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Ohio State's Justin Boren is a player divided


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Justin Boren Article

Ohio State's Justin Boren is a player divided

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Posted: July 31, 2008

Michael Bradley

Slideshow: The many colors of Justin Boren

If you are a particularly ardent Michigan Wolverine, Justin Boren is a turncoat. Benedict Arnold in cleats. Mata Hari with shoulder pads.

To Michigan, at least for now, Boren is the face of arguably the greatest rivalry in sports. He did the unthinkable, the unforgivable. Justin Boren transferred from Michigan to Ohio State.

"I got calls telling me I was a piece of crap," Boren, a junior offensive lineman, says. "I got text messages telling me, 'I hope you blow out your knee.' "

Boren left town during spring practice critical of the program's direction under new coach Rich Rodriguez. "I need to stand up for what I know is right," he said in a statement.

Okay, you can go, but Ohio State? What, communist China didn't have any scholarships available?

Players switch schools all the time. They crave more playing time. They want a different coach. They're too far from home. But switching these sides hasn't happened since World War II, when a couple of Buckeyes returned from the service to play for the Wolverines.

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Now, a player used to living behind the scenes is very much at the forefront of something fierce. Sitting down with Sporting News for his first interview since making the controversial move in the spring, he's not backing down from the Michigan fans who won't forgive or forget.

"I laugh at it," he says of the abuse he has received. "It never wore on me. Those guys are a bunch of idiots."

Oh, boy. Here we go.

If you're a Wolverines fan, Boren has breached a sacred trust.

"Let's just say it's a little unorthodox," says Dan Dierdorf, a former Michigan All-American lineman, Pro Football Hall of Famer and Bo Schembechler loyalist.

The trick, then, to understanding Boren's decision is to separate the young man from the institutions involved.

If you're Justin Boren, you just want to go home. With Lloyd Carr gone from Michigan -- and Rodriguez there to replace him -- you just couldn't stay. Which seems like a reasonable thing. It just happens that home is Columbus, Ohio.

"I never wanted to quit Michigan," Boren says. "But when I left, Ohio State was the only school I ever considered."

Since he can remember, it was those two schools tugging at his loyalty.

Back in high school, Boren remembers sitting across the desk from the legendary Schembechler with Boren's father, Mike, a former middle linebacker at Michigan. It was decision time: Michigan or Ohio State, and the old coach's message was blunt.

"You're not going to let Justin go to Ohio State, are you?" Schembechler asked Mike Boren.

"He's going to make his own decision," Mike replied.

All things Wolverines

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Fan roster: Your fellow Wolverines

Member blogs: Hottest

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Imagine how hard it must have been for Mike to say that to Schembechler. He had grown up in Columbus and graduated in 1980 from Eastmoor High School -- Buckeyes legend Archie Griffin's high school. Mike wanted more than anything to play for Ohio State. But the Buckeyes didn't recruit him.

"(Ohio State) shunned me," Mike says. "Bo took me in."

Now, Schembechler was issuing a mandate.

"You're his father," Schembechler barked. "You don't let him go to Ohio State. Tell him where to go."

That meeting had plenty of influence on Justin's decision.

"That was definitely something in the back of my mind," he says.

So were the annual trips to Ann Arbor he made with his family for Michigan games, often against Ohio State. Justin would walk on the field beforehand and meet former players and, of course, Schembechler.

Mike Boren played there from 1980-83, starting three seasons. Justin's mom, Hope, ran track for the Wolverines. He wore Michigan clothes. His room was filled with "Michigan stuff."

Boren may have lived in Pickerington, Ohio, just outside of Columbus, but he was maize and blue through and through.

Still, as an Ohioan, Boren cheered for the Buckeyes all season "except for one game."

Boren chose Michigan and made Schembechler happy.

Trouble was, during the recruiting process, Boren had grown close to OSU boss Jim Tressel and offensive line coach Jim Bollman.

"Coach Tressel is a total players coach," Boren says. "He's a first-class guy and down to earth. Coach Bollman is the same way.

"One of the toughest things I've ever done was telling Coach Tressel I was going to Michigan. I loved those guys so much and had become so close."

Boren wasn't always an offensive lineman. He started his football career as a linebacker, though not a very good one.

"He stunk," Mike Boren says. "He was horrible."

All things Buckeyes:

Ohio State: SN team page

Dave Curtis: Media days

Fan roster: Your fellow Buckeyes

Member blogs: Hottest

College yearbook: Get Ohio State cover

Boren, now 6-3, 310, was so bad he couldn't outdo his little brother (by three years), Zach -- a rising senior who has already committed to OSU.

"Justin hated that," says Mike, who ordered his son to stop kidding himself in the eighth grade. "I said, 'You're not going to be a Mike Boren. You're a different kind of kid. I don't care if you play football or not. What I care is if you do it, you've got to give 110 percent.

"From there, he was a different player."

Boren started on the offensive line as a freshman at Pickerington High School. After that year, the school split into two Pickeringtons, Central and North. Boren spent the next three seasons starting at North but remained close to his freshman year coach, Jay Sharrett, who took over at Central.

"(Boren) visited Ohio State several times," Sharrett says. "But he grew up as a Michigan person and responded well to Coach Carr and his staff."

Even after breaking his fibula during two-a-days his freshman year, Boren returned during the 2006 season to become just the fourth true freshman in Michigan history to start on the offensive line. In 2007, Boren started every game, moving between the center and guard spots. Some criticized his play, but Sharrett directs skeptics to the film of Michigan's Capital One Bowl victory over Florida.

"He put on a clinic," he says. "The kid can play ball."

With tackle Jake Long and two other starters gone, Boren was expected to be a bulwark on the line this year. But Carr retired after the 2007 season, and Rodriguez had come to town with his spread offense and high-decibel, hard-core, sometimes-profane approach to coaching.

"Players want to be coached and have somebody take them to a different level than they can take themselves," Rodriguez says of his aggressive style. "If people think that's demeaning, they misunderstand us."

Running back Steve Slaton, now a Houston Texans rookie, had no problem with Rodriguez's tactics when Slaton played for him at West Virginia.

"Some people need that push, that extra push," Slaton says. "You think you're giving it your all, but your coach knows what you can do and what you can offer."

Boren didn't respond to Rodriguez's pushing and left, saying that the "family values" that Carr had instilled in the program had eroded. Some said Boren couldn't handle the demanding conditioning program Rodriguez and strength coach Mike Barwis had instituted. Others said Carr had coddled Boren and other starters, and when Rodriguez and his staff turned up the volume, Boren cracked.

"I don't think coach Carr had favorites," former Michigan running back Mike Hart says. "(Boren) got yelled at like everybody else, even though his dad played for Bo."

Boren also disputes the notion that he left because he couldn't handle Rodriguez's offense.

"Was it my first choice? ****, no. But I could have gotten acquainted," he says.

Rodriguez chooses not to comment on Boren. Ohio State's coaches have steered clear of the saga, as well. And neither Boren nor his father will comment specifically on Rodriguez.

"When I get done with college football, I'll let it out," Boren says.

Boren says his former teammates have supported his decision: "My real friends are still my friends -- there just aren't many of them."

Hart, the Colts rookie who rushed for 5,040 yards in four years at Michigan, is among those former teammates who separate Boren's decision from the rivalry.

"I'll always root for Justin, but I'll never root for Ohio State," Hart says.

But, really, this didn't come down to teammates or a new scheme or a faster pace.

This is about a coaching style. When asked why he prefers the Ohio State staff, Boren provides some insight into his disaffection for the new Michigan coaches.

"(Tressel and his staff) coach with class and emphasize education," he says. "They put what's most important first. Each player is important. There's no bashing of players. You're not going to be belittled. Each player has feelings. They treat each person with respect."

Last winter, Boren had been tracking a snowstorm heading toward Ohio, and he wanted to be there to help his dad plow. So, he hopped into his truck after classes on a Friday afternoon and drove the three-plus hours to Columbus.

Boren had been plowing for his dad's landscaping company since he was 8 years old. Mike put his second-grade son behind the wheel in an abandoned parking lot and told him to clear it off, even though the boy could barely see over the dashboard.

When he arrived in Columbus this time, Boren started plowing and didn't stop.

"He didn't sleep more than a couple hours," Mike says. "He plowed all the way until Sunday and then drove back up to Michigan."

Boren missed only one Columbus "snow event" while he was at Michigan and that was because he was sick. He'll major in construction management at OSU, with an eye on opening an excavation company down the line. His father once owned one but has sold it.

Now that he's back home, he won't have to drive 200 miles to help his dad clear the snow. He won't miss his family, even though he had another in Ann Arbor when Carr coached there.

"I was sad to see coach Carr go," Boren says. "I was hoping (Rodriguez) would keep some of his assistants." He didn't.

Neither Boren nor his father will comment on whether Carr helped direct the lineman to OSU. But reports surfaced that Carr told Boren that Ohio State was as close as one could get to Michigan and that the Buckeyes' staff was comprised of "good people." Boren didn't really need the endorsement.

"As soon as I got my release papers, I contacted Ohio State, and they welcomed me with open arms," he says.

Boren enrolled at the end of June but will not be on scholarship, per a Big Ten rule that prohibits one member school from giving a transfer from another a free ride. He'll sit out the 2008 season, which should give the message boards a chance to cool down.

Perhaps.

As it stands now, Boren remains a favorite target on Michigan message boards, with threads labeled: "Attn, NFL: Justin Boren Is A Quitter Who Could Not Handle The System" or "Justin Boren deserves doom and unmitigated failure."

"He enjoys people booing him," Mike Boren says. "He thrives on that. The more Michigan boos him, the harder he'll work."

Boren says the hate spewing from Ann Arbor doesn't bother him much, that he ignores it, that he knows the real reasons he left.

Then again, he also quickly points toward Nov. 21, 2009.

Michigan vs. Ohio State.

In Ann Arbor.

"I think about (that game) almost every day," Boren says. "It will be the happiest day of my life. It's going to be crazy. That's what I'm looking forward to, and it's all the better it's in Ann Arbor."

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