An intriguing name for Michigan’s next head coach

This Bill Connelly piece on a potential (now inevitable?) Michigan head coach search in the near future is interesting for a lot of reasons, but the one that caught my eye most was the inclusion of Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen.

As a student of the history of the game and of course the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, this possibility (if it’s even real, which may or may not be) is truly fascinating.

Why? Because it would almost perfectly recreate the dynamic of the most intense period The Game has ever seen: The 10-Year War. 

What made Michigan-Ohio State particularly great from 1969-78 was not only both teams operating at arguably the peak of their powers but also the men who had them there: Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. Both fiery, old-school leaders, they had nearly everything in common, from the type of men they were to the hard-nosed brand of football they believed in. And there was a good reason for that: Bo played for Woody at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant to Hayes at Ohio State. After stints at Presbyterian, Bowling Green and Northwestern, Schembechler returned to Ohio State as an offensive assistant (and players from that time remember him being the good cop to Woody’s bad).

Bo got his first head coaching job back at his alma mater, and there is a school of thought out there Woody wanted him to be his eventual successor at Ohio State. The problem with that, though, was no one had any idea in the late ‘60s how much longer Hayes planned to continue as head coach.

Schembechler wisely bet it wouldn’t be any time soon and eventually ended up in Ann Arbor, where he took over a program that was at its lowest point, more than 10 years removed from its last Big Ten championship and facing declining support from fans. (Sound familiar?)

In his first season, Schembechler began implementing what he learned from Hayes, running a grueling program that lost a large number of players, leading him to declare, “Those who stay will be champions.” Those words became a mantra after his first team ended the 1969 regular season by stunning an undefeated Ohio State squad that was the defending national champion and had steamrolled everyone it played to that point. It was often said at the time the contest everyone in college football wanted to see was a scrimmage between the Buckeye offense and defense because that was the only way you’d see a competitive game involving either unit.

The 24-12 upset in Ann Arbor in 1969 touched off the 10-year war and a rivalry that became legendary between two great friends, a pupil and a teacher who respected each other as much as they wanted to beat each other, if not more, while running programs that were near mirror images.

Woody statue front view
Woody Hayes statue

And who is Dan Mullen’s Woody Hayes? None other than Urban Meyer, the current head coach of the Buckeyes.

Meyer and Mullen began developing Meyer’s famed spread-option offense first as members of Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame staff then at Bowling Green, where Meyer was the head coach and Mullen his quarterbacks coach. Mullen later followed Meyer to Utah and Florida, coaching Alex Smith and Tim Tebow along the way, before becoming head coach at Mississippi State in 2009.

Meyer has mentioned his ongoing affinity for Mullen multiple times since becoming the head coach at Ohio State (the same is true of Charlie Strong, who was his defensive coordinator before becoming head coach at Louisville and eventually Texas), and Mullen has installed the spread-option in Starkville while building the Bulldogs into a respectable program.

Would he leave the MSU of the South to take over the MSU of the North’s state rival? Who knows. I would tend to doubt it as he is already one of the top head coaches in his current program’s history, but the prospect of a Woody and Bo rivalry for a new age is still tantalizing to think about.

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