Michigan vs. Ohio State an epic battle for Detroit’s Gus Johnson of Fox

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Gus Johnson

Fox Sports broadcaster Gus Johnson grew up in the west side of Detroit, where he was raised a Michigan fan and grew to love “The Game” – Michigan-Ohio State – because of the larger-than-life coaches, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.

Here he is today, about to call his second Michigan-Ohio State game, this one with enormous stakes – a spot in the Big Ten championship game on the line and potential national playoff implications. Fourth-ranked Michigan plays at No. 10 Ohio State in Ohio Stadium on Saturday.

“It’s a big deal, but it’s another game – that’s how I have to approach it,” Johnson said this week. “I want to be on my game, because there are going to be a lot of eyeballs watching it. But I don’t really approach it with anything more than what it really is. When it’s all said and done, you have 22 young men trying to compete for their school and win a game. That’s what I focus on.

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“With this game in particular this year, Shakespeare couldn’t have written this any better. There’s so much drama and intrigue and characters, leading men and antagonists, depending on who you’re rooting for, protagonists. I grew up watching Woody and Bo and now I’m watching Harbaugh and Meyer. These are two guys born in the same hospital in Toledo, six months apart. That’s amazing.”

Johnson grew up a Schembechler devotee and was a fan of Anthony Carter and Rick Leach, Ron Simpkins and Butch Woolfolk. He watched the Michigan-Ohio State game, of course, but he never attended a game at Michigan Stadium until he called The Game last year for Fox.

“It was kinda different,” Johnson said. “It’s surreal, but I’m working, so I’ve got to focus. I’m not taking it in the same way I would take it in as a fan because I’m working. After it was over, I took a couple looks around and kinda realized what a life accomplishment that was for me.”

When Johnson was growing up in Detroit, he did not aspire to be a sportscaster. He attended the University of Detroit Jesuit, where he excelled as a multi-sport athlete. He was an all-league quarterback, all-league basketball guard, and a first baseman and catcher.

“I grew up wanting to replace Lou Whitaker for the Detroit Tigers,” said Johnson, who graduated from Howard University, where he earned a degree in political science while playing baseball. “That was my goal, my dream. It didn’t happen.”

Jim Harbaugh

His background as an athlete has helped shape how he calls college games.

“Watching these athletes, I have an idea of what it is they’re trying to accomplish and how hard they work to get there, and how they have to balance so many different aspects of their lives – the academics, the athletics, their family and the social part,” he said. “All that stuff. That’s a lot for any person.

“I like to delight in the excellence of other people. I like to delight in the excellence of these kids, because they’re kids. They’re babies in the grand scheme of things.”

Johnson arrived in Columbus on Wednesday to prepare for the game.

“I love it. I want to be a part of it,” Johnson said. “I want to feel what they’re talking about in Columbus. Say what you want to about Ohio State. They might look a hot mess going into this game, but they’re still a one-loss team and it’s one game and they’re playing at home and psychologically they have an advantage because they’ve been dominant over Michigan, 13 of the last 14, and Urban Meyer has never lost to Michigan.”

This is Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s fourth season as the Wolverines’ head coach and this is his best team. They’re unbeaten in the Big Ten and No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

“I’m just so happy coach Harbaugh has restored the pride in Michigan football,” he said. “He’s done that in such a short amount of time. Four years? And he’s not getting a lot of credit, I don’t feel. Last year when they were 8-5, people were down on him, criticizing him. He’s had winning seasons every year he’s been there and in the fourth year (he’s) one game away from an opportunity to win the Big Ten championship for the first time since 2004 and maybe compete for a national championship. That’s phenomenal. My hat’s off to you, Jim Harbaugh.”

Johnson’s parents are deceased, but he has a large family base in Detroit. He is thrilled to see his city thriving.

“It’s an awesome time to be in Detroit and it does warm my heart to see that our city is making a comeback,” he said. “It’s so much fun downtown with Little Caesars (Arena) and all the bars and restaurants and it looks so pretty down there, especially at night. The street lamps look pretty, old school, big wide avenues and streets, historic buildings. A lot of people I talk to around the country now feel that Detroit is a great weekend destination place.”

But now, he has a destination with what is arguably college football’s greatest rivalry, Michigan-Ohio State. He will call the game alongside analyst Joel Klatt.

“Even though I grew up in Michigan, I don’t root for anybody,” Johnson said. “I root for both teams. What I root for is for is that the game is 54-53 decided in the last second by the better team.”

Wonder what Shakespeare would think of that drama?

Michigan vs. Ohio State

Kickoff: Saturday, noon, Ohio Stadium, Columbus

TV/radio: Fox/950 AM

Records: Michigan 10-1 (8-0 Big Ten), Ohio State 10-1 (7-1)

Line: Michigan by 4