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LSU vs. Alabama: Ten-Year War Redux

There is no bigger rivalry in college football. On Saturday, LSU and Alabama dance again.

Chris Graythen

Multiple National Championships. Defending National Champions. Undefeated. Twelve 1st round draft picks. Twenty-one All-Americans. America's elite college football program.

You may think I'm talking about the Alabama Crimson Tide circa the late aughts and early twenty-tens. But I'm not. This is Ohio State, 1969.

It was the beginning of a decade. A decade of war. A decade of rivalry. A decade of hatred. Two programs. One donning a shade of red. One donning a shade of yellow. Two coaches. One, a tireless worker with an explosive temper and the reputation of simultaneously being a bully and a charmer. The other, a simple man with a larger-than-life personality that seemed constantly enraptured by the very moment he's living in. They are as similar as they are different. They are both driven by that nagging, insatiable desire to win. They both believe in running the football, hitting your opponent in the mouth and exerting your will. They are Woody and Bo. They are Saban and Miles. They are Ohio State and Michigan. They are Alabama and LSU.

This is How Hatred Begins

Ohio State may not have been the team of the 50s and 60s, but it's hard to argue their rise to college football's elite under the guidance of Hayes. They claimed National Titles in '54, '57, '61 and '68. Despite claiming a National Title in 1942, most of their history consisted of spotted success up until 1934 and the hiring of Francis Schmidt. In fact, for the first 15 match-ups between the two they never beat Michigan. They only managed two ties. In 1902 Michigan beat State 86-0. The forward pass wouldn't be allowed for four more years.

State won their conference in 1906 and 1912. They also didn't manage to score a point on Michigan in either season. Finally, OSU rattled off three consecutive, close wins from 1919-1921, only to drop six more in a row from 1922-1927. It was utter domination at the hands of "that school from up north." John Wilce's teams of the nineteen teens and nineteen twenties were successful, in an era of watered down football. Still, they played Michigan 11 times in his 15-year tenure, and lost seven times.

The Buckeyes true ascension to power began in 1934. They beat Michigan four times in a row, not allowing a score in the process. But Schmidt faltered, dropping the next three consecutively. Ohio State did an about face, failing to score a single point in any of the three contests, culminating an in embarrassing 40-0 loss... at home. Schmidt resigned and Buckeyes hired rising coaching star Paul Brown. Brown, like his predecessors, excelled early, tying Michigan in his first season on the job, then beating them in year two, on their way to claiming the schools first National Title. Brown coached only one more season before joining the Navy and never returning to Ohio State, opting instead to pursue a career in the NFL.

Carol Widdoes, a Brown assistant assumed the head coaching job, went 9-0 and beat Michigan in his first season, winning a conference title. In '45 he guided the team to a 7-2 record, this time dropping to Michigan. He subsequently left the job, handing the reigns to offensive coordinator Paul Bixler. Bixler's tenure proved disastrous, as he tallied only four wins, while losing to Michigan 58-6. Ohio State turned to superstar athlete Wes Fesler, who spurned professional football to pursue coaching. Fesler delivered the schools first bowl win, but never beat Michigan and did little else.

In 48 match-ups, Ohio State beat Michigan just 12 times. They only tied four times. Michigan won the game 67% of the time (75% if you disregard ties). To put that in some LSU context, we've beat no team as much, nor as frequently, as Mississippi State. Our lifetime record against the Bulldogs is 70-33-3. That's good for just about 68% (again, disregarding ties). It's absolute, merciless, brutal domination.

But by 1951, Ohio State found their man. Wayne Woodrow Hayes, an Ohio native short on coaching experience and long on attitude. The decision, at the time, proved controversial. Hayes was successful, but a relative unknown in the coaching ranks, while former Buckeye coach Paul Brown and future Hall of Fame coach, and inventor of the Split-T Formation, Don Faurot, both wanted the position.

Hayes lost nine games in his first three seasons, beating Michigan only once. After losing to Michigan in 1953, his detractors were full throat; they wanted him gone. What they didn't see was that Hayes was transforming the roster into likenesses of himself. Tough, hard-nosed, disciplined, violent men who loved football. Under Fesler, the players operated in a laid back, laissez-faire environment. Hayes was a ruthless dictator.

1954 started a tradition in Ohio State football that would initiate Hayes' legacy and propel him on to a 27-year career. That tradition? Beat Michigan. From 1951 to 1978, Hayes beat Michigan 16 times. Yes, four more times than Ohio State managed in the first 48 meetings. Hayes despised Michigan, and the tales of the lengths he would go to deride the state are legendary. One story alleges his car ran out of gas in Michigan. Being a man of principle, Hayes pushed his career back across the border to Ohio before paying for gas, because he didn't want to give the rival state a dime of his money. He would scarcely even say the name Michigan. He credited himself for being Notre Dame's best recruiter, directing any player that eschewed Ohio State directly to the Golden Domers.

Hayes' 1954 Buckeyes not only beat Michigan, they beat everyone else too, on the way to a Rose Bowl victory and the second National Championship in school history. They beat Michigan again in '55, '57, '58, '60, '61, '62, '63, '65, '67 and '68, claiming three more national titles in the process. For Buckeye fans, all in the world was right and well and good. Sure, they may not have been as great as Alabama or Oklahoma, but for the first time in their history they could say one thing: They were damn sure better than Michigan.

The Ten-Year War

In the annals of Michigan football history, you'll notice a singular trend: exceptional patience with head coaches. Since Fielding Yost, only three Michigan coaches have lasted fewer than five years: George Little, Elton Wieman and Rich Rodriguez. Michigan has hired just 12 coaches since 1900. 12. Ole Miss has hired 12 different coaches since just 1946, and 23 years of that reign were occupied by Johnny Vaught.

While Ohio State ascended into football's elite, Michigan took a step back into mediocrity. Bennie Oosterbaan won nine games and a National Championship in 1948, beating Ohio State 13-3. In '49 and '50 he claimed conference titles, beating Ohio State once and tying the other. Then things went south. He wouldn't win the conference again, and beat Ohio State only three more times. Despite averaging 3.5 losses over his final eight seasons, well, Michigan stuck with him, until a miserable 1958 team won only two games.

The Wolverines hired Bump Elliott, who likely extended his coaching career simply by beating Ohio State in 1959, despite only winning four games all season. They failed to improve much over the next several seasons, losing four consecutive battles with Hayes and the rising Buckeyes. In 1964, Elliott pulled a rabbit from the hat, put together a nine-win campaign, beat the Buckeyes and won the Rose Bowl. He would beat Ohio State again in '66, but the Wolverines never won the conference again. In '68, the Buckeyes trounced Michigan 50-14 and Elliott subsequently resigned.

Michigan, like Ohio State, opted to dip into the Miami of Ohio coaching waters, hiring Bo Schembechler, a Woody Hayes pupil. Michigan AD Don Canham was so impressed with Schembechler's passion, he hired him within 15 minutes. Schembechler was to set about resurrecting the storied history of the Maize and Blue, injecting a similar tenacity and attitude into Michigan as Hayes did for Ohio State. He was notoriously tough on players, causing many to quit before the season even began. When his assistants whined about the porous state of the Michigan facilities, Bo used it as an opportunity to celebrate the Michigan tradition, famously quipping, "See this chair? Fielding Yost sat in this chair!"

Bo's first team in 1969 began slowly. They soundly defeated Vanderbilt and Washington to propel themselves into the top 20, but were trounced at home by Missouri, and then later dropped on the road by cross-state rival Michigan State. Thus the Wolverines entered a November 22nd match-up with the No. 1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, the defending National Champions and winners of 22 straight, 17-point underdogs, even in Ann Arbor. Nevertheless, however unlikely it may be, a victory for the Wolverines would secure a share of the Big Ten Championship and a likely Rose Bowl berth.

A then-record 103,588 fans packed the Big House. Despite Ohio State entering with the acclaim of perhaps being the "greatest college football team of all-time," Michigan never balked. Ohio State got on the board first, but missed the extra point to take a 6-0 lead. Michigan turned right back around and scored to take the lead. 6-7. Ohio State came back and scored again, this time opting to go for two, but failing. 12-7. Yet again, Michigan showed no fear, driving down the field and scoring to once again take the lead. 12-14. This time, they wouldn't give it back.

Michigan controlled the rest of the day. After limiting Ohio State to a three and out on the next possession, Barry Pierson returned the punt to the Buckeye three. Michigan scored two plays later. They tacked on another FG to take a 24-12 lead at the half. The second half was sloppy and not a point more was scored. The Buckeyes turned it over seven times, their All-American QB tossing three INTs and getting benched. The Wolverines kneeled it once and the crowd counted down the victory. Michigan had returned. Sure, they beat State here and there with Elliott and Oosterban, but this time it meant something. They not only won, they took down the kings of college football. It was the dawning of a new era.

The college football world had no idea that this was only the beginning of a marvelous 10-year stretch of brutally close games ripe with national implications. Ohio State/Michigan grew from not just an old rivalry grudge match; it became THE game.

Don't believe me? 1970. Both teams entered undefeated. Ohio State won, clinching a Rose Bowl berth. Though they eventually lost to Stanford, they were still elected NFF National Champions. Had either team won both of those final two games, they likely would have been consensus champions with Texas getting upset in the Cotton Bowl.

1971. Ohio State faltered, dropping three games before heading into the contest. But not so for Michigan, who entered undefeated and left that way. Michigan, ranked 3rd, kept a slimmer of hope that a victory over Stanford would vault them past Nebraska and Alabama if the Orange Bowl between the two remained tightly contested.

1972. Michigan, again, entered the game undefeated. Ohio State had dropped a contest in East Lansing, but both remained ranked in the top 10, Michigan at no. 3. The winner would go on to face No. 1 USC in a Rose Bowl, a victory which would most certainly earn a National Championship. Ohio State won, and was then trounced by USC in Pasadena.

1973. Both teams entered undefeated. Both teams left that way. They played to a 10-10 tie. Ohio State, being no. 1 at the time, was given the Rose Bowl re-match with USC, in which they avenged the 1972 defeat. Notre Dame would go on to beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and win the National Championship, but for the fifth year in a row the winner of Ohio State/Michigan stood a chance to claim a title.

1974. Undefeated Michigan. Ranked no. 2 at the time, behind only Alabama, who would eventually be upset by Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State, ranked no. 4 at the time, hosted the Wolverines, narrowly beat them 12-10, earning the Rose Bowl berth to face USC once again.

1975. Undefeated, No. 1 ranked Ohio State made the trip to Ann Arbor, beat the Wolverines on the way to a Rose Bowl berth and a shot at a National Championship. No. 11 UCLA spoiled the fun, upsetting the Buckeyes.

1976. Michigan held the no. 1 ranking for the first eight weeks of the season before being upset by Purdue. Despite the loss, they entered the match-up with the Buckeyes ranked 4th, securing the Rose Bowl and a match-up with no. 2 USC. Though outside of their own control, a National Championship remained in sight, assuming they could beat USC and No. 1 Pittsburgh would be upset by Georgia.

1977. By mid-season, Michigan again ascended to no. 1, holding it for just two weeks before being upset by unranked Minnesota. Never the ones to fold, the Wolverines fought back up to a no. 5 ranking, just behind the no. 4 Buckeyes, entering the annual showdown. Ohio State's only loss came to a highly ranked Oklahoma. Michigan won, and finished the regular season ranked no. 4. Michigan dropped the Rose Bowl, but a determined bunch of pollsters vaulted Notre Dame over Alabama (*points and laughs) in a year where six one-loss teams stood atop the polls.

1978. Ohio State stumbled, dropping two games and tying another by the middle of October. Michigan dropped a contest vs. unranked Michigan State, but clawed back up to 6th. A Michigan victory and win in the Rose Bowl against no. 3 USC may have given pollsters enough reason to vault them to a title.

10 years.  The average margin of victory in this series was just 7.9 points. Toss out the lone blowout (22-0 in 1976) and it drops to just under a touchdown, 6.3. Not only did the Ohio State Michigan war carry National Title implications on a yearly basis, the two teams battled as closely as could be imagined. Even outmatched teams, such as Hayes' 1971 Buckeyes, would travel to Ann Arbor and play to a narrow defeat, just 12-10. The game was thought to be so non-competitive, it wasn't televised. The lone film exists here. How close was it? Michigan scored with 2:07 remaining to take the lead. The Buckeyes mounted a final drive that ended in a controversial interception on the Michigan 32-yard line. How controversial? An incensed Hayes stormed the field arguing interference. The Evening Independent headline was, "Worst Call Ever?" The fit earned Hayes a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. But he was just getting started. Hayes was dragged off the field by players and coaches, and proceeded to destroy the down marker and the ball marker. The incident forced Ohio State to levy a one-game suspension and $1,000 fine to Hayes. Imagine that happening in 2013.

For five straight seasons Michigan entered the contest undefeated. Four times losing to Ohio State. The Ten Year War was about as evenly played of stretch of football as can possibly be imagined. So historic, it's earned entire books devoted to it's reflection. In HBO's documentary, "Michigan vs. Ohio State - The Rivalry." In the documentary, former Buckeye All-American linebacker Randy Grandishar reflects, "It became more real. And it became more serious. And you spent your whole year, you spent your whole offseason getting ready for that one game."

The programs loathed each other. The coaches, despite sharing a friendship dating back to Schembechler serving as an assistant to Hayes, weren't particularly fond of one another either. Schembechler reflects that Hayes would instruct one of his assistants to corral Bo to the 50, because Woody wouldn't cross it to greet him. For 10 years. Hayes himself said, "This is more than a game. This is war." It was complete with sideline fits, controversial polls, missed field goals and hatred. A whole lot of hatred.

The Road to a New War

Does any of this sound familiar? If you are a fan of Alabama and LSU, it most certainly should. Right down to the nature of the victories themselves. A blown call on an interception? A series of missed field goals that could have decided the gameA single ugly blowout? Right on down to a pair of coaches that respect the hell out of each other, but probably don't like one another all that much. They are all at once terribly the same and terribly different.

The LSU-Alabama rivalry, at least this incarnation of it, is entering its seventh season and eighth game. When Alabama hired Nick Saban after a failed tenure in the NFL, most LSU fans considered it apostasy. Saban meant so much to LSU's rich history. The Tigers claimed a title in '58 and experienced a quiet run of excellence throughout the reigns of Dietzel and McClendon from 1955-1979. In those 24 years, LSU won 183 games, three conference titles, and nine bowls. While it's hardly an era earmarked with LSU dominance, the success is undeniable.

In the 24 years after Cholly Mac retired, LSU won only 91 games. From Stovall to Hallman, the Tigers tried four different coaches, hitting mildly on Arsparger, who subsequently retired after three seasons to assume the Florida A.D. job. Even Arnsparger's successes were tainted by three bowl losses. The 80s and 90s were an inglorious time to be an LSU fan, culminating with the Curley Hallman seasons. Hallman's successes at Southern Miss and experience under the Bear impressed the LSU brass. In hindsight, they likely should have just been impressed with Brett Favre. Our man Poseur detailed just how futile Curley Hallman really was here.

The Tigers backed up Hallman by hiring Gerry DiNardo, who rose to success as the offensive coordinator of the 1990 National Champions, Colorado. In a bit of LSU coincidental history, Les Miles actually served as Dinardo's OL coach from '82-'86. Dinardo's accomplishments earned him a head coaching gig at Vanderbilt, where he made the porous Commodores slightly less porous, notably upsetting no. 17 Georgia in '91 and no. 25 Ole Miss in '92. It was enough to impress LSU. DiNardo inherited a program coming off six consecutive losing seasons. The Tigers hadn't been ranked since 1989. No, not not in the top 10 or top 15. Not ranked. At all. Not even for a week.

DiNardo promised to "bring back the magic" to Death Valley, which is now playfully mocked, but realistically, it was Gerry DiNardo, not Nick Saban, who laid the groundwork for LSU's rise to prominence. DiNardo won seven games and earned a bowl bid in his first year on campus, beating then-Nick Saban-led Michigan State in the Independence Bowl. In 1996 the Tigers won 10 games and claimed the SEC West. In 1997 he won nine more, even upsetting No. 1 Florida in Baton Rouge.

But then things just sorta... unraveled. DiNardo won only seven more games. He then disappeared from the coaching landscape for two seasons before re-emerging in the XFL. The league folded and he took the head coaching gig at Indiana. In yet another bit of LSU coincidental history, DiNardo took the job after current LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired. It's not entirely clear why things eroded so quickly for DiNardo at LSU, but what's most important is that he re-established a recruiting base that disintegrated through the porous seasons of the 80s and 90s. Top in-state talents such as Warrick Dunn, Peyton Manning and Travis Minor took flight. When DiNardo convinced in-state superstar Kevin Faulk to stay home, it signified a step in a new direction for LSU. Sure, he still lost battles on players like Eli Manning, Ed Reed, and Reggie Wayne, but Kevin Faulk made it cool to play for LSU again.

Nick Saban was not Nick Saban when LSU hired him. In fact, his resume wasn't terribly sparkly. He coached a single successful season at Toledo before resigning to take a defensive coordinator position in the NFL under Bill Belichick. Though Saban can likely point to his experience under Belichick as career-defining, the experiment proved a failure, and the entire staff was fired after three seasons. Saban took over a struggling Michigan State, saddled with sanctions and returned them to respectability, not all too dissimilar to what DiNardo accomplished at LSU. He won nine games in his final season before taking the LSU job.

What groundwork DiNardo laid at LSU, Saban built a castle atop of. In-state recruits poured into Baton Rouge, while Saban went into Florida and Texas to pull other top talent. By 2003, the Tigers were National Champions for the first time since 1958. So Saban meant, and means, a lot to LSU. Which is why there is no reason to NOT hate him.

If we're honest about the situation, Saban left LSU high and dry in the wake of pursuing his NFL dream. Because he's a special kind of asshole, he took the job on Christmas Day in 2004. This left LSU scrambling for a hire, late in the process, which eventually landed Les Miles. He then only matched that asshole-itude by not just returning to college football, but returning to one of LSU's top rivals, Alabama. So spare me the, "It's time to get over the hatred of Nick Saban," bit. He's the head coach of the only team that's stood in the way of LSU claiming even more National Championships. He's the head coach of our rival. He's the head coach of Alabama. I reserve the right to always hate that person. Especially so when it's Nick Saban.

It's Happening Again

So here we are. Saturday will mark the 8th meeting of Les Miles and Nick Saban. It's Bo vs. Woody 2.0. It's a series so damned close, and so damned important, the rest of the college football world stops to take notice. Except, this time the margins are even more razor thin. The average margin of victory is a shade under a touchdown, 6.6 points. Throw out the National Championship beat down, and it moves down to just 4.5 points. Only twice in the seven games has the team leading going into the 4th quarter come out the victor. Only once has the team that won this game not won the SEC West. Four times has the winner claimed the National Title.

History repeats itself. This time down South. We're witnessing a pair of coaching legends, atop two of college football's pre-eminent programs, going to war, year after year. If there's been a better series of games in college football for the last seven years, I haven't seen them. And neither have you. It's missed field goals and blown penalties and completely unexpected offensive outbursts. It's passion and hatred and bitter, bitter rivalry. It's burning Nick Saban dolls in effigy. It's mocking Les Miles-isms. It's 4th down tight-end double reverses and AJ McCarron tears. It's John Parker Wilson just got annihilated. It is knock-the-spit-right-out-of-your-mouth nasty. It's LSU/Alabama. It's THE rivalry. It's THE game. College football, you are the planets. LSU/Alabama is the sun.

This is the Ten Year War, Redux.