When Michigan defeated Ohio State last year, Jim Harbaugh couldn’t help himself.
The Michigan coach was about ready to wrap up his postgame press conference where he spoke of “moving forward with humble hearts” and “taking the high road.” But then, he decided to get a quip in before he left.
“Sometimes people standing on third base think they hit a triple,” Harbaugh said. “But they didn’t.”
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to know who Harbaugh was referring to: Ohio State coach Ryan Day. Day has only faced Harbaugh twice, but both coaches have been trading jabs since Day took over in Columbus in 2019. Harbaugh’s comments following his first win over the Buckeyes were just the latest installment in their war of words.
In their inaugural meeting, Day and his squad dominated with a 56-27 beatdown. Ohio State was a heavy favorite entering the game and looked the part. There wasn’t much else to say at that point, but it wouldn’t take much longer for tensions to explode.
It began in the summer of 2020 during a Big Ten coaches conference call. There, Harbaugh reportedly interrupted Day, accusing him of providing on-field instruction to his players during the summer and allegedly violating NCAA rules.
Day didn’t take kindly to Harbaugh’s accusations, and he wanted revenge on the field. His reported response: Hang ‘100’ on the Wolverines.
The Buckeyes didn’t get a chance to attempt that feat in 2020, when the game was canceled due to COVID-19. The Buckeyes, however, made a run to the National Championship Game, cementing Day as a premier coach in the sport in only his second year at the helm. This success came much to the chagrin of Harbaugh, who had hit his coaching low point with an abysmal 2-4 season — causing fans to call for his head.
With his job on the line, Harbaugh threw down the gauntlet at 2021 Big Ten Media Day. He put the team’s goal of beating Ohio State out in the open.
“That’s what we want to do,” Harbaugh said. “And we’re going to do it or die trying.”
When the two finally faced off again, Harbaugh brushed death aside, emerging the victor. Thus, he felt entitled to take another shot at Day.
That’s what their relationship has become. There is no love lost between Harbaugh and Day. They are building their programs with an eye not only on the College Football Playoff and winning Big Ten Championships, but also with the goal of destroying each other in the process. And, despite all the bitterness encircling their relationship, that’s a good thing.
It’s difficult for college football rivalries to be player-centric. There is too much roster turnover for a constant string of players to headline a rivalry. The coaches, however, are mainstays, and two great ones with strong personalities make a rivalry hum.
With Harbaugh and Day seemingly entrenched with their programs for the long run, that only further fuels storylines and anticipation for The Game.
Given Harbaugh’s involvement, though, this tension was easy to see coming.
He hasn’t shied away from rival coaches before. At Stanford, he jawed with then-USC coach Pete Caroll, beginning in 2009 when Harbaugh went for two already up 53-21 against the Trojans. In the postgame handshake, Carroll had a simple question:
“What’s your deal?”
Harbaugh barked back: “What’s your deal?”
That animosity carried over to the NFL with Caroll leading the Seattle Seahawks against Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers between 2011-2014. In 2013, after a blowout loss to Seattle, Harbaugh accused the Seahawks of using PEDs.
Then, when Harbaugh took over at Michigan in 2015, going toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer, he never minced words about the former Buckeye head man, once claiming that everywhere Meyer goes “controversy follows.”
But the trash talk always rang a little hollow, as Caroll and Meyer both had multiple championships to their name while Harbaugh’s shelf remained bare. On top of that, Caroll defeated Harbaugh in their only playoff meeting and Meyer went 4-0 against Harbaugh during his tenure. Harbaugh never hid his brash personality when facing his coaching adversaries, though that approach was used in part to compensate for what his team hadn’t accomplished on the field.
But Day and Harbaugh’s relationship is different — for the first time, both coaches feel like they have something to prove. Day doesn’t quite have the resume to outdo Harbaugh, at least not yet. And while Harbaugh ignited the sparring match, Day hasn’t been afraid to punch back.
It’s early, but it’s hard to ignore the shades of another great Michigan-Ohio State coaching rivalry — perhaps even following in the footsteps of the Ten Year War.
Back then, from 1969-1978, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler — both magnanimous personalities with patented looks — squared off, often for a shot at a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl berth.
Flash forward to this year, and Day and Harbaugh, for the second season in a row, have their teams fighting to be the class of the Big Ten. Based on both teams’ recent success, they could very well battle for conference supremacy for the foreseeable future.
Now, Harbaugh can say what he wants, but Day isn’t getting off the bases anytime soon. Together, even if the pair wants nothing to do with each other, they can take this next decade of games into the stratosphere.
The Game speaks for itself. But a great coaching rivalry, like the one Day and Harbaugh are forming, transcends it.