Jim Harbaugh doesn’t like making comparisons.
He says it demeans and diminishes accomplishments. Harbaugh, as he has done every year at Michigan, treaded lightly Monday to protect the focus of his players and not give opponent’s fodder.
Despite being the expected road for Harbaugh to take, it’s still strange. In Bo Schembechler’s 1989 autobiography “Bo,” being conservative was the antithesis of what made him great.
“Quarterbacks are a special breed,” Schembechler wrote. “They need to be cocky, and the cockiest I ever had was probably Jim Harbaugh.”
Sitting at 0-3 against Ohio State as a coach so far, Harbaugh could just be saving face and reserving judgment. The farthest he went in Monday’s press conference was … not far at all. The message was standard, but the meaning was evident.
“I expect our team to be very motivated,” Harbaugh said. “I know I am.”
Yes, it’s rivalry week against the Buckeyes, so perhaps his caution is rooted in experience — a guarantee he made to beat Ohio State and an impending Rose Bowl appearance when Harbaugh was the Wolverines’ quarterback in 1986.
Though the high-stakes game is fast-approaching, the expectations of provocative speech should no longer exist for this point of the season. Yet, the questions are inescapable, and the answers are becoming the same.
“It’s the Big Game,” Harbaugh said about what motivates him. “Even got a name for it, doesn’t it?”
Even after Michigan won that 1986 game, 26-24, in Columbus, Harbaugh sings a different tune, as well as in the years following his declaration. Dating back to his introductory press conference in 2014, he doesn’t make guarantees anymore: “I’ve learned from that.”
About an hour after Harbaugh stepped away from the podium Monday, senior running back Karan Higdon stood in the same spot, with tight end Zach Gentry hulking him to his right. A reporter asked the question — goaded, essentially — that now serves as a prerequisite in a sound bite media landscape: Like your coach, will you guarantee a win?
Higdon and Gentry shared a look. What came after was expected.
“Yeah, I do. I do,” Higdon said, followed by a laugh. “That’s how I feel. I believe firmly in my brothers and this team and this coaching staff. And as a captain, I’ll take that stand. Why not?”
It was definitive, but it was hardly the assertion Harbaugh made 32 years ago. Higdon is a captain of the No. 4 team in the country with conference and national title hopes at stake. Yet, it has already grabbed headlines and incited social media furor.
It was not an unprompted guarantee, and with the game’s implications, should not be treated as such. The only notable aspect is that it breaks the character of a seemingly unbothered Michigan team.
“Having done it, I don’t recommend it,” Harbaugh said of guaranteeing a win in The Game in 2016.
Though more subtle, junior linebacker Devin Bush also made a lofty claim, referencing the 2016 overtime loss on Monday.
“That was one of those games where we didn’t finish,” Bush said. “We’ve got another opportunity to go in there.
“And I believe we’re gonna finish the job.”
It’s not breaking news. With everything to lose, the past shouldn’t be considered, and there is every reason to think the game will be close. Junior left guard Ben Bredeson said “It’s just different in this game,” with the exasperation of three years of getting the same question.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer also spoke with the media in Columbus on Monday. He assumed the same demeanor as Harbaugh, even talking about mutual respect.
“I can only speak for myself, but I think the ‘R-word’ is critical here,” he said. “… How do you respect them and The Game? You work so very hard to do your best.”
There is never truly a breaking point of the exhaustive responses and unsettled debates for this rivalry. It’s interesting to hear Bredeson reflect on how getting flipped off energizes him, or how Bush feeds into the boos. Sharing experiences and the boredom of sameness are not mutually exclusive.
Another reporter asked Harbaugh then if it was just another game on the College Football Playoff hunt.
“Of course not,” Harbaugh replied with disgust, like it was blasphemous that the question was asked at all.
Rivalry week doesn’t need to have a different tone. It speaks for itself.
Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanewolfe.