It took Jim Harbaugh 21 seconds to reference Bo Schembechler at his introductory press conference last December. He walked up to the podium and apologized for his hoarse voice.
Then Harbaugh talked about how he tripped on his walk into the room, saying, “A lesser athlete would have gone down,” drawing upon Bo Schembechler’s line that his heart attack would have killed a lesser man.
Being a student of Schembechler is so thoroughly ingrained into Harbaugh’s being that his college coach is a part of his everyday life. Not only does he work in Schembechler Hall and drive past Schembechler’s old house daily, but Harbaugh thinks about his coach even in what otherwise could be mundane conversations.
It happened on Michigan’s flight to Saturday’s game, when former Michigan quarterback Jim Breaugh piloted the team’s plane.
“I said, ‘You know what Bo would tell you right now?’ Harbaugh asked. “ ‘Don’t screw it up!’ ”
He even thinks about Schembechler’s chief rival, former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. One reporter Saturday asked Harbaugh about a Hayes quote about teams laying eggs and not performing in certain games. It led to a Harbaugh quip about comparing humans and chickens, but that wasn’t really the interesting part.
Harbaugh insisted the quote wasn’t true, that Woody Hayes never said it.
The man is a historian of sorts on the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. Last winter, in the days before Harbaugh’s hiring at Michigan, Chase Beeler, an offensive lineman who played for Harbaugh at Stanford, said Harbaugh had “an extreme reverence” for Schembechler.
Beeler remembered sitting with Harbaugh and his father, Jack, one night in 2009. Jim and Jack went back and forth discussing how much they admired Schembechler and Hayes, particularly how they brought out the greatness in one another.
When Harbaugh was hired, this was the expectation for him and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. They would battle as the head coaches of Michigan and Ohio State every year in the last week of November for the foreseeable future, two of the best coaches in the country fighting for Big Ten and national supremacy.
Schembechler came to Michigan from Miami (Ohio) at a time when the Buckeyes had taken seven of nine games from the Wolverines. Michigan was overmatched, particularly in 1968, the year before Schembechler arrived. Schembechler once called his first 10 games against Ohio State, the ones known as the 10-Year War, the 10 favorite games he ever coached against the Buckeyes. He bested Hayes in those games — the Wolverines went 5-4-1.
Harbaugh will get his first chance to begin that sort of legacy against Urban Meyer on Saturday.
The immediate implications of the upcoming game are now diminished. The average Michigan fan was devastated by Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State on Saturday. The wildest Harbaugh fantasy, the one of him coming to Ann Arbor and immediately leading Michigan to a conference championship, was all but shattered.
But think back to that day when he was hired. In all of your giddiness, was the first thing you thought about the possibility of Michigan winning a Big Ten championship? Or was it the idea that the Wolverines, finally, after losing 10 out of 11 games to their bitter rival down South, had a coach who could fight back, one whose team wouldn’t just get geared up to play the Buckeyes, but actually beat them?
Saturday won’t be about a Big Ten title, a trip to Indianapolis or the right to play Iowa. But you know darn well that Michigan doesn’t need to beat Iowa to show, once and for all, that it’s back.
“Right now, Ohio State and Michigan State are ahead of us,” said Michigan announcer Dan Dierdorf, who played on Schembechler’s first team, in August. “We can’t talk about national titles. We can’t talk about winning the Big Ten. What we have to do, job No. 1, is to become competitive with your chief rivals, and that’s Michigan State and Ohio State, and those are the two teams that have to be front and center in everything we do.”
Harbaugh won’t admit to that last statement. Publicly, he has always been focused on the task ahead for his team, abstaining from guarantees and absolutes like the one he made during his playing career about his team defeating Ohio State in 1986. But Schembechler, the man Harbaugh considers a profound influence on his life, was always thinking about the Buckeyes. He prepared his teams for them all year round, even when they didn’t know it.
Exactly how Harbaugh has prepared his team behind closed doors is unclear. But any way you look at it, Saturday will be the culmination of a year’s work. It started, as Michigan players love to say, with four-hour spring practices. Like Schembechler did, Harbaugh made his team buy in completely and unconditionally. Senior linebacker James Ross, who played for Brady Hoke for three years, said Saturday that anyone on Michigan’s team would run through a brick wall for Harbaugh.
Schembechler’s first team would have done the same for him. The group pulled off a massive upset of Ohio State in 1969. Entering the game, the adversary was considered to be the greatest college football team of all time, but Schembechler had his team ready.
If Michigan wins this weekend, it wouldn’t even be considered an enormous surprise. Ohio State is ranked eighth in this week’s AP Poll, and the Wolverines are 12th.
But to say this edition of The Game doesn’t matter? You’d be dead wrong.
Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MaxACohen.