Written by: Matt Patti | November 20th, 2022
Rivals: Ohio State vs Michigan (Peter Karl, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
Rivalries are commonplace in almost every aspect of life: Republicans vs. Democrats; Apple vs. Microsoft; McDonald’s vs. Burger King. These bitter rivals work hard to one-up each other and are in constant battle. Perhaps the greatest rivalries in the world, though, are sports rivalries: Yankees vs. Red Sox; Steelers vs. Ravens; Celtics vs. Lakers; Mexican Men’s Soccer vs. U.S. Men’s Soccer. These heated rivalries rile up fans and are most times the best-selling tickets for the highest prices. But why? What makes a rivalry? That’s what the new documentary series Rivals aims to find out. In the process of doing so, a case study is needed, and director Peter Karl (American Fútbol) presents, in the first episode, what may be the biggest rivalry in the history of American sports: that between two college football teams from Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Rivals: Ohio State vs Michigan first begins by touching on what constitutes a rivalry and why they are important. It then takes a deep dive into the origins of its chosen case study, which dates all the way back to the late 1800s. J.K. Simmons (Being the Ricardos), who is actually an avid Ohio State Buckeyes fan, narrates the documentary. Additional commentary is added by sportscasters, former players, and coaches from both Ohio State and Michigan, as well as rivalry experts. The film’s structure is built around the ten ingredients of a rivalry. Some rivalries have only a few of these ingredients, but Ohio State vs. Michigan football boasts all ten, and the episode goes bucket by bucket and explores and analyzes each of the ten in depth, ranging from the rivalry’s 19th-century origins to present day.
The first 20-30 minutes of the documentary is an overload of information that even I, an avid football fan, find overwhelming. The extremely fast-paced opening spews out so much at once that I have to wonder if the film wasn’t cut down from a greater length. The first third layers voices on top of each other, speeds through details at rocket speed, and jumps around quite a bit. This, of course, is quite off-putting, with the viewer struggling to gain hold of all this information. Thankfully, however, the film settles down for the rest of the runtime and delivers a fascinating study on rivalries and specifically on the two schools themselves.
Going all the way back to the origins of the two states, there is already prime grounds for intense competition. Michigan was mostly comprised of industrialists from New York, whereas Ohio was the home to failed Virginia farmers. Two very different groups of people living only three hours apart definitely constitutes conditions for a rivalry. The film also focuses on the differences between the two universities. Ohio State was known to be very lenient in their admissions, whereas Michigan was much more selective. Both universities have their fair share of notable alumni, but whereas Ohio State produced some famous authors and journalists, Michigan has produced many famous celebrities and even a president of the United States as its alums. See the theme here? No matter one school’s accomplishments, the other is always there to match, or sometimes surpass, them.
The episode takes time to explore some very compelling characters involved with the rivalry, including legendary Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes and his understudy—who eventually became the head coach of Michigan—Bo Schembechler. The documentary also highlights some of the most renowned NFL players to come out of both schools and some of the biggest games between the two schools. Perhaps the most interesting part about the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry—the pregame activities of students/fans from both schools—are put under the microscope. These yearly traditions that typically happen the week before the big game involve such acts as Michigan fans crushing a buckeye (which is a type of nut) by the grave of Bo Schembechler, and Ohio State fans putting a red “X” over every “M” they find on campus and on social media.
As exciting as the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry is, the most enthralling part of the documentary to me is the study of rivalries themselves, and the fact that most rivalries come as a part of small differences, but even more so because of shared similarities. The episode hammers home the point that a rival is not necessarily an enemy. While we want our enemies vanquished and would likely prefer not to see them again, Karl argues that we need rivals and that they are a part of our own selves. The rivalry still grows to this day, and it’s no coincidence that the initial release date of this documentary (which start to roll out this coming week on some local sports/news channels) is Sunday, November 20th, the start of the weeklong buildup before yet another Ohio State vs. Michigan faceoff. With both teams currently ranked among the top 5 teams in the country, this year’s contest is sure to be yet another classic.