Jim Harbaugh stood on the Stanford sideline at the University of California’s Memorial Stadium in 1980 and heard the public address announcer welcome fans to “The Big Game.” That clashed with Harbaugh’s beliefs about college football rivalries.
Then a junior in high school, Harbaugh had spent the previous seven years in Ann Arbor, Mich., getting his first taste of a rivalry that he would come to know intimately — as Michigan’s quarterback and later as his alma mater’s coach.
So in that moment at Cal 39 years ago, Harbaugh nudged his father, Jack, who was in his first season as Stanford’s defensive coordinator, to quietly set the record straight.
“I think we both know where the real big game is being played today,” Jack Harbaugh recalled his son saying.
Michigan (9-2) and Ohio State (11-0) will play in Ann Arbor on Saturday, with Harbaugh, now 55 and in his fifth season as the Wolverines coach, again at center stage of the annual showdown that many Midwesterners consider the best in sports.
In 1986 Harbaugh was the brash quarterback who accurately guaranteed a victory over the Buckeyes, and now he is the leader with a $7.5 million annual salary who has yet to win Michigan football’s most important regular season game.
Ohio State has won its last seven games against Michigan, and 13 of its last 14. This year’s game, the 116th edition, has College Football Playoff implications for Ohio State, which on Tuesday moved into the top spot in rankings by the committee that sets the playoff matchups.
Harbaugh was hired in 2015 to rescue Michigan from a wave of mediocrity that had swallowed the two previous coaches, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. Despite producing three 10-win seasons, Harbaugh tends to be defined by his 2-10 record against opponents in the top 10 and his four losses against Ohio State.
“I can’t imagine going 0-5 in that rivalry,” former Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer said in a telephone interview.
Meyer, who finished with a 7-0 record against Michigan, grew up outside Cleveland during the 10-year stretch when the rivalry was the domain of two Hall of Fame coaches, Woody Hayes of Ohio State and Bo Schembechler of Michigan. Meyer later understood that the rivalry held the key to success at Ohio State. To lose that game, Meyer said, meant letting down not just a program and a university, but an entire state.
The sentiment is no different in Ann Arbor, where the game against Ohio State certainly carries more weight than longstanding rivalries with Michigan State and Notre Dame. “It’s ‘The Game’ and it will likely be the first thing mentioned, along with Big Ten championships, on every Michigan coach’s biography,” said John U. Bacon, who has written four books about Michigan football. “There’s no escaping it.”
Last season, the Wolverines entered Ohio State week ranked No. 4, on the verge of a College Football Playoff berth. But after the underdog Buckeyes dismantled the Wolverines, 62-39, questions arose about what it would take for Harbaugh to beat Ohio State. This season, as Michigan struggled to beat Army, then fell out of Big Ten championship contention with losses to Wisconsin and Penn State, fans questioned Harbaugh’s coaching future well before the biggest test of the year. It doesn’t help that Ryan Day is undefeated in his first season as Ohio State’s head coach.
Harbaugh immersed himself in Michigan’s program at an early age, while his father worked as an assistant coach under Schembechler in the 1970s.
Harbaugh has hesitated when asked about what prompted him to guarantee victory against the Buckeyes as a player. But not when asked for his thoughts on the weight of the game itself.
“As I liken the Michigan State game to a state championship, this is even bigger,” Harbaugh said. “This is two states’ championship: Michigan and Ohio.”
Jack Harbaugh said his son fully grasped the rivalry. “In my judgment,” he said, “no one understands it quite like he does.”
At Ohio State, preparation for Michigan remains a 12-month process, with reminders of the rivalry plastered around the practice facility, including a digital clock counting down to kickoff against the Wolverines. To out-of-state recruits, Meyer maintained a simple message.
“This is not a big game,” said Meyer, who coached Ohio State to the national championship in the 2014 season. “This is a way of life.”
The pride within Ohio for the dominance of the Buckeyes is mirrored by the disappointment felt by fans in Michigan.
Bacon, who wrote a book on leadership with Schembechler, remembers that early in his Michigan tenure Schembechler struggled in the postseason, taking seven straight bowl losses, including five Rose Bowl setbacks before he finally won it in 1981. Bacon believes that if Harbaugh can beat Ohio State, a level of normalcy will return to the rivalry.
Until then, the pressure remains on the Wolverines, who, despite winning their last four games, were underdogs by 9 points to Ohio State on Friday. Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said last week that to play at their best, the Wolverines cannot view Ohio State as unbeatable.
“We understand the level of intensity this game brings,” quarterback Shea Patterson said. “Just the word ‘Ohio State’ in itself is enough for us.”