ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Harbaugh arrived in his khakis and his Nikes and his horned-rimmed glasses.
He came for a press conference inside a Michigan football museum, with old photos and jerseys on the walls. Out front stood a statue of Bo Schembechler, maize-colored rose in hand.
It’s Ohio State week, and there is no one who better understands what that means around here than Harbaugh, who was all but born into the rivalry.
“Having played in it,” he said. “Having coached in it. I grew up here. My dad was a [Michigan assistant] coach.”
Ohio State can make you or Ohio State can break you. Harbaugh knows that. And he knows that for a long time now, Ohio State has only broken these Michigan Men, himself included. The Buckeyes have won 14 of the last 15, including seven consecutive.
The last four came against Harbaugh, 55, who was brought home to change the course of the rivalry, to pull Michigan even, or at least competitive, with the Buckeyes. It’s proven to be the rare fruitless football pursuit for him.
Harbaugh has become easy to mock of late and when you’re paid $7 million and keep falling short, no one is feeling sorry for you. The futility against the Buckeyes, though, has overshadowed the audacious sporting life he’s lived. At nearly every turn, he’s managed to exceed reasonable expectations, in part by sticking with his own unorthodox ways.
Growing up in Ann Arbor he worshipped the Wolverines who played for his father Jack, an assistant to Schembechler. He was so determined to become one of them, he’d chug whole milk and eat red meat until he was big and strong enough to merit recruitment.
Even then he was never a natural. As a quarterback he was more efficient and willful than talented, pushing his way to become a starter and then delivering a 21-3-1 record. That included two over Ohio State, the last one coming after, to Schembechler’s aghast, he guaranteed a victory.
He then lasted 14 seasons in the NFL, famous for fighting with coaches (notably Chicago’s Mike Ditka) and delivering improbable victories (leading to the nickname “Captain Comeback”). Upon retirement he entered coaching. He spent two years with the Raiders as a quarterbacks coach, where he helped Rich Gannon win an MVP award. But he wanted to be a head coach, even if it meant starting at little, non-scholarship, University of San Diego.
He immediately built a winner, then did the same at previously-lowly Stanford. He returned to the NFL and got San Francisco to two NFC title games and finally a Super Bowl, which he lost to his brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens.
Soon it was back to Michigan, where similar glory was expected, only to never materialize.
Until now, pretty much whatever he set his mind to, he accomplished. He carries himself like he lives in a detached reality, staring off into space, wearing the same clothes everyday and speaking in odd, if entertaining, colloquialisms.
He declared this game “the state championship between two states.” Last week he spoke of how teams improved by noting that, “you can’t plant potatoes one day and expect to eat potato salad the next.”
Somehow it works. Or did until it came to Ohio State.
And now, again, it’s Ohio State staring at him, loaded with talent, brimming with confidence, a 10-point favorite looking to roll through the Big House and onto bigger and better things (the Big Ten Title Game, the College Football Playoff, a national championship).
Meanwhile Michigan just treads water, pointing backwards to its forever graying history. Every season seems to begin with the sunshine and promise of September only to end in overcast, Scarlet and Grey-delivered disappointment over Thanksgiving weekend.
“It would be big,” Harbaugh said of beating the Buckeyes. “Always is.”
This is Harbaugh’s fate. His team is good, 9-2 and ranked 10th. It graduates players and has fun. It takes offseason trips to Europe and admirably pushes young men out of their comfort zone. This isn’t to over-romanticize it, but Michigan tries, at least a little, to be more than just a football factory.
On the field it’s improved dramatically since September, when it looked out of sorts, especially in a non-competitive loss at Wisconsin. Since halftime of a loss at Penn State, it’s played very well.
“I think it’s an improving team, an ascending team,” Harbaugh said. “Playing really good football.”
That’s nice. Michigan is nice — nice helmets, nice stadium, nice fight song, nice museum. Nice doesn’t beat Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have almost always been good, but since Urban Meyer showed up in 2012, it’s gone next level, 97-9 overall. Now led by Ryan Day, it has the best players, the best system, the best program in the Midwest. It’s 11-0 and ranked second for a reason.
“One of the best defenses in the country, one of the best offenses in the county and playing really well on special teams,” Harbaugh said. “... I love the competition. This is the biggest game of the year.”
Fifty years ago, in Schembechler’s first season, Michigan upset the top-ranked Buckeyes, 24-12 in Ann Arbor. It’s the most famous, and certainly cherished, victory in program history.
It’s proof positive of what the rivalry means around here, namely everything. Michigan claims 11 national titles, but only one (a split in 1997) came since the 1940s.
For the most part, it’s always about Ohio State. You win or you sulk. There’s been a lot of sulking of late. Jim Harbaugh knows that better than anyone.
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