Tube Stake | Programming Reviews by Seth Arenstein Tuesday, Nov. 13
Michigan vs. Ohio State: The Rivalry, 10:30 p.m., HBO*

It’s nearly always a treat when HBO Sports puts its documentary unit to work. This one, the group’s first film about college football, stands shoulders above HBO’s many fine sports docs. This brief look at the Ohio State-Michigan football game is one of the best short pieces about sports in years.

But The Rivalry isn’t really about football or football games. It’s more like a piece of social anthropology, with a bit of history, too.

Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay The Rivalry is that fans of both teams will love it and hate it equally, and that casual football fans of all stripes will revel in its storytelling, music, pathos and humor. 

Indeed, this 60-minute film manages to touch nearly every emotion as it recounts the story behind a feud that began in 1897 and shows no sign of abating. On the contrary, last year’s match, the first time the clubs entered the game with national rankings of 1 and 2, respectively, was “a show for the ages,” narrator Liev Schreiber tells us, employing cliché in what is otherwise a script filled with gems.

Schreiber, speaking of last year’s 42-39 OSU win, calls it “a 100-yard homage to all those who coached, played and cheered throughout the storied rivalry.”  Trying to define the bitter tension between the “uneasy neighbors”—the schools are separated by just 200 miles—Schreiber says the feud is “football with an acute sense of identity.” One of the reasons for the popularity of the feud is that it’s been scheduled for years on the third Saturday in November. Like Thanksgiving, it returns every year at the same time, one of the many fine interviews in the film notes. That regularity has made the game “as ingrained in Midwestern culture as stoicism and self-reliance,” Schreiber says.

The Rivalry is victorious on writing alone, but there’s more. Much.

Perhaps the best thing the film does is provide context for outsiders, those whose lives don’t revolve around a football game. The game between OSU and Michigan is older than the World Series by six years, we’re told. It predates the existence of the NFL by 25. “It’s a secular religion,” says a talking head. Coaches from the two schools are considered successes or failures not on their teams’ won-lost records, but on how they did in “the game.” Partisans began evaluating now-former OSU coach Ron Cooper for a straitjacket when he noted that Michigan “was just another game.”

As with most long-running feuds, traditions abound, as do myths, legends and heroic figures. The Rivalry diligently covers many of them, including the 1950 Snow Bowl, when the game was played despite a raging blizzard with record winds. The pleasure here is that HBO presents interviews with players from that game and has unearthed footage, distilling the loss to a  few plays, including a questionable decision to punt by Ohio State coach Wes Fesler. Michigan blocked the punt for a touchdown. Michigan won despite never having made a first down. The teams combined for 45 punts. Fesler never coached another game at OSU.

Fesler was replaced by a relative unknown from Miami of Ohio by the name of Wayne Woodrow Hayes. The film then turns to an examination of how Hayes turned around the OSU football program with an intensity that would bring him great success, but also lead to his ouster. “He’s the meanest sucker you’ve ever seen,” says former coach Earle Bruce. The battle was escalated a few notches when one of Hayes’ former assistants at Miami named Bo Schembechler got the job at Michigan. That one of Hayes’ own would betray him was bad enough. That the unknown  Schembechler—the headlines of the day said “Bo Who?”—was a native of Ohio made things that much worse. The so-called “10-Year War” was on.

While the use of the word war upsets many, The Rivalry doesn’t forget that to most of us it’s only a game. Humorous taunts at both teams are included here, including one from newsman Mike Wallace, a Michigan alum. And don’t turn the set off when the credits roll or you’ll miss some college humor that’s worth watching.

Most great documentaries include a “wow” moment, planned or not. The Rivalry centers on the friendship, yes, friendship that actually existed between Hayes and Schembechler. The piece includes footage from a tribute dinner for Schembechler that Hayes attended despite failing health. Schembechler notes that Hayes spoke glowingly about him for more than  25 minutes that night. “Then he went home and died.” Sadly, that narration by the former Michigan coach was taped by HBO just two days before, he, too, passed. A shot during that interview of Schembechler sitting alone in the stands at Michigan’s Big House, as its stadium is called, will bring even hardened football fans to tears.

In the end only two men and two schools who respect and respected each other could strive so hard to beat the other on the field, Schreiber says.     

* For a complete schedule of this show click here. Read more programming reviews by Seth >

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