Just after 10 a.m. Saturday, Jim Harbaugh led his Michigan football team off the buses and walked through the gates of Ohio Stadium.
Harbaugh said Monday that he had not been back since he last played quarterback there in 1986. He did not say much else about his team’s biggest rivalry.
Does he embrace the rivalry with Ohio State? “I do.” Does he enjoy it? “I do.” Does he look forward to it? “Yes.” What makes him look forward to it? “Competition. That’s the best part about it.”
It was always obvious that the rivalry known as “The Game” is more serious, more intense and more important than any other, no matter what sense Harbaugh gave in the media. Saturday’s unforgettable double-overtime thriller was just another example of that. Sometimes you end up on the wrong end of those games, like Michigan did Saturday. But you can’t say “The Game” wasn’t fun, and that’s good for everyone.
Since he arrived at Michigan almost two years ago, Harbaugh has been coy about hyping up the Ohio State rivalry above the others. We don’t know too much about how he treats it on a week-to-week basis.
Here’s what we do know about Harbaugh: He knows how to motivate his team for the biggest game of the year, his comments in press conferences notwithstanding.
Senior safety Dymonte Thomas said Harbaugh will drop motivational quotes to show the significance of his team’s next game. Last Monday, before a team meeting, Harbaugh gave the players one quote in particular — “I can’t say it, because it had a little word in it,” Thomas joked — that stuck out to them.
“It was something about how you can’t be something for the rest of your life, or in your whole life,” Thomas said. “He just said, you kind of look at it, we haven’t beaten them in so long. So he said it’s time for us to stand up and stick up and do something for yourselves.
“You have a bully, and he continues to bully you each and every day. And in order for you to get that bully to stop bullying you, what do you gotta do? You gotta go in there and punch him right in the nose. And you gotta continue to punch him in the nose until he don’t want no more.”
Ohio State has bullied Michigan for more than a decade. The Wolverines entered Saturday having lost 11 of their past 12 games to their archrival, and a few of them weren’t close, including Harbaugh’s first as head coach last year. In that game at Michigan Stadium, the Buckeyes did what they pleased offensively, trampling Michigan for 369 rushing yards and 42 points in the rivalry’s most lopsided game since the Rich Rodriguez era.
Saturday in Columbus, the Wolverines did what Harbaugh urged them to do on Monday: They went in there and punched Ohio State right in the nose. They dominated the game for three quarters, allowing the Buckeyes just 24 total yards from the end of their first drive until halftime and leading for all but 3:46 of regulation.
Michigan just didn’t have enough punches in the end, when Ohio State survived with a 30-27 victory. But it was clear the Wolverines heard Harbaugh’s message.
Here’s what else we know about Harbaugh: He has just the right makeup to make that motivation mean something.
Monday, a reporter from The Columbus Dispatch asked Harbaugh to describe himself, saying that some people call him crazy and some call him “crazy like a fox.” Harbaugh wasn’t receptive to the question. He doesn’t talk about himself: “I don’t know that my personality really, how relevant that will be to the ballgame this week. Probably irrelevant.”
His players know what they see, though, and when asked about Harbaugh and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, fifth-year senior defensive lineman Chris Wormley had an interesting insight.
“I think with all the good coaches, you gotta be wired a little differently,” Wormley said. “A lot of the great ones do things differently. I’m sure Coach Meyer does and has done things differently, successful coach. With Coach Harbaugh, he does things differently.”
Few can deny that. A year ago, Harbaugh’s team lost by four touchdowns against an Ohio State program that has been the class of the Big Ten for the five years Meyer has been in charge of it. Over the past year, everything Harbaugh did — the grueling four-week bowl camp, the Spring Break trip to Florida, the month-long satellite camp tour, the all-out quarterback competition, the dominant early-season victories — it all prepared Michigan to go into Ohio Stadium and finally knock off the Buckeyes.
Even once the season started, the Wolverines were preparing for this game. They kept their starters as fresh as any group in the country. They tested all of the weapons they would need. They installed a formation with nine players in a straight line behind the center. They did everything, and then they gave Ohio State all they had.
Which brings us to the last thing we know about Harbaugh. There wasn’t any doubt about the importance of “The Game” in the mind of the coach who grew up in Michigan, played quarterback for Michigan, idolized Bo Schembechler and once guaranteed that his team would beat Ohio State before it actually did, but Saturday proved that significance in another chapter.
Before the game, Harbaugh went through warmup drills with the quarterbacks, catching their passes like he always does. Then, he engaged in a cordial handshake with Meyer, for whom he has, by all accounts, tremendous respect.
But when the whistle blew, Harbaugh was emotional and tenacious. He grew more irate than ever at the officials, though admittedly in a game where there were more controversial calls than ever. And then he slammed them in his postgame press conference, saying he was “bitterly disappointed” — to use a Schembechler phrase, for good measure.
It is not a good look for Harbaugh to come into his postgame press conference and spend almost the entirety of it criticizing the officiating. It may cost him a fine from the Big Ten if the conference makes a ruling Monday morning. It may even cost him some points with the all-important College Football Playoff committee this week when the members decide Michigan’s postseason fate.
But that was Jim Harbaugh’s rivalry week, for better and worse. In an era many have trumpeted as the second coming of Schembechler and Woody Hayes’ “Ten-Year War,” Saturday proved to be quite a second battle.
Perhaps Harbaugh won’t say it. Perhaps it won’t quite measure up next year. But “The Game” is “The Game” again, and let’s all be grateful for that.