How to Kill a Rock Star

By Ramzy Nasrallah on May 23, 2018 at 1:05 pm
oh shit it turns out Dwayne Haskins is good, actually

Twenty years ago Ohio State defeated Michigan to win a piece of the Big Ten title.

Getting that trophy was a distant second in value to enjoying a rare and dominating (!) victory over the merciless trashdemon from the north led by future 6th round draft pick Tom Brady. I rushed the field with thousands of other hysterical fans once it concluded and left with a small chunk of sod in my pocket as a keepsake, intent on growing an entire lush yard out of it.

A win on the regular season's final Saturday was practically a nonentity back then, and we all savored the hell out of it. Those were harder to come by in the 1990s than conference titles or bad rap songs.

It really doesn't seem like all that long ago, which is why this DM from Eleven Warriors Beat Writer and Millennial Poster Child James Grega shook me to my core:

millennials will save us from the boomers, so please be nice to james

The 1990s were my college and early 20s decade, which means I was lucid for the entirety of the John Cooper era. If I live long enough to be pulled into the throes of dementia the memories of that decade will remain deeply etched into my limbic system. It is a physiological certainty.

Family members will become strangers, primitive language will seem foreign, but the mere mention of Tai Streets will cause me to shout uncontrollably and throw my bowl of oatmeal against the wall of the sanitarium. I will forget my own name but be able to spell Biakabutuka without looking it up.

I had never thought about the pendulum swing in the rivalry as anything more than payback or righteous vengeance because it was deeply personal for me. But if you weren't around or still wearing Garanimals during the 1990s, it might as well be the Lincoln assassination.

Millennials and Younger: You have a deep and valid suspicion for your elders, who sneer at your bottle flipping avocado toasting fidget spinning legion with a glaring blind spot for how equally shitty the heroes and vices of their youth were. That said, there are a few precious kernels of truth you can accept from the untrustable olds, like the fact that 2-10-1 was objectively worse than 2-15 is (still early in progress, God willing).

The Wolverines OWNED THE COOPER ERA. Ohio State HAS MOSTLY punctuatED another disappointing season FOR MICHIGAN SINCE THEN.

It's important for you to embrace this because pendulums swing back. It's inevitable. Blissful ignorance and collective arrogance power how hard and long that swing will be sustained. We should discuss (and re-discuss) the historical weights and measures or else time will render that era into 13 sterile cells on an Excel spreadsheet that nobody except the oatmeal throwers can remember.

So how could 2-10-1 possibly be worse than 2-15? Clearly, it isn't about the math.

The Cooper Era followed Woody and Earle, whose aggregate record against Michigan was 21-16-1 over 38 seasons. That means for nearly four decades Ohio State held serve in the rivalry - more time than required for something to be considered normal in America. The Buckeyes were good, the Buckeyes were average, the Buckeyes were bad - but the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines a little more often than they did not.

Coop was hired in part because of his proven ability to upgrade rosters. He had also just defeated Michigan in Pasadena, which combined Ohio State's two wildest football fantasies into one. As expected, he rehabilitated the program through recruiting, creating a monster on the field that sent legions to the NFL in a manner we all take for granted today.

tim biakabutuka
Not a GIF. This was every play of the 1995 game.

At the same time, he was a stranger with our house keys. Ohio State coaches had always sounded like our neighbors, but Coop sounded like he was from a farm in Tennessee. His convictions felt like what he thought he was supposed to say, rather than how he really felt. By the time he figured out the secret sauce that goes into satisfying the state, the school and its fan base, Jim Tressel was firmly entrenched as his successor demonstrating how it was done.

Beating Michigan gates everything else at Ohio State - happiness, immortality, satisfaction, job security, all of it. The 1990s taught us that being national title-worthy means nothing if you cannot win the circled game at the bottom of the schedule often enough. Coop lost to Michigan when he was rebuilding. He lost when the rosters were even. He lost when his team was significantly better and heavily-favored. There was no variance or logic to it.

The ornaments that adorn the era's tombstone are insulting. Two Heisman Trophy winners from Ohio, who were especially hurtful when facing Ohio State. Four squandered Rose Bowl opportunities. T-S-H-I-M-A-N-G-A B-I-A-K-A-B-U-T-U-K-A. Bo Schembechler retiring and replacing himself with a former Buckeye captain who was undefeated against Michigan as a player. It felt as traitorous as it was humiliating.

And it all continued, year after year, while seemingly everything else was perfect. Ohio State's Season Wrecked by Michigan was a prewritten headline each November. That futility is what defined the program in a decade that featured five top-10 finishes and two national runners-up.

Now, attempt to compare that to the 2-15 stretch currently looming over Ann Arbor.

The Wolverines have not won the Big Ten in 14 seasons, a span of time longer than the entire Cooper era. They've had four fringe Heisman candidates in that stretch (Braylon Edwards, Mike Hart, Denard Robinson, Jabrill Peppers), none of whom finished higher in voting than J.T. Barrett did as a freshman. They've never visited in Indy in December.

When B-I-A-K-A-B-U-T-U-K-A came out of nowhere and rushed for 313 yards against Ohio State in 1995, the Buckeyes started 15 future pros including the Heisman winner, Biletnikoff winner, Lombardi winner, an unfair tight end, a record-setting three-year starter at QB, Mike Vrabel and Shawn Springs. 

And that was a template loss. They just kept re-issuing it.

dwayne haskins dives for the pylon, 2017
Dwayne Haskins introducing himself to the rivalry in 2017, unannounced.

The 1990s were about indestructible empires collapsing every November. Examine 2-15 and you'll see Ohio State has been Michigan's fourth-or-more loss nine times. The Wolverines ruined everything back then, whereas these days Ohio State merely finishes punctuating another disappointing season.

This is the sub-math. There is no de facto title game anymore on the regular season's final afternoon. There's an actual title game now, and Michigan doesn't participate in it.

Of course there are exceptions, and losing that game always sucks regardless - but the 1990s were a unique low point for either side of the rivalry. The outcomes of those games reshape legacies, as both Coop (deservedly) and Lloyd Carr (undeservedly) both know. Carr started out 5-1 against the Buckeyes but ended his coaching career on a 1-6 slide. These two things are not equal.

Millennials and Younger might even be old enough to remember the LLLLLLLoyd jokes. Woody lost his final three to Bo, had a losing record against his protégé and flamed out on live national television. Recency bias is a hell of a drug.

Last season when John O'Korn was throwing kites at the Ohio State defense, his team was on a three-game slide en route to becoming the only B1G program to lose in the postseason. It was a slow-motion wreck Michigan fans could have seen coming. There was nothing about that loss approaching the element of excruciating surprise (Dwayne Haskins Jr. notwithstanding) or the dark magic required for a juggernaut to lose.

James' question does carry a big red flag, in that beating Ohio State became ordinary for Michigan in the 1990s while deeply-seeded rage was incubating on the other side. That anxiety created a focus that became the critical element in sending the pendulum the other way, as Charles Woodson recently noted in his outside voice.

Fans can think however they want, but the moment the football program takes its foot off Michigan's neck, Michigan is going to spring right back, title contender or not. The current players on both teams have no memories of an imbalance in favor of the Wolverines, which is Ann Arbor's asset. If Jim Harbaugh is able to get the program back into serious title contention - this year's roster is equipped for that - then we might be able to accept the potential for heartbreak equilibrium comparable to that of the 1990s.

Because that's what unraveled and ultimately became Coop's Hall of Fame coaching epitaph. Michigan in its history has never terminated a coach for failing to beat Ohio State enough. What happened on Coop's watch diminished what was otherwise our football renaissance.

If the Wolverines are able to get back to national prominence while failing to send the pendulum back in their favor, it just might be what undoes the prodigal son's return to Ann Arbor. Then two and whatever could be discussed in the same breath as 2-10-1.

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