Jim Harbaugh is back where he has always wanted to be. He’s back in Ann Arbor, where he spent many of his formative years. He’s back at Michigan, where he played football for Bo Schembechler from 1983 to 1986. And he’s back in the Ohio State rivalry, where he made his best memories.
He has downplayed the importance of this game in relation to all the others, refusing to blow it out of proportion. But he didn’t do that back when he played in it.
Thirty years ago, almost to the day, he appeared in “The Game” for the first time. He threw three touchdown passes to lead the Wolverines past the Buckeyes, and the fans tore down the goalposts in celebration.
“This is the greatest day of my life,” Harbaugh said after the game. “I really don’t know what to say.”
This is what Michigan wanted. When the Wolverines set out to find a new football coach, when they brought Harbaugh home, when they sought to bridge the gap between them and their archrival, they wanted only this. They wanted to be sitting around 11 months later, on the eve of “The Game,” with a chance to beat Ohio State.
It didn’t always look so likely, of course. The Buckeyes ended the 2014 season 14-1 as Big Ten and national champions. The Wolverines finished 5-7. But here we are now, 11 months later, and “The Game” is a nearly a pick-em in Vegas.
A lot has changed in the past 11 months. Players have come, and players have gone. But it all leads back to Harbaugh, who has brought Michigan back to at least resemble the way it looked when he played three decades ago. The fact that he played in the rivalry back then only adds another dimension, especially when he tells his players stories of those days.
“That’s cool for us to hear what kind of guy he was,” said Kyle Kalis, a redshirt junior guard on this year’s team. “There’s been some stories that we definitely can’t tell you guys, but let me just tell you, he was the man. He’s awesome.”
In what way?
“Every way possible.”
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In 1983, Schembechler used Harbaugh sparingly. In 1984, Harbaugh was the starter until he broke his arm in a 19-7 loss to Michigan State. Michigan slumped to a 6-6 finish, and two years into his career, Harbaugh had little to show for it.
In 1985, he made up for lost time. The Wolverines entered the Ohio State game at 8-1-1, and they fell behind in the second quarter after a fumble by running back Jamie Morris set up a Buckeye touchdown. But Harbaugh’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Eric Kattis tied the game at 10.
After Michigan controlled the third quarter to take a 20-10 lead, the Buckeyes scored to trim the deficit. Then Harbaugh dealt the knockout punch: He stood in the pocket, took a hit from Ohio State’s Sonny Gordon and delivered a 77-yard touchdown pass to John Kolesar with 10 minutes left.
“That play really took the starch right out of their sails,” Schembechler said after the game. “Ohio State did a magnificent job of disguising the blitz, but Harbaugh did a hell of a job picking it up and hitting Kolesar.”
Harbaugh, who was already having a great season, etched his name into Michigan lore with that touchdown pass.
“Let’s face it,” Schembechler said. “He’s played outstanding football. He’s an athlete, he’s smart, and he sees all the field. I don’t want to talk about him in too glowing of terms, but I like him, I like him a lot.”
The next year, Harbaugh returned, this time as a captain and a more experienced leader of the team. The Wolverines won their first 10 games, battling undefeated Ohio State for the No. 1 spot in the rankings.
Then, they slipped up, losing a trap game to Minnesota one week before finishing the season against the Buckeyes. With a Big Ten title still within reach, Harbaugh made a now-famous promise: The Monday before the Ohio State game, he guaranteed the Wolverines would win in Columbus and play in the Rose Bowl.
“It’s like a wounded dog,” Morris said. “We needed a punch in the arm, and Jim was the one that gave it to us.”
Bob Stites, another player on that team and an Ann Arbor native himself, recalled Harbaugh making the guarantee in practice before he did so publicly. Schembechler asked if he would honor the promise, and Harbaugh answered in the affirmative.
Just as the Wolverines look to their coach for guidance now, they looked to their quarterback for motivation in 1985.
Schembechler wasn’t normally one for giving the opposing team bulletin-board material, but that time he let it slide. In a team meeting, Morris recalled, Schembechler said: “Our quarterback shot his mouth off. Let’s go down there and back him up.”
“After you’ve just lost to Minnesota, what the hell do you care what he says,” Schembechler said that week. “If your only problem is worrying about what your quarterback says, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Michigan had bigger problems in the first half of the game, though. Ohio State scored on its first two series of the game, taking a 14-3 lead, and a Harbaugh interception kept the Wolverines in an eight-point hole at halftime.
But Morris eventually took over. The running back finished with 210 yards on 29 carries with two touchdowns. Harbaugh was 19-for-29 for 261 yards and two interceptions — not his best game, but the Wolverines secured a 26-24 victory when Ohio State kicker Matt Frantz missed a 45-yard field goal with 1:06 left. Harbaugh had followed through on his guarantee.
“I didn’t say it to be cocky or arrogant or anything,” he said after the game. “I just said what I felt and what I wanted to happen on Saturday.”
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The players on Michigan’s team today see the same confident Harbaugh who led the Wolverines 30 years ago. Harbaugh’s old teammates say the quarterback would get in someone’s face if he wasn’t working hard enough, and the current Michigan players echo that their coaches don’t hesitate to call them out in team meetings for mistakes.
“Jim is the same way now that he was then,” Stites said. “He hasn’t changed a lick. He is who he is.”
The only thing that has changed is his position, though he is still in a leadership role. After quarterbacking the Wolverines for two-plus years and building himself one of the best coaching résumés in football, the transition back to Ann Arbor has appeared smooth.
“Jim Harbaugh was like a coach on the field anyway,” Morris said. “He knew where every player needed to be from an offensive standpoint. Being the quarterback and the leader, that’s what he was. And then being the son of a football coach, you knew he was going to have his stuff together.”
Being back as the coach at Michigan, Harbaugh has years of experience in the rivalry. It’s where Desmond Howard struck the Heisman pose in 1991. It’s where Troy Smith sent the Buckeyes to the National Championship Game in 2006 with a four-touchdown performance in the “Game of the Century.” It’s where Charles Woodson made explosive plays on offense, defense and special teams to lead the Wolverines to a win in 1997.
The Michigan-Ohio State game is where legends are made. No one knows that better than Harbaugh — and he’s made it clear to his players, too. Though he didn’t remember which one, junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis recalled Harbaugh telling this year’s team about one of his performances against Ohio State 30 years ago.
“If you have a good game against Ohio State or Michigan State, you’ll be remembered for a long time,” Lewis said Monday. “It actually stamped (Harbaugh’s) legacy, and that’s what he talks about. Stamp your legacy in big games.”
Harbaugh did that three decades ago, and people still remember. Moments in the rivalry ring throughout history. They’re what made Harbaugh a household name, and perhaps part of what brought him back. Because of Harbaugh, Michigan — an afterthought going into the season — has a good chance to win Saturday.
Harbaugh might have made more headlines than anything with his guarantee in 1986: “I can just tell you, we’re gonna win and we’re gonna go to the Rose Bowl.” What nobody remembers, though, is the second part of that statement:
“When the odds are against us, that’s gonna produce our greatest victory.”
Correction Appended: An earlier version of this story misstated John Kolesar’s first name as Tom. The story has also been updated to reflect that Charles Woodson scored only one touchdown against Ohio State in 1997.