Columbus' passion remains unrivaled

City halts for Ohio State-Michigan matchup

November 18, 2006|By New York Times News Service

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In this part of the country, when college football fans speak of "The Game," there is no need to clarify that they're talking about the annual football matchup between Ohio State and Michigan.

But none of the teams' 102 prior meetings have held as much importance as their game today, with Ohio State ranked No. 1 and Michigan No. 2 for the first time in series history. Both have 11-0 records and the winner is assured a spot in January's Bowl Championship Series national title game.

Anticipation for the game is so high that it halted ballot counting for a congressional election and prompted Michigan to send campus police officers here to ensure the safety of its fans.

Then, with a little more than 24 hours to go before the game, legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler died.

Schembechler, who was 77, had skipped a doctor's appointment Thursday to give his former team a fiery pep talk. He went to tape his regular Friday morning television show on WXYZ-TV in Southfield, Mich., and collapsed.

In a telephone interview, former broadcaster Keith Jackson called the timing of Schembechler's death "absolutely spooky."

Ohio State will hold a moment of silence for Schembechler before the game. A punk band based in Columbus known as the Dead Schembechlers - its name both prescient and unintentionally macabre - said it would disband in honor of the coach after playing at a Hate Michigan Rally yesterday.

But the decision made by the Franklin County Board of Elections to delay the counting of more than 18,000 absentee and provisional votes in the congressional election for the 15th district may reset the standards.

The Republican incumbent, Deborah Pryce, leads Democratic challenger Mary Jo Kilroy by more than 3,000 votes. The first day that those ballots can be legally counted is today.

"When it comes down to it, they would have a mutiny on their hands if they tried to make Franklin County Board of Election workers work on the Saturday of `The Game,' " said Randy Borntrager, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, stressing his final two words to accentuate this contest's unofficial title.

Pryce does not mind, either. After all, she will be attending the game.

"She cares about two things this weekend: winning her election and making sure Ohio State beats Michigan," said Pryce's spokesman, John DeStefano. "Whichever order they come in, it'll be quite a celebration when both happen on the same weekend."

The death of Schembechler somewhat quieted this football-crazed city. Hundreds of campers were already parked outside Ohio Stadium, but aside from a few zealous fans, the Michigan players encountered little noise as they got off the team's charter buses.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel released a statement, saying, "Bo Schembechler touched the lives of many people and made the game of football better in every way."

Even the members of the Dead Schembechlers paid their respects by replacing their name on the marquee of the Newport Music Hall in Columbus with the words "God Bless Bo."

While the timing of Schembechler's death adds more lore to the rivalry, it remains to be seen whether it will become the Wolverines' defining motivation for the latest installment of this rivalry.

"I'm sure there's a little extra ginger in Michigan as they get ready to play this game," Jackson said.

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