Five days before the Nov. 22, 1986 game between Michigan and Ohio State, it had already become one of the most iconic matchups in the history of the rivalry.
Fresh off an upset loss to Minnesota but with Big Ten Championship hopes still alive, Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines’ quarterback at the time, uttered the now-famous (or perhaps infamous) line:
“I guarantee you we’ll beat Ohio State and be in Pasadena.”
Harbaugh’s guarantee will forever define the 1986 game, and rightfully so. It represents part of what makes college rivalries great — a favorite son of one historic program making an arrogant, outlandish claim and then backing it up with a 26-24 win. Regardless of the legacy he does (or doesn’t) build in his time left at Michigan, Harbaugh’s clearest stamp on the rivalry will remain that Monday press scrum in ’86.
But the game was so much more than just one line. For one program, it snapped a two-game road losing streak — uncharacteristic for the rivalry at the time — and solidified its coach as the winningest in program history. For the other, it derailed a previously undefeated Big Ten season and contributed to the unceremonious firing of its coach less than a year later.
The “guarantee game,” then, carried implications beyond the bragging rights and Big Ten title it awarded. In the context of the rivalry as a whole, it fundamentally altered the course of both programs and sent shockwaves that are still felt today, some 35 years later.
At the time, though, it was one game.
When running back Jamie Morris heard Harbaugh’s comments, his thoughts immediately turned to his head coach.
“The thought of everybody was, ‘I want to see what Bo’s gonna say,’ ” Morris told The Daily. “So when we were in the full-team meeting, all he said was, ‘Our quarterback shot his mouth off, I guess we’re gonna have to go down there and prove he was right.’
“So, it was there, but it was kind of a surprise what Bo said. We thought he’d say, ‘Nobody says that! I’m the voice of Michigan football!’ But instead he said what I just told you.”
Even before Harbaugh’s comments, the Wolverines already knew the stakes of the game. Two of the team’s main goals — winning the national championship and finishing as the No. 1 team in the country — had already been lost in the defeat against Minnesota. Michigan also hadn’t been to the Rose Bowl in four years, an unheard-of drought at the time, and a loss would make the class of 1986 the first group under Schembechler to never make it to Pasadena.
Equally motivating, too, was the chance to play spoiler. Despite losses to Alabama and Washington in non-conference play, Ohio State had torn through the rest of the Big Ten, beating all seven opponents by a combined score of 201-69. Especially in Columbus, a Big Ten Championship for the seventh-ranked Buckeyes seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Still, spurred by the guarantee, the sixth-ranked Wolverines continued to grow more confident. Many viewed the loss to the Gophers the week prior as a product of looking ahead to Ohio State, so the team felt ready despite the previous week’s meager outcome.
Schembechler worked to build on that confidence. In Columbus the night before the game, he met with individual players and told them to “visualize.” The hope was that if they went to bed visualizing a victory, then the next day, they’d be ready to make it a reality.
“From our standpoint, we were expected to win that game,” Morris said. “We knew we were gonna win that game. We knew we could beat that team.”
Michigan maintained that mentality into Saturday, but it didn’t take long for the Buckeyes to challenge it. On the opening kick, Ohio State returned the ball to the Wolverines’ 45-yard line. Four minutes later, quarterback Jim Karsatos connected with wide receiver Cris Carter for a touchdown.
Morris punched back, returning the subsequent kickoff to the 40-yard line, but after Michigan’s drive stalled and ended in a field goal, the Buckeyes responded with a touchdown that extended their lead to 14-3. After a dropped pass, an interception and another disappointing field goal left the score at 14-6 entering halftime, the Wolverines’ chances of pulling out the win seemed bleak.
Then, Jamie Morris happened. After a modest 60 rushing yards in the first half, Morris spearheaded a Michigan offensive explosion in the second half, tallying an additional 150 yards on the ground. His most notable run — a 52-yard third quarter scamper to the Ohio State 24-yard line — set up the score that gave the Wolverines a lead they would never relinquish.
“That’s the best I’ve seen him play,” Schembechler said after the game, according to The Daily’s archives. “ … When do you remember any back getting more than 200 yards against Ohio State?”
Alongside Morris, Harbaugh made good on his pregame promise, completing 19 of his 29 passes for 261 yards. Even when Michigan kept the ball on the ground, Harbaugh played his role well, calling the right checks at the line to give the Wolverines the numbers advantage. On the back of that combination, the Wolverines opened up a 26-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.
But the Buckeyes crawled back into it. After blocking a field goal that would have extended Michigan’s lead to 12, Ohio State drove 56 yards for a touchdown that instead narrowed it to two. Minutes later, the Buckeyes recovered a fumble at their own 37-yard line, then drove to the Wolverines’ 28 to attempt a game-winning field goal with a minute remaining.
The kick, of course, missed left. The immediate aftermath was predictable: elation on one sideline, dejection on the other. While Schembechler told his team how happy he was for them in one locker room, Karsatos fought back tears in the other.
“I was planning on going home (to California for the Rose Bowl),” Karsatos said postgame, according to the Lantern’s archives. “It’s going to take a couple of weeks to get over this.”
Long term, though, the game was even more impactful. Not only did it send Michigan to its first Rose Bowl in four years — a game it ended up losing, 22-15, to Arizona State — it also granted Schembechler his 166th win, passing Fielding Yost as the winningest coach in program history.
The effects were even more profound at Ohio State. Though the Buckeyes went on to win the Cotton Bowl, 28-12, coach Earle Bruce’s program never quite recovered from that shortfall. After opening the 1987 season 5-4-1, Bruce was fired the week before the Michigan game with only one Big Ten Championship to his name. In his final game coaching against the Wolverines, Ohio State pulled out a 23-20 upset win of their own.
Bruce’s replacement? John Cooper, who coached Arizona State in its Rose Bowl win over Michigan.
Hard to think that’s a coincidence.
Today — even with how much the rivalry has changed — the 1986 matchup remains an iconic meeting.
Despite the role his guarantee played in the game, Harbaugh doesn’t like to talk about it much. When asked questions about that statement, he brushes them off with a smile. When asked about the rivalry’s past at all, he has a similar reaction.
“I remember every bit of it,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just not something I enjoy doing, standing up and pontificating on stuff I did before, or we did before, or anything. Just kind of here in the now, in the present.”
To some on the outside, though, “The Game” is hardly a rivalry in the present. The numbers speak for themselves: Michigan has won three matchups in the 21st century, one in the past 10 years and none since Harbaugh’s return as head coach. While the Buckeyes have built an almost impenetrable dynasty over the last two decades — they’ve finished outside the top 10 just twice since 2005 — the Wolverines have struggled to keep pace. Especially during the Harbaugh era, Michigan has always seemed to be on the precipice, teetering toward that elusive championship but never quite reaching it.
As a coach, Harbaugh has been abundantly clear: There will be no guarantees, no “pontificating” on past achievements, no trash talk of any kind. The one time since that a player has broken that seal — running back Karan Higdon, when prodded by reporters, guaranteed a victory in 2018 — Ohio State shut him up with a 62-39 beatdown.
And yet, within the programs themselves, the rivalry still carries the same weight it always has. Much like in 1986, the Wolverines will enter the 2021 matchup imperfect in Big Ten play against an Ohio State team that’s torn through most of its opponents.
But regardless of its record, Michigan’s entire roster knows that, with only one win, it can flip the script — on the rivalry, on Harbaugh’s legacy and on the national perception of the program as a whole.
The visualizing is easy. The real challenge lies in finally getting it done.