In his book “The Big One”, a game-by-game history of the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry, author Bill Cromartie felt that only on three occasions from the end of World War II until 1987 had “THE GAME” been upstaged. In 1950, the legendary “Snow Bowl” game was played (although it never should have been) in a blizzard. This didn’t keep over 50,000 fans from showing up at the ‘Shoe, although the number of folks who claim they were there is upward of one million. The 1963 contest is the only OSU/UM game to ever be postponed. The teams were to do battle on November 23rd, but John F. Kennedy’s assassination the day before brought the nation to a standstill. The Bucks won a 14-10 thriller the next Saturday, but only 34,000 fans came out, the lowest turnout for “THE GAME” since the Great Depression. And in 1966, most college football fans had their attention riveted to East Lansing, where unbeaten, #1 Notre Dame and unbeaten, #2 Michigan State were locking horns in “The Game Of The Century” at the same time that the Buckeyes and Wolverines were doing battle in Columbus. You can count on one hand the number of games that have had the hype of the Irish/Spartan clash in ’66, but in the end the two giants played to a rather boring 10-10 tie, which must have impressed the media as they awarded their darling Domers the national title.
Cromartie makes good points about those three games, but in reality the blizzard that paralyzed Columbus and the rest of the eastern United States in 1950 didn’t hit until late Friday night through gameday morning. In fact, the main factor in the forecasts leading up to the game had been cold temperatures, which didn’t really hamper the usual pregame fervor. No one envisioned the onslaught of snow that served as the backdrop for TBGUN’s 9-3 win.
The Kennedy shooting happened on Friday, November 22nd, 1963, so again fans had had the whole week to get ready for “THE GAME”, but unlike the NFL who stupidly played on the Sunday after JFK’s death, college football postponed its slate. With the lingering effect of the President’s passing, the fact that it was Thanksgiving weekend and also considering that nothing was at stake for the Bucks or Wolves except pride, the 1963 game drew the smallest crowd since 1932. It’s safe to say though, that if the tragic events in Dallas hadn’t happened that Michigan Stadium would have been full despite six losses between the two teams.
Nationally, the 1966 game was way under the radar. OSU was 4-3-1 while Michigan was 3-3-2, but those records and the Notre Dame/Michigan State game didn’t stop 83,403 fans from coming out to Ohio Stadium for UM’s 17-3 win. “THE GAME” has usually been the marquee matchup on its given November Saturday, but the Nebraska/Oklahoma and USC/UCLA games, among others, have had plenty of attention themselves, but no matter who else might be playing, it’s impossible to say OSU/TBGUN would ever be ignored.
So, yes, there have been circumstances that have knocked Ohio State/Michigan out of the spotlight, but arguably nothing has overshadowed “THE GAME” and the buildup to it than the events of Michigan Week 1987.
1987 had been a rough year for Buckeye Nation. Despite a win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day, the bitter taste of 1986’s 26-24 loss to Michigan- which cost the Bucks a Rose Bowl berth- still remained. On March 12th, the one man who had personified Ohio State, legendary coach Woody Hayes, passed away. In July All-American receiver Cris Carter had been declared ineligible for his senior year when it was discovered he had taken money from agents. The receiving corps took another hit before the season started when Nate Harris was ruled out because of academics. With 14 starters back from the ’86 Big Ten co-champions, including 8 on defense, the Bucks were a pre-season Top 5 pick, but how would the tumultuous offseason affect them?
OSU opened with anything but dominant wins over West Virginia and Oregon, then headed to Baton Rouge and tied LSU 13-13, as kicker Matt Frantz had a potential 47-yard game-winning field goal partially blocked on the last play of the game. By this stage it was evident the Buckeyes were hardly a national championship contender, but the Big Ten title was still out there. It sounded good, anyway, until the Scarlet and Gray escaped Champaign with a lackluster 10-6 win over Illinois. After scoring just two touchdowns in their last two games, the Buckeye offense looked to get well against Indiana, but the “patient” took a serious turn for the worse. The Hoosiers broke open a 10-10 game at the half to drill OSU 31-10, their first win over the Bucks since Woody Hayes’ inaugural season of 1951. Indiana would go on to tie Iowa for second place in the conference- their highest finish since their Rose Bowl season of 1967- and although it probably was no disgrace to lose to a solid Hoosier ballclub, Buckeye fans had come to expect a win over Indiana as a birthright. The howling over coach Earle Bruce was at a fever pitch, but the team responded with victories over Purdue (20-17) and Minnesota (42-9). Matt Frantz’s field goal with 3:10 to go against the Boilers gave his team the win and himself a much-needed boost, while the offense took on a new look as tailback Vince Workman was moved to flanker to try and jumpstart a passing game that had suffered without Cris Carter and Nate Harris. Workman’s move to receiver was also prompted by the progress of freshman tailback Carlos Snow, who broke out in a big way with four touchdowns during the rainy Homecoming win over Minnesota.
The back-to-back wins thrust OSU into the Big Ten hunt and set up a huge showdown at Ohio Stadium on Halloween with Michigan State, who was unbeaten in league play. Tom Tupa and Everett Ross hooked up for a 79-yard touchdown pass on the very first play of the game, but MSU’s defense put the clamps on after that. The Buckeyes were held to two yards rushing (no, that’s not a typo) and the Spartans claimed a 13-7 win that wasn’t even that close. It was the worst rushing performance for the Bucks since the Michigan State juggernaut of 1965 held Woody Hayes’ troops to MINUS-22 yards.
In Madison the next Saturday against a Badger team that was 0-5 in Big Ten play, Ohio State let a 24-13 halftime lead get away thanks to SIX second-half turnovers and went down 26-24. Tony Lowery, a Central Ohio product from Groveport High School, quarterbacked Wisconsin to the comeback victory, the Badgers’ fifth win in nine games over Earle Bruce. In an eerie resemblance to the ’86 Michigan game, Matt Frantz missed a fourth quarter field goal against the Badgers (from only 22 yards away) that would’ve given OSU the lead. If Buckeye fans thought the season had reached a low point, they were in for an absolute shock the next Saturday.
Closing out their home slate against Iowa, the Bucks had taken a 27-22 lead with 2:45 left in the game on a 14-yard run by Carlos Snow. The Hawkeyes then worked their way to a first down on OSU’s 15, but moments later were facing a 4th-and-23 from the Buckeye 28. Iowa quarterback Chuck Hartlieb fired down the right sideline to tight end Marv Cook, who caught the ball at the 10 and unbelievably dragged David Brown and Mark Pelini into the endzone with six seconds left to give the Hawks an absolutely surreal 29-27 win.
Ohio State fans have forever been quick to turn on their head coaches, even play to play. Earle Bruce had won more games then any Big Ten coach during his tenure, had taken the Bucks to a pair of Rose Bowls and captured four conference titles, but there had always been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with his conservative play-calling and lack of personality, and these traits had now been magnified considerably in addition to the variety of ways his teams had found to lose ballgames. In the aftermath of the inexcusable last-play loss to Iowa, the usual “Fire Earle” drumbeat seemed to have more teeth to it than usual. Athletic director Rick Bay had already confirmed to the press that he and OSU president Edward Jennings had met after the Wisconsin loss to discuss Bruce’s future, and on the Sunday following the Hawkeye defeat the Columbus Dispatch was reporting that sources in the Athletic Department had informed them that the Board of Trustees had informally voted against keeping Earle as coach, even though his contract ran through July of 1989. You had to wonder if a win over Michigan and a bowl game victory would be enough.
On Monday, November 16th, at 11:30 AM, Jennings called Rick Bay and told him that he had decided to fire Earle at the conclusion of the season. Bay knew full well that they couldn’t sit on this news until after the Michigan game, and he also knew that the TBGUN matchup and any possible bowl game preparations would be an all-out circus. At around 1:30 Bay met with Jennings and told the president he was resigning in protest of Bruce’s imminent release. Meanwhile, the coach was attending his weekly press luncheon at the Jai Lai restaurant (now the Buckeye Hall of Fame Café), and with rumors swirling he took the unprecedented step of bringing along his wife Jean and attorney John Zonak. Unaware of what was going on between Bay and Jennings, Earle defiantly told the crowd “I’m staying at Ohio State!” even though deep down he knew the end was probably near. That fear was confirmed when Bruce returned to campus to get ready for practice and was informed by Bay of the president’s decision. Bay then further defied Jennings by calling a 4PM press conference to confirm Earle’s firing and his own resignation.
None of the soap operas that were interrupted by the Columbus TV stations on that Monday for reports on Coach Bruce could have cooked up a more intriguing story than this. The timing of the announcement was absolutely putrid, and the resignation of Rick Bay, who had been a non-controversial figure during his time as AD, indicated that Jennings was caving to the pressure of the trustees and other high-powered elements within Columbus. The Dispatch showed their true colors with an editorial supporting the firing, which gave fuel to the not-so-secret reports that the powerful Wolfe family, who published the paper, didn’t care for Earle’s purposeful ignorance of being a “politician” as part of your coaching duties. The seeds for that had been planted years earlier when another Wolfe enterprise, WBNS-TV, stopped airing Bruce’s weekly coaches show over what they perceived as a signing day snub.
As the week played out, other aspects of the two major players, Bruce and Jennings, came to light. Bruce’s supposed kid-glove treatment of Art Schlichter’s gambling problems was rehashed, as was Earle’s own penchant for playing the ponies. John Zonak, while telling the press about a letter that was sent to Jennings asking for a specific reason for the termination, claimed that Jennings’ own butt was in a sling because of his drinking and an affair with a university employee, and that Earle’s firing was done to appease the trustees and “powers-that-be”. Jennings maintained all throughout the week that the situation was a “personnel” matter and that he didn’t have to give a reason why. When Bruce received a letter from the president on Thursday- no meeting, no phone call, just a letter- that offered no explanation, Earle decided to sue Jennings and the university. Zonak quietly filed the lawsuit late Friday afternoon and Bruce announced it on his TV show Saturday night. To be sure, there were plenty of people who were glad to see Earle go, whether their motives were football related or something else. But the vast majority agreed that the way the firing was handled was the very definition of a PR nightmare, especially with the entire drama unfolding during Michigan week. Anyone who wonders how John Cooper could have survived the ’90 Air Force/Liberty Bowl debacle, the ‘91 Desmond Howard-led 31-3 embarrassment in Ann Arbor or the 13-13 “greatest win ever” in ’92 only needs to look back to Earle’s departure to see how gun-shy the University became in the aftermath of Jennings’ “personnel” decision.
Unbelievably, “THE GAME” almost became an afterthought that week. After Rick Bay had informed Earle of Jennings’ decision, Bruce had met with the team to let them know he was gone after Saturday. But he told the squad in no uncertain terms that they weren’t going to fold the tents and that they were going to go up to Ann Arbor and win the football game. The coach’s fire was further fueled by two events that week. After Earle had talked to his family at his Worthington home on that Monday night, he suddenly heard a commotion outside. Members of the Ohio State Marching Band had gathered on his lawn for an impromptu “salute” which moved the lame duck coach to tears as he came outside. Then as the team held Senior Tackle on Friday, linebacker Chris Spielman announced that Coach Bruce, due to injury, hadn’t gotten a chance to participate in the storied ritual as a player at OSU, so the seniors let him take the last shot at the tackling dummy. TBDBITL and Senior Tackle, two of the schools’ most honored traditions, had taken on even more meaning for Bruce, and now he took dead aim at the one thing Buckeye Nation wanted more than anything- a win over the Maize and Blue.
Back on New Years’ Day, the normally conservative Bruce had shocked the college football world by appearing on the sidelines in the Cotton Bowl decked out in a suit and fedora. The showing of sartorial splendor had received almost as much coverage as OSU’s 28-12 thumping of Texas A&M. Now in his final game almost ten months later in Ann Arbor, he once again broke out the suit and hat, but another fashion statement would make headlines. The entire team had gone out onto the Michigan Stadium field for the coin toss, and once they were assembled the team removed their helmets. All 64 members of the traveling squad had white headbands that said “EARLE” in red letters. Sophomore offensive tackle Joe Staysniak had come up with the idea, and it not only unified the team, but it probably eased concerns of Buckeye fans at the game and watching on TV as to whether or not the Bucks were ready.
Michigan entered the game with a 7-3 record, having lost to Notre Dame, Michigan State and Indiana, the first time the Wolverines had lost to the Hoosiers since 1967. The Spartans had used their win over their in-state rivals as a springboard to the undisputed 1987 Big Ten title and their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1966. And this after Michigan State went 1-2 in the non-conference, including a loss to Notre Dame where Tim Brown basically won the Heisman with two first-quarter punt returns for scores.
The Buckeyes received the opening kickoff on this sunny, 25-degree day in Ann Arbor but could do nothing and punted the Wolves back to their 27. Jamie Morris, who had torched the Bucks for 210 yards in Columbus the previous year, picked right up where he left off in ’86 with gains of 5 and 13 to put the ball at the UM 45. Morris had become Michigan’s all-time career rushing leader against Minnesota back on November 7th, and only needed 130 yards against Ohio State to break Rob Lytle’s single season record of 1,469 yards set in 1976. The Buckeye defense forced a 3rd-and-6 play, and Wolverine quarterback Demetrius Brown, who amazingly was playing with a broken thumb on his left (throwing) hand AND a dislocated right thumb, connected with fullback Jarrod Bunch on a swing pass to the left. Bunch slipped Ray Jackson’s tackle, got a great block from John Kolesar and was finally overhauled at the OSU 12. Jamie Morris circled right end for 11, then capped off the 7-play march by going over right guard for the touchdown. Mike Gillette converted to give Bo Schembechler’s charges a 7-0 lead.
Michigan’s next possession began at their 28, where Morris scooted for 12 on a screen play. Two plays later sophomore corner Zack Dumas, who had been in the lineup since Greg Rogan went down with a broken leg against Indiana, buried Brown for a loss of 10. Brown’s leg was hurt on the play and he was helped off as Michael Taylor came on to call signals. Facing a 3rd-and-15, the Maize and Blue didn’t take any chances and had Taylor give it to Jamie Morris on a draw, but evidently the Buckeye defenders were the only ones who didn’t see the play coming as Morris scampered for 18 and a first down. On 2nd-and-7 from the Buckeye 44 John Kolesar, who had sat out the previous two games with mono, got a great block from Taylor on a reverse and picked up 20. Two runs picked up five, then on 3rd down Taylor kept on the option but could only manage 2 yards. The teams traded ends as the first quarter ended, and on the initial play of period 2 Mike Gillette hoisted a 34-yard field goal to extend UM’s lead to 10-0.
Ohio State’s offense still couldn’t do anything, so Tom Tupa punted and got off a 55-yard bomb to the Michigan 45. Tupa had entered the game as the nation’s leading punter at 47.6 yards per kick, but his more important role (remember this was Earle, not Tress) as quarterback had produced nothing so far. Jamie Morris and Jarrod Bunch kept the TBGUN running game clicking, moving the ball to OSU’s 30. Backup tailback Phil Webb, who had scored the winning touchdown in UM’s 17-14 win over Illinois the week before, picked up 9 on two carries before Bunch carried for a first down at the Buckeye 17. Taylor kept for 9, then Morris hammered for 3 and another first down at the Scarlet and Gray 5. Morris had to leave the game after that carry, so Webb came on and picked up 2. On 2nd-and-goal, Taylor faked to Webb and had tight end Derrick Walker wide open in the end zone but his throw was too low. Taylor tried to option right on 3rd down but was dragged down by Chris Spielman. Gillette was called on and from 19 yards away he converted his 12th field goal of the season in 14 tries, widening Michigan’s lead to 13-0 with 7:05 to go in the first half.
Yet again the Ohio State offense went three-and-out, but the Bucks dodged a bullet as John Kolesar, who had put the dagger in OSU’s heart in 1985 on a 77-yard touchdown reception from Jim Harbaugh, had his 63-yard punt return wiped out by a penalty. The ball came back to the TBGUN 11, but it looked like only a temporary inconvenience as Chris Calloway hauled in a 24-yard catch and Jamie Morris worked the draw again for 20, moving the Wolves to the OSU 44. But finally the Buckeyes got the break they were looking for as Jarrod Bunch fumbled when he was drilled by Ray Holliman and Mike McCray recovered at his 39. More good fortune followed as Carlos Snow appeared to have fumbled away a catch on the very next play, but he was ruled down. Tupa dialed up fullback Bill Matlock for 11 to put the ball at midfield, then with a 3rd-and-6 at Michigan’s 46 Tupa and Everett Ross hooked up for a 14-yard pass play to move the sticks. Snow barreled for 4, then an 8-yard snag by George Cooper gave OSU a first down at the Michigan 20. Tupa went back to Ross on an outcut for 17, and just like that the Bucks had a first-and-goal at the 3. Snow lost a yard, but after a timeout Tupa rolled left and floated a pass towards Everett Ross. The former tailback at Columbus Eastmoor, who had broken a number of Archie Griffin’s records there, leaped over Erik Campbell and Doug Mallory to pull the ball in for a 4-yard touchdown. Matt Frantz came on to boot his 51st consecutive extra point, and thanks to Tupa’s 6 of 6 passing effort on the drive, the Buckeyes now only trailed 13-7. Fortunately for Ohio State it remained that way at intermission as Mike Gillette missed a field goal near the end of the half after the Wolverine offense had moved to the Buckeye 18. At the break UM had outrushed the Bucks 184-6, led by Jamie Morris with 115 yards on 12 carries.
TBGUN went three-and-out to start the second half, and OSU began from their 30. Tupa hit a short pass in the left flat to Snow, who darted between defenders Allen Bishop and John Milligan. Using a tremendous block on Doug Mallory from Everett Ross, Snow raced 70 yards down the sideline for a touchdown, the second-longest scoring play ever for a Buckeye team against Michigan. Frantz knocked through the PAT and with Snow’s bolt of lightning Ohio State had their first lead of the day at 14-13. Tupa was now 11 of 14 for 155 yards and the two TD tosses, with the 70-yarder second only in OSU/UM annals to Joe Sparma’s 80-yard scoring throw to Bob Klein in 1961.
The teams exchanged punts and TBGUN began a drive from their 14. Morris powered for 12 to get things started, but moments later on 3rd-and-9 Demetrius Brown, who had returned to the game, tried to hit Kolesar deep and was intercepted by David Brown who returned the pick all the way to the Maize and Blue 19. On second and 7, Tupa again went airmail to the left, this time hitting Vince Workman at the 10. Workman managed to spin down to the 1-yard line, and on the next play Tupa got a great block from center Jeff Uhlenhake and dove over for the score. With 7:11 to play in the third the Bucks had run off 20 unanswered points to take a 20-13 lead, and it stayed that way as Matt Frantz missed his first ever PAT, snapping his school-record streak of 52 straight extra points. It was quickly forgotten as Demetrius Brown coughed up the ball on UM’s next possession, with the Buckeyes recovering at their 36. They moved to Michigan’s 36, but three straight penalties brought up a 3rd-and-27 at the OSU 45. Snow got the call on a draw but the fumble bugaboo that had marred his otherwise great freshman season bit again as Carlos lost the handle. Keith Cooper recovered for the Wolves at Ohio State’s 46 and Bo’s troops had new life. Staying exclusively on the ground, TBGUN covered the 46 yards in 6 plays, the final 10 coming as Leroy Hoard pounded up the middle and reached the football backwards over the goal line for the touchdown. Gillette’s kick was perfect and with 1:14 to go in this action packed third quarter “THE GAME” was knotted at 20.
Neither team could establish anything on their subsequent possessions, and with 12:03 left Ohio State took over at their own 14. Tom Tupa lit the fuse with a 9-yard pickup to the 23, and moments later scampered for 8 more to the 33. Freshman tight end Jeff Ellis made his only reception of the day count, snaring a 7-yard throw to give the Bucks a first down at their 49. Tupa connected with Workman again for 8 more to give OSU a first down at the UM 38. Michigan’s defense gave up nothing on first down, then as Tupa gained one on second down he was shaken up. Freshman Greg Frey was sent in cold, and Bruce ordered a pass, overriding his assistants who said Frey wasn’t ready. Facing 3rd-and-9 and nowhere near Matt Frantz’ range, Earle felt he had no choice. Frey got great protection and easily completed the throw to a wide open Vince Workman, who went out of bounds at the Wolverine 18, much to the chagrin of everyone (mostly Vince himself) who saw nothing but green turf between the junior flanker and paydirt. The 19-yard pickup had gained the all-important first down and Tupa returned to the lineup. After Carlos Snow was dropped for a loss of 4, Tupa fired to Everett Ross for 10, bringing up a 3rd-and-4 at the TBGUN 12. The ball went to Snow who got 3 of the needed 4, and with 4th-and-1 at the 9 Earle called on Matt Frantz.
This was the moment Frantz had waited for. The year before in Columbus the Buckeyes were trailing Jim Harbaugh and Company 26-24 and had a 4th-and-2 at the UM 28 with just over one minute left. With the Rose Bowl hanging in the balance for the winner, Frantz was sent in for the field goal try. The kick had plenty of leg but veered to the left. In the final analysis the Buckeye defense’s inability to stop Jamie Morris and Earle Bruce’s conservative play calling after his team had jumped to a 14-3 lead were more important factors in the loss, but Frantz had lived with the heartache of the missed field goal for a year. He now had his chance to put it to rest and came through, splitting the uprights from 26 yards away to give Ohio State a 23-20 lead with 5:18 left.
It was now up to the Buckeye defense. Kolesar brought the ensuing kickoff back to his 38, then after a motion penalty the Westlake, Ohio native ran a reverse for 10. When Leroy Hoard smashed up the middle for 9 out of the wishbone, the Wolverines had a first down at the OSU 48. Sticking with a good thing, Schembechler called for another Hoard run out of the bone, but Michael Taylor couldn’t make a clean handoff and Hoard fumbled after being popped by linebacker Eric Kumerow. The ball rolled back to the Michigan 48 where Kumerow fell on it, the fourth UM turnover of the afternoon.
Taking a cue from Bo, Earle called for a running play out of the T-formation and Workman lost 2. On the next play the Buckeyes were called for holding and were looking at 2nd-and-22. Scrapping the T, Bruce reached deep into the playbook for a screen to fullback George Cooper that the Bucks had actually run in the ’86 game on the infamous final drive. Tupa fake-pumped to the right, then did a 360 and tossed to Cooper who picked up 11 to the UM 49. With the clock running at 2:26 Bruce played it safe and called the draw to Carlos Snow, but behind great blocks from Tim Moxley and Greg Zackeroff, Snow thundered for 31 yards to the Michigan 18 as the OSU fans sprinkled throughout Michigan Stadium went nuts. George Cooper hit the middle for 8, then 5 to give Ohio State a first-and-goal at the 5 with 1:11 to play. Tupa sneaked for 2, then after UM’s second timeout Tom ran the option for 2 more to the 1-yard line. TBGUN called their last timeout with 53 seconds to go, then the Wolves defense stuffed Cooper for no gain on 3rd down. Carlos Snow tried the left side on fourth down but was stood up and Michigan took over. Those who had 0 and 0 in the office pool were probably greatly disappointed, but Snow’s 31-yard jaunt on the 3rd-and-11 draw play had been the final straw. Two Demetrius Brown passes fell incomplete and the Earle Bruce era officially ended with the coach riding off the Michigan Stadium field on his players’ shoulders.
One of the most tumultuous weeks in Ohio State history had come to an end. Earle Bruce would finish his OSU career with a record of 81-26-1, and would go out with a winning record of 5-4 over Michigan. Bo Schembechler hated losing to the Buckeyes more than anything, but admitted in the aftermath that he wouldn’t be too upset with this loss. It would be the Bucks’ final win in Ann Arbor until 2001, and Bruce became the first coach to emerge victorious in his final game against UM since John Wilce way back in 1928. Matt Frantz also ensured himself his first peaceful night’s sleep in a year with the first game-winning field goal against TBGUN since 1965 (see Drive #17).
One point that I’ve never heard discussed much in relation to the Earle Bruce firing bears some thought. On the Friday before the ill-fated Iowa game in 1987, Ohio State’s North Facility, where the team practiced, was dedicated as the Woody Hayes Center. The building, which is undergoing major renovations this year, was renamed after the legendary coach who had passed away in March of ’87. Had Hayes still been alive, in good health and involved with the university, would Earle Bruce have been let go? When Lloyd Carr was on the hotseat after losing to OSU in 2001 and 2002, Bo Schembechler made it clear that anyone who “(took) issue” with Lloyd staying at Michigan would “have to go through me”. Would Woody have felt the same?