Among all his eccentricities, quips and sideline meltdowns, Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is nothing if not a man of routine. He wears the same outfit daily, he constantly preaches hard work, and his intensity hardly wavers, whether he’s in the middle of coaching a game or if he’s conducting a press conference.
But if there were ever a time for Harbaugh to stray from his routine, it would be this week, when he prepares to lead the Michigan football team against Ohio State for the first time.
The rivalry is personal to Harbaugh. He famously guaranteed a victory for the Wolverines over the Buckeyes during the final year of his playing career in 1986, and his college coach, Bo Schembechler, was known for the intensity with which he treated the rivalry.
But during his weekly press conference Monday, Harbaugh held true to form. He made no guarantees, predictions or broad statements about the importance of the upcoming rivalry game.
In his mind, it’s just another game. When asked if he was looking forward to Saturday’s game, Harbaugh replied that he was primarily looking forward to meeting with his team to begin game preparation. His philosophy won’t change.
“You know exactly how we go about things,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve been trying to be better today than we were yesterday. We’re trying to be better tomorrow than we were today.”
Matching up with Ohio State will not be a simple task. Before the Buckeyes lost to Michigan State on Saturday, they had won 23 games in a row, including a national championship.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer provides Harbaugh an elite adversary. Last season’s national title was his third. The stature of the two coaches within the college game has brought about numerous comparisons regarding the possibility of the Harbaugh-Meyer rivalry matching the one Schembechler had with former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes in the 1970s.
Harbaugh isn’t buying into the storyline.
“My reaction to the coach-versus-coach buildup is he’s not going to be blocking anybody,” Harbaugh said. “He’s not going to be tackling anybody. I’m going to be over there standing on the sidelines blocking and tackling nobody.”
Harbaugh did take a moment to reflect upon one of the battles between his mentor and Hayes. When he saw the snow on the ground in Ann Arbor on Monday, he thought about the anticipation leading up to the first game between Schembechler and Hayes in 1969. Harbaugh was just 5 years old at the time, but Schembechler’s former players have told him the story.
The Monday before that game — in which the Wolverines were heavy underdogs against a top-ranked Ohio State team, only to later pull off a historic upset — Michigan’s practice field was covered in snow. Schembechler, the story goes, handed his players shovels and made them clear the field.
Harbaugh did not offer many memories of his own playing career against the Buckeyes. When asked about his famous guarantee, he says that it happened a long time ago, that he wouldn’t do something like that now. As a coach, Ohio State is just another foe.
Harbaugh’s players understand how he sees things. He has told his players all along that if they ratchet up the intensity during one week of practice for a specific opponent, it just means that they weren’t giving their all during another.
“(He’ll approach it) the same way he approaches every week, with a lot of enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” said redshirt junior defensive end Willie Henry.
Henry and many of his teammates from Ohio differ from Harbaugh in that they believe this game is more special than the average one. They won’t do anything differently to prepare, but the game has a different feel. Their friends and former teammates are Ohio State fans, and they hear about the rivalry whenever they go home, and even when they’re in Ann Arbor. They consider the rivalry to be the greatest one in all of sports, and now they’re looking to help lead Michigan to a victory against the Buckeyes for just the second time in 12 years.
That historical aspect isn’t particularly relevant to Harbaugh. All he cares about is the week in front of him.
“Our plan every week is ceaseless and intense,” Harbaugh said. “Never slackening. Always continuing at the same intense, demanding, punishing level.”