From the moment Jim Harbaugh arrived at the podium on Monday afternoon, he appeared antsy.
He bounced on the balls of his feet, shifting his weight back and forth. He fidgeted — his left hand first hiding in his sweatpants’ pocket and then swirling in the air in front of him, his right hand clenching the side of the podium.
He acted — and talked — like a man well aware of the implications looming on Saturday when Michigan will welcome Ohio State to Ann Arbor for a seismic top five matchup.
“This is the start of the playoffs,” Harbaugh said, his voice plain and firm. “… It’s a playoff game. It’s a rivalry game. It’s at the highest level.”
For Harbaugh, this year’s game offers a chance to complete his vindication. Just 10 months ago, the embattled coach received a contract extension on the heels of a disastrous 2-4 season. It was the nadir of his tenure. Confidence in the program had cratered.
Now, almost unfathomably, the Wolverines are on the verge of a Big Ten Championship. Harbaugh has executed a stunning one-year turnaround.
A win over Ohio State — which would be his first in six tries as Michigan coach — would cement that.
It, too, would allow Harbaugh to escape from his own past.
“I know some people like to get up and pontificate about a thing they did in the past and have a lot of long stories about that, but I’m not one of those kind of guys,” Harbaugh said, dismissing his famed ‘Guarantee Game,’ which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. “I’m not a guy that likes to talk about things that happened 35 years ago. I know some do, but I’m not one of them.”
Harbaugh doesn’t dwell on his past, whether it be his heroics in 1986 or his flops in recent iterations of The Game. But in this bitter rivalry, for him, the past has become unavoidable.
It feels just that way inside Schembechler Hall. Harbaugh, upright at the podium, is surrounded by artifacts memorializing Wolverines’ lore.
The past has shrouded Harbaugh’s now seven-year tenure as Michigan’s coach. Five losses to Ohio State comprise five piercing blows to a fanbase, and program, that treats The Game in the vein of life or death. Harbaugh knows that: He admitted so much himself at Big Ten Media Day in July, when he vowed to beat the Buckeyes or “die trying.”
“It comes all the way to life,” Harbaugh said of his mantra. “It’s here. It’s happening.”
As the moment arrives, there certainly seems to be full confidence in Harbaugh to at last climb that mountain. That’s a testament to the program’s quick restoration.
“We have a coach who’s willing to do anything for us,” junior receiver Mike Sainristil said. “He’ll go to the end of this Earth to make sure that we’re all in the right position. … I wouldn’t want to take this field with any other coach other than him on Saturday.”
For the first time in two years – and it’s felt a damn while longer than that – Harbaugh and the Wolverines have a chance to change the tone of the discussion.
“In the past, the outcomes have just been unacceptable,” sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis, who has shared the pain of four Ohio State losses alongside Harbaugh, said. “Every day throughout the whole season, every technique you try to improve, every film study you try to get better at… is to get ready to improve and play in this game, in these types of games.”
The toll of Ohio State seems to weigh just as heavily on the players as it does Harbaugh, which is befitting. The best Harbaugh-led teams are in fact extensions of their coach; this year feels no different. The Wolverines are gritty, tenacious and spirited.
Much like their coach, they’re tired of pontificating about the past, too.
“Not playing last year sucked, it wasn’t good,” fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross said when asked about last year’s game, which was cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Michigan program.
“But it’s now. The time is now. And last year is last year. Last year is over. And it’s about right now.”
So as this season — which has surpassed all reasonable preseason expectations — winds to a climatic close, the Wolverines have a chance at vindication. It’s the only way to avoid another 364 days spent haunted in the shadow of The Game.
And of all the immediate stakes, perhaps that is just as important.