The Ten Year War by Joel Pennington

Ten Year WarI had originally intended to offer this book review as a part of a week-long discussion of “The Game of the Century” between Ohio State and Michigan. But it turned out I was so nervous and tense that I couldn’t concentrate. After Bo Schembechler’s untimely death, and the devastating and soul crushing game itself, I was even less prepared to discuss this historic rivalry. And so the review has slipped further back in the queue as the weeks have passed. At this point I am mostly numb to the events of the last few weeks, so I figured I ought to just suck it up and post the darn review. Click below for the result.


Non-college football fans, or those not familiar with The Game, might wonder what the big deal is; why all the fuss? Obviously #1 versus #2 is a big deal, but this game is much more than a battle between highly ranked schools. The history of the game brings a special focus and intensity to what many consider the greatest rivalry in college football. A great place to get a handle on that history is Joel Pennington’s book The Ten Year War: Ten Classic Games Between Bo and Woody. As I noted in a review of another book on this great rivalry, the tension goes back a few years:

The rivalry between Ohio and Michigan goes back a long way; in fact, to before they were even states. A land dispute arising out of some bad survey work led to angry rhetoric, border skirmishes, and heavy lobbying. In 1835 the dispute was decided in Ohio’s favor by President Andrew Jackson but the bad blood continued . . . In 1897, this inter-state rivalry was transferred to the fledgling game of football and the sport has never been the same.

The rivalry as we think of it today, however, has as its source what is known as The Ten Year war. This was the period (1969-1978) when iconic Ohio State coach Woody Hayes faced off against his former assistant Bo Schembechler. During this time Michigan and Ohio State so dominated the Big Ten that the conference became known as the “Big Two and Little Eight. During this period OSU won 81 percent of its games and UM 86 percent! As a result The Game would determine the conference championship and often had an impact on the national championship as well. Woody Hayes’ larger than life personality and often violent temper only added to the hype and tension.

Pennington covers this period in a game by game recap, one chapter for each game. If like me, you were too young to witness many of these games, The Ten Year War offers the chance to relive those epic battles. If you have often wondered what the fuss is all about, this book goes a long way to explaining how the rivalry got so heated.

The nature of this rivalry is really a result of the clash between two coaches: Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. Bo played for Woody at Miami of Ohio, coached with him at Ohio State, and eventually became his hard-fought rival. Both men turned their respective programs around. Both were tough as nails disciplinarians who favored physical defenses and smash mouth run focused offenses. Each and every year they focused on building a team that could win The Game.

What really kicked of the Ten Year War, however, was the 1968 game. Given the events of the last month, or the last few years for that matter, it is almost painful for me to read this history. The Game was set to be a clash of great teams in 1968. #2 Ohio State was hosting #4 Michigan at Ohio Stadium. And at half-time it seemed like a classic, with the Buckeyes up 21-14. But Ohio State poured it on in the second half and went on to win 50-14. Out of this lopsided score came a famous line and a bitter rivalry.

With the score 44-14, and with the reserves playing, Ohio State was at the Michigan two yard line with less than two minutes remaining in the game. Woody allowed OSU starting fullback Jim Otis back in the game and he scored to make it 50-14. Up 36 points with a minute to go, Ohio State inexplicably lined up for a two-point conversion. The attempt failed but Michigan clearly felt like the Buckeyes were trying to embarrass them. Legend has it that when asked after the game why he went for two, Woody replied “Because I couldn’t go for three!”

Players and coaches report that it was actually confusion after the last touchdown that led to the two point try not any attempt to rub it in. Whatever the case, the heated emotions remained and would play a role in the shocking events the following year. Ohio State went on to beat USC and win the National Championship.

The 1969 season seemed destined to give the Buckeyes another dominant season and another title. But under new head coach Bo Schembechler Michigan – still smarting for the whooping of 1968 – had other plans. Ohio State had dominated every opponent and were 15-point favorites coming into Ann Arbor. for Michigan the motivation was clear and it wasn’t subtle that week as the number 50 was all over the Michigan locker room. Bo wasn’t going to let his team forget last year’s game.

It must have worked because the Wolverines were pumped from the start and never let up. The defense stymied the Buckeye offense and the Wolverine offense made enough plays to take a 24-12 halftime lead. No team had scored 24 points on Ohio State all year. They hadn’t even trailed in a game all season. In the second half the OSU defense repeatedly stopped the Wolverines after a Buckeye turnover, but the vaunted Ohio State offense just couldn’t make anything happen. The game ended with the same score, 24-12. Michigan had beaten the defending National Champs and one of the most talented teams in college football history!

This game set the tone for the rivalry that was to come. It solidified Michigan’s resurgence and captured Ohio State’s attention. Woody began talking about the 1970 game in the locker room in 1969. Ohio State football historian Jack Park has called the game the most significant in Big Ten history. Woody echoed those sentiments at a banquet in 1978. Discussing how he felt the 1969 squad was the best team he ever coached he looked down at Bo, who was in the audience, and said “Damn you, BO! You will never win a bigger game than that one.”

That game also sets the tone for the rest of the book. Every year you knew that The Game was going to be a tough, physical, and hard-fought game. But with the dominant nature of these two teams in the conference there was a lot riding on the game most years. The motivations and the momentum changed but intensity never did.

– In 1971 undefeated and #3 ranked Michigan escaped with a 10-7 win after a controversial interception that Buckeyes felt should have been called pass interference. Woody Hayes lost his infamous temper and stormed the field to berate the ref and later broke a first down marker over his knee.

– The 1972 game saw numerous Ohio State goal line stands that allowed them to pull the upset on the #3 ranked Wolverines 14-11. On two occasions Michigan had the ball less than a yard from the goal and couldn’t score.

– In the legendary 1973 game #1 Ohio State and #4 Michigan played to a 10-10 tie. Michigan kicker Mike Lantry had two chances to win the game and missed both. But the real controversy came after the game as the Big Ten decided to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl rather than Michigan. It was assumed that since Ohio State had gone the previous year, and the Wolverines had out-gained the Buckeyes, Michigan would get the chance in ’73 but it was not to be. In those days multiple teams from the Big Ten weren’t allowed to go to bowl games. It was the Rose Bowl or nothing. This controversy played a big part in getting that rule overturned.

– The 1974 game again came down to a field goal and Mike Lantry. And while a great many Michigan fans and players – and even a few Ohio State fans – felt the 33-yard kick was good, the refs ruled that it had edged outside the top of the left upright.

– 1975 saw #1 Ohio State visiting #4 Michigan. And the Wolverines again lost, this time 21-14, despite dominating statistically. The Michigan defense stopped two-time Heisman trophy winner Archie Griffin’s 31 consecutive 100-yard game streak, but his brother Ray had a key interception that led to the Buckeyes go ahead score. During the four years between 1972-1975 the Wolverines were 30-2-1 and yet never went to a bowl game. The 1975 OSU seniors never lost to Michigan.

– 1976 game started the turnaround for Michigan. In a 22-0 win, Michigan rushed for 366 yards but completed no passes! UM punter Tom Skladany had 8 punts with an 52.2-yard average.
– Bo Schembechler went on to win his last three games against Woody (76, 77, 78). In those last three games Ohio State wouldn’t score a touchdown and manged only 9 points. Bo finished 5-4-1 against Woody.
– After the 1978 loss Ohio State went on to play Clemson in the Gator bowl. Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman intercepted an Art Schlister pass and ended up on the Ohio State sideline. Woody Hayes legendary temper exploded again and Hayes actually punched Bauman. He was fired the next day and the Ten Year War would come to an end.

As you can see from the above, the Ten Year War was an intense and physical rivalry for the coaches, the players, and fans of the two schools. This decade of competition would set the two schools on an annual collision course of epic proportions. A few weeks ago we saw yet another classic version.

Pennington’s The Ten Year War is not a complex or overly detailed history of the schools, the seasons, or even the coaches during this period. The focus is on The Game. Each chapter gives you enough information to know the key players, personalities and events leading up to the game. The heart of each chapter is in essence a drive by drive, and sometimes play-by-play, account of the game. Pennington isn’t a particularly elegant prose stylist but that doesn’t really matter. What is important is the game itself. Combining the play-by-play element of the game, he weaves in the commentary of the time as well as the memories of the players and coaches looking back on these epic battles. Their passion and loyalty comes through.

Anyone interested in the history of college football, and certainly fans of Michigan and Ohio State, will want to be sure and read The Ten Year War. It is an interesting history of a crucial era in one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports.

About Kevin Holtsberry

Kevin works in communications and public affairs. He tries to squeeze in as much reading (and blogging) as he can between work, family and watching sports.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>