Ohio State spent much of the 2010 season demonstrating that it was possible for both teams to lose a football game. But can both teams win a game?
Visitors to Oberlin, OH on an autumn Saturday who happen to join the throng of hundreds at Savage Stadium and spend some time perusing the program for the day's football game might be surprised, if they're Michigan fans, to learn that Oberlin's all-time record against Michigan is 1-8-0. Oberlin is, after all, one of the 85 opponents Michigan claims an unblemished record against.
The late Geoff Blodgett, professor of American history at Oberlin and before that a wide receiver on the football team, spent some time in the archives and wrote a brief article on the disputed game in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine.
I recommend the piece. It's a great window into the world of college football in the 1890s--one part cutthroat mercenary competition in the style of Vonnegut's Player Piano (Oberlin had hired John Heisman away from the University of Pennsylvania not just to coach but to play!) and two parts glorified backyard pick-up game, officiated by subs from the two sides and with rules made up on the fly ("guys, we need to shorten the second half--the last train home leaves at 5 and we aren't going to be done in time to make it." "ok, we'll stop playing at 4:50.").
The latter went about as well as you'd expect. With the 4:50 deadline approaching and Michigan up by 4, Oberlin's Fred Savage ripped off a 90-yard run from scrimmage, tackled from behind by George Jewett at the Michigan 5. Blodgett picks up the story:
Two plays later Oberlin made its final touchdown. Score: Oberlin 24, Michigan 22, with less than a minute to go. As Michigan launched its last drive, the referee (an Oberlin sub) announced that 4:50 p.m. had arrived, time had expired, and the Oberlin squad trotted off the field to catch the train. Next the umpire (a Michigan man) ruled that four minutes remained on the game clock, owing to timeouts that Oberlin's timekeeper had not recorded. Michigan then walked the ball over the goal line for an uncontested touchdown and was declared the winner, 26 to 24. By that time the Oberlinians were headed home clutching their own victory, 24 to 22.
To Oberlin, well, damn it, a deal is a deal, the train is leaving the station and it's not as if there were alternate transportation options in 1892. To Michigan it must have seemed a lot like the guy that wins a big pot at the poker table, stuffs the winnings in his pocket, checks his watch and says "oops, gotta go."
I don't know how the dispute could have been adjudicated then--it's not as if there were any established procedures for it--and it's surely impossible now that all the relevant facts have been buried with the participants (what was really agreed at halftime? when did 4:50 really strike? what was the deal with the missing timeouts?).
As far as I can tell, the NCAA has recognized both team's claims to the victory. That seems fair--it makes a better story, and the double victory helps restore a little balance to the football universe after all the vacated wins of recent years.