I was able to talk with Michael Rosenberg, the Detroit Free Press columnist and author of War As They Knew It, at an event here in Columbus back in September. And after our chat Michael was gracious enough to agree to answer some questions via email. I figured Ohio State Michigan week would be a good time to take him up on that offer. I posted Ten Questions to him regarding his book (see above) over at Collected Miscellany, but wanted to focus more on football in this set of ten.
So here they are:
1. How did the rivalry between Bo and Woody change Michigan football?
Michigan is the all-time wins leader, all-time win percentage leader and plays in the greatest rivalry in college football. So naturally, Michigan fans like to think the program has been one of the best in college football since its inception. That is largely true, but in the 1960s, Michigan State surpassed Michigan on the field and in fan interest. If Bo had not succeeded and MSU had hired a fabulous coach to replace Duffy Daugherty, who knows what would have happened?
Bo put Michigan football back at the forefront of college football, where it has remained ever since. He also gave the rivalry incredible life - even if you didn't care about Michigan or Ohio State, you knew Bo and Woody. It created a momentum for Michigan football and the UM-OSU rivalry that has never really abated.
2. Is it fair to say that Michigan has underachieved in the years following the 1997 National Championship?
No, I don't think that's fair. Michigan never had a losing season, won an Orange Bowl, played in three Rose Bowls and won several other January bowl games in that period. Were other programs better? You might be able to find five or six. You won't find 10. So I don't think "underachieved" is a fair term.
3. What do you think is behind the apparent weakness of the Big Ten when compared with SEC or Big XII? Is this just a cyclical thing with recruiting, etc. or has the Big Ten lost its edge in fundamental ways?
I think it is cyclical. Contrary to popular opinion, the SEC is not far ahead of every other league every year. The Big Ten held its own in bowl games against the SEC. That's just a fact. People concentrate on the national-title games and ignore all other evidence.
Having said that, I do believe the Big Ten is down this season. Almost every program is in transition in some way. Let's see where the league is in three years.
4. Was hiring Rich Rodriguez a mistake in your opinion?
I don't know yet. I think it's a strange fit and Rich should have won more games with the talent he had this year. I think he has given himself a thin margin for error with some of his actions. But I also think he is a bright coach who has a great track record, and of course he deserves time to turn this around.
5. What was his biggest mistake and what has been his best decision so far?
His biggest mistake was not settling that lawsuit against West Virginia. He got very little out of fighting it, except some embarrassing depositions involving him and his agent and bad publicity (some deserved, some not). It just wasn't worth it. He dug his heels in, and Bill Martin encouraged him to do so, instead of finding a way to end the ugly mess. I don't see how anybody can look back and say it was worth it for him.
As for his best decision, that's hard to say right now. Rich is sticking by his gut, though: recruiting who he wants, implementing his system, doing everything exactly as he wants to do it. I would say (and I think he'd agree, actually) that his best decision probably won't be clear until two or three years down the road. Maybe it's the decision to recruit somebody or a hire he has made that will pay off later.
6. How long do you think it will take for him to build a competitive program?
It was a competitive program when he showed up. It should have been more competitive this year, though obviously there are talent issues. I think it's reasonable to expect a winning season next year and contention for a Big Ten title in year three or four. I don't see how this team contends for the league championship next year with a freshman quarterback and so many losses on defense.
7. Has the Ohio State dominance of late reduced the luster of the Ohio State rivalry?
The rivalry has always seen stretches like this. Bo once went four years without beating Ohio State. It happens. I don't think the rivalry is in any danger of going away or losing importance. It has always been incredibly important in Columbus, and if anything, OSU's dominance has made it more important in Ann Arbor.
8. When was the last time Michigan was this big of an underdog going into The Game?
As far as I can tell, the answer is 1934. Michigan was 1-5 entering the game and had scored 15 points all season. Ohio State won 34-0. This shouldn't surprise anybody - it's rare to see Michigan this bad, Ohio State this good and the game in Columbus.
9. If you had to pick one early indicator of a possible Michigan upset, what would it be?
Um ... an extra week of eligibility for Tom Brady? I really don't know. Michigan's best chance to win a battle is with its defensive front. If that happens, and U-M forces Terrelle Pryor into some freshman mistakes and the Wolverines make a play or two on special teams ... stranger things have happened. But not many.
10. If they were to pull off the upset, where would it rank in terms of the rivalry?
I checked the history, and couldn't find one instance when a team as down as Michigan faced a team as good as Ohio State, especially on the road - and won. This would be the biggest upset in the history of the rivalry.