The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Ohio State, ‘Michigan’ is pronounced ‘That State Up North’

(Mitch Stacy/Associated Press)
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Actually, they do use the cuss word “M – – – – – – -” sometimes in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, even in a momentous week like this. It’s just that they use it only with the word “State” briskly attached, which changes the meaning utterly.

Several Ohio State football players did use the proper noun “Michigan State” on Monday, which proved useful given that Ohio State just played Michigan State this past Saturday, so if reflecting upon that game, the dialectic availability of the passage “Michigan State” helped mightily.

Still, an outsider might fret for these lads, fearful that one might say the word “M – – – – – – – -” someday, then suffer an insuppressible cough or hiccup that would obfuscate the “State” portion, then suffer notoriety through the remainder of life.

Such a blunder would be even rarer than it seems from afar.

What’s striking to an outsider as No. 2 Ohio State preps to play No. 3 Michigan here on Saturday in college football’s matchup of the year is the extent of the verbal discipline. It’s the practiced ease with which the phrase “Team Up North” just flows from Buckeye brains without a hint of delay or self-correction.

“Have you watched any film yet?” a question went to senior guard Pat Elflein.

“On Team Up North?” he said quickly. “Yeah.”

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Quarterback J.T. Barrett speaks in near-whispers, so hearing him can require leaning in through the throng and missing entire halves of sentences, yet catching a meaningful snippet as he casually began one sentence, “I think one of the main things with the Team Up North . . . ”

Sometimes, “Team Up North” can morph, as when guard Billy Price discussed teammate Mike Weber, the running back from Detroit, as hailing from “that state up north.”

The omitting of “M – – – – – – -” from Ohioan argot dates back to Hayes, the Ohio State coach for 28 roaring seasons (1951-78), including the 10 between 1969 and 1978, when the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry went football-stratospheric and set so much of the meaning that inflates this week all the way in late 2016. Sometimes, “Team Up North” seems to carry a “the,” sometimes a “that.” It appears often in the football facility as “TUN,” as on signs in the hallway, which have noted Ohio State’s record since 2004 against “TUN” (that’s 12-1), or Ohio State’s aggregate total-yardage advantage in that span (that’s 989).

This bigger-than-big week, the sign near the side door that tells of Hayes’s history has all its “M’s” covered in red tape, which makes it similar to other signs around the building, and also serves to reinforce the agonizing truth that somehow, Hayes’s history could not be told without the letter “M.”

In Columbus, there are X’s over the M’s

Asked if the use of “Team Up North” translates into football value, receiver Terry McLaurin said: “I mean, to be honest, we don’t like them. You know what I mean? It’s kind of personal for everybody. It’s personal for the people who have played in the game. And it’s personal for the people who are currently about to play in the game. So that’s kind of how it’s always been. You learn it as a freshman, you just don’t say the word. Obviously, everybody knows the name, but you won’t see that word used or even posted anywhere in our facility. So that’s kind of the approach we take.”

He spoke of the impossible “intensity of the game once you partake in that game.”

There might come an increased chance for a freshman from a far-flung place to slip up here or there, as Ohio State’s recruiting goes ever more national under its surpassing coach, Urban Meyer, the winner of 164 of his 192 games as a head coach at four universities, and 60 of 65 here, plus three national titles (two at Florida) and a 12-0 season at Utah (2004). The word “M – – – – – – -” did come up roughly eight times during Meyer’s roughly 19 minutes of answers on Monday, but always from fiendish reporters, not even close from the lectern. Occasionally Meyer deployed “their team” and “they,” then “they” again, or, when told that “Michigan” had injured five quarterbacks this season, said: “I didn’t know that. No. They’re a good defense.”

In a deft art, he managed to tell of having “great conversations” with the late Bo Schembechler while refraining from mentioning where Schembechler coached, which was Michigan, for 21 roaring seasons (1969-89) most famously opposite Hayes during the 1970s.

In those years, Meyer, 52, navigated childhood in Ashtabula, Ohio, way up northeast near the Pennsylvania border on Lake Erie across from Ontario.

“Was there ever any question as to who you would side with?” went one question.

Meyer paused slightly.

“None,” he barked.

“In the 1970s, Bo, Woody,” he said, recalling a childhood Saturday watching Ohio State vs. Michigan. “My mother, for some reason, I still, to this day, don’t know why, grabbed me and said, ‘We have to go run an errand.’” He recollected his thought back then: “‘What the hell are we talking about?’”

So: “Ashtabula, Ohio, outdoor mall, walking down, and over the loudspeakers, I kept stopping and listening to the game,” he said.

It raised an imperative question.

Did Meyer and his mother use the word “M – – – – – – -?”

“Wow,” he said. “I can lie to you and say I never used it, but I don’t remember.”

He paused.

“Probably a better story if I said I’d never used it.”

Everyone laughed.

“So, go with that (story)?” came the next question.

“No,” he said, and then he laughed out loud.