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Thursday, November 16, 2006
Magical season for Buckeyes, Wolverines

By Bill Curry
Special to ESPN.com

There is nothing in the world that is as much fun as being in the biggest football game of the year. Nothing … In the World. It feels like magic, and the fun starts early, long before the actual event.

Magic in the Details
From the very beginning there is a sense of destiny. Nobody forces it. Most often nobody mentions it.
Coaching in the Game of the Year is not as fun as playing in it.
Coaching in the Game of the Year is not as fun as playing in it.
The coaches say their usual words of encouragement, deliver their motivational nuggets and recede from the players' consciousness as winter sets in. Usually, the first evidence that something is up is that no one gets into trouble. Most of the fellows go to class, take care of business, show up on time and cut out a few bad habits. Nobody wants to be ineligible. Everything feels just a little different than in previous years.

All winter the agilities and weights take their toll, evoking toughness and discipline from unwilling muscles. Suddenly things that had always been unbearable are tolerable. Spring practice is its normal blur of shouts, crashes, collisions and pain. The difference is that this time it is executed in what looks and feels like high speed, high definition technology. The bodies are the same, but the wills have somehow grown and joined.

Football's spring practice each year is the beginning of a grudging willingness to overcome the omnipresent human aversion to reinjuring that which is already bloody. Linemen's foreheads seem like hamburger, knuckles are crunched and noses get bent out of shape -- literally and figuratively. Fistfights pop up in the big guys' combination drills because there is more than the normal competitiveness. The violence is momentary, with little harm done, because even if the big uglies are not buddies, nobody wants a teammate to go down. Even the tailenders, who normally require a kick in the butt, begin to get after it without being cajoled.

Corners and safeties talk trash during one on one drills, fight like wild banshees to break up passes and then leap up to high five the receivers who snatch balls away from them. They want the offense to be good.

The quarterback who struggled in the big games a year ago begins to complete pass after pass. He never misses an audible. His accuracy inches up from good to uncanny. Coaches smile and nod as they consult their charts -- 25, 30, 40 consecutive completions during 7-on-7 drills, day after day after day. Balls slip into impossible places between zone drops, and deep throws find their way over the outside shoulder of streaking wide receivers and are secured, put away and exploded into the end zone.

Tackles are crisp, with a passel of players around the ball every snap. Goal line drills are brutal, no place for the faint of heart. Fundamentals are ground into unconscious minds so that knees are bent, heads are up and backs are flat without thought …every single play. Pro scouts start telling coaches that they might have a champion in the making. That scares the coaches, who demand even more. The players don't seem to mind this time.

Punters hang tight spirals up high; kickers make every kick during 11-on-11, and no one complains about being on special teams.

Something is in the air.

The players find themselves drawn to the weight room after spring practice because the team on the scrimmage tape looks simply incredible. Summer is long with tedious hours of running, sweating, lifting, throwing and catching, with a studious sacrifice of many night time hours studying tapes of early opponents. Even that is fun.

It's been a fun season for Lloyd Carr and his Wolverines.
It's been a fun season for Lloyd Carr and his Wolverines.
The team's loners, who normally split for home or the beach in the summer, are recruited by the leaders to hang with the team. To everyone's surprise, they do. They aren't sure just why, but they feel good about the work and the camaraderie -- for the first time in their lives.

There has been a sea change in attitude and it is magnetic.

Party time changes from the typical cliquish behavior of young males to team functions. Somebody buys a keg, some wings and the biggest apartment pool serves as a gathering place. Team leaders negotiate a truce on music, something like 50/50 between hip-hop and country/western.

Players who have hated each other for years find common ground and actually begin to speak to one another. The negative guys, the team's contingent of the Fellowship of the Miserable, are thrown in the pool when they begin their characteristic complaining. They learn to keep their mouths shut. Things get loud. There is a great deal of laughter. The neighbors don't like it, but they are cajoled to be patient with the noise because these are the players who might win the championship this year. Word begins to spread around the town outside campus. Our men are together this time.

Training Camp
Training camp is almost a formality. There are surprisingly few injuries. Every single player passes the brutal conditioning test. Everybody makes their weight, even the chronic fat guys. They want to be on the bus for the big game. Coaches set their goals, do the practice schedules and deliver their coaching points, but they know something is up -- that the team has taken charge of itself. When there is a bad practice, before the coach can reprimand the squad, the team leaders ask for time, and the issue is corrected. Any player that does anything that threatens team unity is taken aside and straightened out in a hurry, and not by the coaches.

The magic has taken hold, the team is ready and virtually none of the stimulus has come from without. Self-discipline, focus and synergy cannot be imposed. Those qualities either come from within, or the players crumble under pressure. Those qualities have to emerge, and all great teams understand that without ever having attempted to verbalize the experience.

The Season
The season is one joyful Saturday after another. Nobody cares much who the opponent is. Everybody on both teams knows who is going to win. The greatest advantage for a football player is to look an opponent in the eye in the fourth quarter, to know his team is going to win and to know that his opponent knows the same thing. That is hard-earned football dominance. Every great team owns it.

This year the Ohio State Buckeyes own it.

This year the Michigan Wolverines own it.

Ask Jim Tressel why it has developed, as I did in late October, and he will cite Troy Smith's "dictatorial" leadership on offense, and the "defensive front" leadership on defense, most notably Quinn Pitcock and Jay Richardson. Ask the leaders, and they will credit their teammates.

Ask Lloyd Carr what happened, as I did late last week, and he becomes very "UnCarr-ish." "I tell you Jake Long has taken over the leadership of the offense and he is among the best I have ever seen!" I have never heard Lloyd talk like that about anyone, not even Charles Woodson in the national champion 1997 season. He goes on. "Nobody can block LaMarr Woodley -- he is sensational! And what a leader!"

Collision
When two great teams happen in the same year, the rest of us join in the fun and take liberties with such terms as "Game of the Century" and "Best Ever!" None of that distracts the players, who have enjoyed the process more than they thought possible. They will complete the task and give us a great game in this one, a game that actually might live up to all the exaggerations.

Then, for all the labor and all the months, win or lose, they will be glad they did it and wish it could go on forever. Selfishly, I wish I could be there. I would not want to watch, coach or broadcast. I would love to play, one more time, in the Game of the Year.

Nothing is more fun!

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is the executive director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.