born. The 40-man rosters were picked based on the top players at each position. If someone couldn’t play, the next person on the list was extended an invitation.
Planners involved in organizing the event wanted the game to stand out, on par with such high school all-star games as the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and the Under Armour All-American game. The Border Classic doesn’t have exotic locales such as San Antonio and Orlando, but it’s treating the game as an event, not one game.
Players are spending three days in Findlay, practicing daily, rooming in dorms, participating in community events and attending an awards banquet. Under Armour is providing Ohio’s uniforms, while Michigan’s are from Adidas. The game will be televised on BCSN.
The coaches associations from each state plan on making the game an annual event. Next year’s affair will take place at Wayne State University outside Detroit. Baker, the Border Classic coordinator, said they’re already in talks with Findlay about having the 2016 edition at the university’s newly built stadium, which is currently under construction.
A crowd between 5,000 and 7,500 is expected, and like late November, it should feature full-throated roars. Ohio State (two), Michigan (three) and Michigan State (six) will have 11 players in the game, marking the beginning of four years of rivalry games in the Big Ten’s East Division.
“It’s Ohio and That Team Up North,” said Ohio head coach Mike Fell, the head coach at Lima Senior. “These kids grow up with that. But we have Noah Furbush who’s going to the University of Michigan. He’s playing his last game for Ohio. It’s a natural rivalry.”
Michigan head coach Mike Zdebski said the Ohio-Michigan matchup makes the game a big deal and gives it instant credibility.
“A lot of it has to do with the Ohio State-Michigan game,” said Zdebski, head coach at Walled Lake Western, near Detroit. “Whether it’s stated or not, they know it’s there. The kids know it’s Ohio. They know how good the high school football is there.”
ESPNU offered to televise the game this year, but the deal fell through. There’s hope the network will be involved in the 2015 contest. Earle Bruce will be in Findlay Saturday serving as Team Ohio’s honorary captain. His presence will almost certainly lead to a passionate pre-game speech.
Urban Meyer was involved from the outset, attending the first board meeting and giving the game a proverbial two thumbs up. He wasn’t the only Big Ten coach with a stake in the game.
“That’s going to be interesting,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. “The Big 33 game was something that went on for so many years. Now you have the Michigan-Ohio rivalry. We have some guys playing this year. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out. It should be a great rivalry with all the things that’s gone between the two states.”
Rivalries have proven to be built on respect instead of hatred. Ohio State-Michigan, Michigan-Michigan State and Ohio State-Michigan State are no different. While the fanbases despise one another, the players have an abiding respect for each other. Oftentimes, they competed on opposing high schools and developed relationships during the recruiting process.
Baker is quick to point out the game’s title: Border Classic, not Border Battle. The teams aren’t brought together to create hostility.
“It’s meant to showcase Ohio high school football and Michigan high school football,” he said. “Everyone on board has the same goal. Twenty years ago, I think this game would have more animosity. So many of these kids already know each other from other events and social media.
“There will be a lot of pride involved, and that’s great and to be expected. It will end up being a really clean game, especially with how many of them have to report literally the next day for summer school and summer training. They’ll play fast, and they’ll play hard.”
Style of play will be emphasized by Team Ohio. Their coaches are aware of the state’s perception. Everyone knows great high school football resides in Ohio, but they don’t always understand the nature of the games.
Three yards and a cloud of dust is still emblazoned in people’s minds. There’s more to Ohio, though, than physical football, offensive linemen and linebackers.
“We want to show that our skill players are among the best in the country,” Baker said. “We feel we have really good perimeter kids and quarterbacks.”
The Border Classic hasn’t kicked off yet. Deeming it a success isn’t farfetched, though. Marquee players fill both rosters, Meyer, Dantonio and Brady Hoke have given the game their blessing and sponsors have eagerly hopped aboard.
Still, when the game begins, there will be a tinge of sadness that Ohio isn’t involved in the Big 33, played on the same day 448 miles to the east in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
“Pennsylvania is a special place in the history of football,” Baker said. “The history of the Big 33 with the Super Bowl is a tradition we’re hoping to start. We want this to be a total experience for these players and their families.”