Michigan and Ohio State are two of college football's most recognizable brands, built on decades of winning, iconic coaches and their uniforms. They are easily identifiable by their helmets -- not just Michigan's wings or Ohio State's scarlet stripe, but the stickers plastered all over them.
The Wolverines and Buckeyes are two of 13 FBS teams that currently use helmet decal reward systems, but they do so with different philosophies. The famous buckeye leaves are awarded for team, unit or individual on-field accomplishments throughout a single season, while Michigan's stickers display a unique image for each accomplishment and accrue year-over-year. ESPN's Heather Dinich and Adam Rittenberg delved into the history, application and operation of this shared but disparate tradition before these two bitter rivals meet in The Game on Saturday.
Much like many elements of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, helmet stickers trace back to Woody Hayes (Ohio State) and Bo Schembechler (Michigan), and stir debate. Ohio State wore the stickers first, in 1967, but Schembechler's teams at Miami (Ohio) began wearing tomahawk stickers on their helmets in 1965. Schembechler brought the tradition to Michigan, and both teams wore stickers for the first time in The Game in 1969, the start of The Ten Year War between the famous coaches.
Hayes was persuaded to commemorate big plays with buckeye stickers by former head athletic trainer Ernie Biggs. "Woody wasn't really huge on heaping praise on guys," said Larry Romanoff, who retired after 43 years in various roles with Ohio State. "I don't know how long it took Ernie and the guys to convince Woody to do that."
Woody Hayes, left, Jim Nein, Tom Portsmouth and Glenn Ellison at the first buckeye awards presentation.
It was Oct. 7, 1967, the second game of the season, and Ohio State had defeated Oregon 30-0 in Eugene. Jim Nein returned an interception 45 yards for the first sticker-worthy performance in Ohio State history. "Three stickers would fill the whole side of your helmet, that's how big they were," Nein said. "They were tennis ball-sized stickers."
In 1969, Michigan hired Schembechler and he brought his sticker reward system to Michigan from Miami (Ohio). Longtime equipment manager Jon Falk, who arrived in 1974, would cut out gold footballs by hand and glue them onto helmets his first season. In 1975, Falk added a Wolverines logo to the decals, which became a staple for Schembechler-era stars. They remained until Lloyd Carr took over as coach in 1995 and ended the sticker reward system.
Coach Jim Harbaugh, whose helmet was filled with Wolverines stickers as a star quarterback in the 1980s, brought back the tradition upon returning to lead the program in 2015. As Michigan neared 1,000 all-time wins, Harbaugh changed the philosophy in 2021, opting for a team-based model that includes the all-time wins tally on the victory decals.
"The way the sticker was, didn't really tell you anything. It was just a sticker on there," Harbaugh said. "But then guys could know the rest of their lives what that sticker was for and what it meant."
Ohio State's staff is meticulous about its application, and former managers give the current staff grief if they spot something misplaced on television. The helmets are cleaned and prepped before decals are added each Friday afternoon. Michigan's staff applies decals every Tuesday morning, using a hairdryer and some polish, needing only about 90 minutes to complete the helmets for that afternoon's practice.
The first buckeye sticker is placed at the bottom of the helmet, left of the middle stripe. They are added in a pyramid formation, with stems pointed down and slanted slightly forward to match the contours of the helmet. Equipment managers take special care to avoid completely covering flex points and vents with decals.
Current stickers are 1.25 inches. The helmets, which Riddell calculated to have 181.3 square inches of space eligible to be decaled, fit 47 stickers per side. If someone earns more stickers than the helmet can hold, a running tally is kept on paper. The most any player has earned in a single week this season is 16 by J.T. Tuimoloau, who had two fumble recoveries and two interceptions against Penn State.
“You see a guy with a ton of stickers on his helmet, and you know he’s a dude. The more stickers you have on your helmet, the more respected you are, and the more feared you are by an opponent.”Emeka Egbuka wide receiver
*Through 10 games.
Michigan's staff works inside-out, placing stickers on each flank of the helmet, balancing out the numbers, and making sure not to cover the maize wings that run down the center.
Three stickers every player receives upon making the roster -- Equality, Title IX and hometown area code -- are situated at the bottom of the right side of the helmet. Team win stickers are placed in ascending order in lines that begin at the bottom of the left side of the helmet -- above a player's number -- and extend above the area code sticker on the right.
“The helmet’s really a story, whether it’s the lettermen, the bowl games, the TED stickers (“There Every Day,” given for participating in every spring and fall practice), all that stuff, and all the different wins. ... every single sticker has meaning.”Joel Honigford tight end
Michigan's oval-shaped stickers are 1 inch by 1.5 inches, and are placed either straight on or at a slight angle, with the outside tilted up. The sticker size hasn't changed much over the years, but Michigan has gone from basic footballs to Wolverines logos to personalized stickers under Harbaugh's model.
“Put that up on the mantel or shelf, says something good about you. It just brings back, was it the best time of your life? A lot of us would say it was. It brings back a lot of those feelings and memories.”Jim Harbaugh who gives players their helmets when they leave the program
Ohio State players begin each season with clean helmets, and earn stickers for individual, unit and team achievements week by week. Michigan's stickers are mostly team-based, and helmets are meant tell the story of players' entire careers rather than one season. The Buckeyes' best players have helmets that fill quickly each season, while Michigan's most decorated helmets are typically worn by veteran standouts.
Each player receives at least one buckeye leaf every game -- if it's a win. A victory against the "Team Up North" is worth three stickers. Stickers can also be earned by position group and for individual efforts. The Buckeyes order about 7,500 stickers every year and have given out roughly 400 stickers per game since Jim Tressel wrote criteria in 2001. The formula has been tweaked and followed by every coaching staff since.
|QB C.J. Stroud
|RB Miyan Williams
|WR Marvin Harrison Jr.
|WR Egbuka Emeka
|LT Paris Johnson Jr.
|LG Donovan Jackson
|C Luke Wypler
|RG Matthew Jones
|RT Dawand Jones
|TE Cade Stover
|WR Julian Fleming
On average, 444 buckeye stickers have been handed out per week (through 10 games) this season. The offense has earned 5% more stickers per week than the defense. C.J. Stroud, OSU's Heisman Trophy hopeful under center, has received the most of any player this season with 100. On average, 451 awards were given after each home game versus 427 per away game. Conference games yielded 465 stickers, on average, to 395 stickers for nonconference games.
|DE J.T. Tuimoloau
|DL Taron Vincent
|DL Michael Hall Jr.
|LB Zach Harrison
|LB Steele Chambers
|LB Tommy Eichenberg
|CB Denzel Burke
|S Lathan Ransom
|S Ronnie Hickman
|DB Tanner McCalister
|CB JK Johnson
In addition to the all-time wins decals, all Michigan players have stickers for team/university-wide initiatives to recognize equality and the 50th anniversary of Title IX. They also receive decals for each letter earned, league or national honor and captainship. The first and arguably most meaningful sticker given displays the area code of players' hometowns.
As expected, the most prominent home state on the roster is Michigan. Nine of the state's 12 area codes are included, with 248 -- the code for the metro area north of Detroit -- the most represented.
“We’re from home, that’s the biggest thing. The 313, we all know what it means, and it sticks us together.”Will Johnson defensive back, on the bond shared among players who wear Detroit's area code.
The Northeast isn't known as a recruiting hotbed, but the region is represented prominently on the Wolverines' helmets. Twenty-one players wear area codes from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania. Northeast products have accounted for 27% of Michigan's receiving yards this season.
Brad Robbins' area code sticker crossed out.
Michigan has a storied history of recruiting players from neighboring Ohio, including Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson. On the current roster, 41% hail from the Midwest. Two veterans, senior linebacker Joey Velazquez and sixth-year punter Brad Robbins, are from enemy territory, Columbus, Ohio. "I just crossed it out," Robbins said, "because I couldn't be any less of an Ohio State guy."
Freshman offensive lineman Alessandro Lorenzetti from Montreal, Canada, and fifth-year edge rusher Julius Welschof from Miesbach, Germany, feature their international hometowns on their helmets. Freshman tight end Marlin Klein is also originally from Germany, but he reps the 706 area code of the north Georgia boarding school where he lived his last two years of high school.
As a Heisman hopeful quarterback of one of the nation's most prolific offenses, Stroud's helmet has filled rapidly through both individual and unit-based accomplishments for the past 11 games. Michigan wide receiver Ronnie Bell also has a crowded helmet, but more for being a two-time captain and a 28-game starter in his fifth season with the Wolverines.
Each player on the Ohio State roster gets at least one buckeye per regular-season win. A second one is added for a Big Ten victory. That adds up to 19 win stickers for Stroud and 2,299 stickers handed out to all OSU players this season.
Players earn one sticker for each touchdown for which they account. Stroud's 35 touchdown passes this season, tied with Houston's Clayton Tune for most in FBS, fill more than a quarter of his helmet. Six of those stickers are from the Michigan State game alone and included two 50-plus-yard throws.
Marvin Harrison Jr. has been C.J. Stroud's top target this season.
Quarterbacks earn a sticker for every game they reach a certain completion percentage threshold agreed upon by the coaching staff. Stroud also receives one every time he ends a game day without an interception. Explosive plays are big sticker-earners, too. Top target Marvin Harrison Jr.'s sure hands have helped fill up both their helmets with stickers.
A few stickers are handed out at coach Ryan Day's or a position coach's discretion. At Tuesday practice following a win, Day gathers the team for the sticker presentation.
"He brings up the huddle and yells out, 'BUCKEYE LEAVES!'" Egbuka said. "We celebrate it pretty heavily. He'll call your name, you stand up out of the pile and you have to shake Coach Day's hand and you can't smile. It's a business transaction. Firm handshake, it's all business and onto the next guy."
In his five years at Michigan, Ronnie Bell has been named captain twice, including this season. Other than his area code sticker, Bell said the There Every Day sticker he earned after he returned from a season-ending injury last year is his most meaningful reward.
Bell has four times been named Player of the Game by his coaches, including in back-to-back games this season versus Iowa and Indiana. He has a similarly styled 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year Award sticker, too.
Michigan and Michigan State play for the Paul Bunyan trophy.
Of the personalized stickers for rivalry wins and postseason appearances, Bell said The Game decal is unmatched, but beating in-state rival Michigan State is a close second.
"Nothing tops last year, Ohio [State]," he said. "... but the first one I remember that really stuck with me was Michigan State my freshman year ... and then the Big Ten championship, you get the little ball. Those are the coolest ones."
When Michigan and Ohio State play Saturday, it will mark the first time since 2006 both teams are undefeated. A shot at the Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff berth will be on the line -- as well as plenty of stickers. When asked about Michigan's sticker, Egbuka said, "I don't think too much of them." Same reward system, same hatred, different philosophies.