Jim Harbaugh vs. Urban Meyer – A MODERN DAY BO vs. WOODY?


Last December, Christmas came twice for University of Michigan football fans. The second celebration came when the school decided to turn back to the future and former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh agreed to become the 20th head football coach in school history.

Harbaugh had coaching success as a head coach at the University of San Diego, Stanford University, and most recently with the San Francisco 49ers, so one would certainly expect Harbaugh to win at Michigan.

The expectations that Harbaugh will face at Michigan will be to restore Michigan’s place atop the Big Ten Conference, competing annually for Big Ten titles and return Michigan to the elite of college football.

Undoubtedly, Harbaugh will be judged in large part by Michigan’s bowl success and even more so on how he fares against bitter archrival Ohio State. How a coach fares against his school’s primary rival affects that coach’s success, legacy and in some instances, his job security.

John Cooper, head coach at Ohio State from 1988 to 2000, had a record of 111-43-4 during that time. However, his record against Michigan was only 2-10-1 and 3-8 in bowl games. Without those two games at the end of each season, Cooper’s record would have been 106-25-3.

Cooper’s 5-18-1 record for Ohio State’s biggest two games at the end of each season did not sit well with Buckeye fans who were left to simmer and dwell about those results for months till the start of the next season.

Since 2000, Ohio State has won 12 of the past 14 games in the series including 10 out of the last 11 meetings. The last Michigan coach with a winning record against Ohio State was Gary Moeller. Moeller had a record of 3-1-1 all coming against Cooper. Lloyd Carr succeeded Moeller and was 5-1 versus Cooper but only 1-6 against Cooper’s successor Jim Tressel.

Tressel’s record against Michigan was 9-1 and since Urban Meyer has taken over at Ohio State, the Buckeyes are 3-0 versus the Wolverines. It has been said that Cooper and Michigan’s Rich Rodriquez, who was 0-3 in the rivalry, never fully understood the magnitude of “The Game.”

At schools like Michigan, a 10-win season is expected. Conversely, at rival Ohio State, Urban Meyer has the Buckeyes rolling so well, a 10-win season would be a major disappointment to Buckeye fans. Meyer’s record after three seasons at Ohio State is a remarkable 38-3.

For the first time since the late ‘70s and Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes’ “Ten Year War,” when Michigan won five times, Ohio State four and one tie, the coaching match up will be as intense as the game itself. Both Harbaugh and Meyer were born in Toledo, Ohio, just six months apart, and both bring an attitude to their coaching demeanor.

In a 2010 contest between Stanford and Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons lined up for a field goal right before halftime. Harbaugh called a timeout to try to ice the Wake Forest kicker. Stanford had a 41-7 lead at the time and Wake Forest has never been known for coming back from five touchdown deficits.

Meyer, after Ohio State was already up 49 points in the third quarter against Penn State in 2013, decided to challenge a first down ruling on the field that was ruled in Penn State’s favor.

It is that competitive attitude that both Harbaugh and Meyer exude that is reminiscent of how Bo and Woody were when it came to facing one another for a Big 10 title. To them it was not about winning a national championship or a bowl game, it was first and foremost to beat the other and win the Big 10.

In that era when college football coaching legends where known without having to say their surname: Ara, Bear, Darryl, and Joe, Bo and Woody were synonymous with their respective schools and Big Ten football and they elevated the Michigan-Ohio State game to the summit of college football rivalries.

Four times between 1970 and 1975, Ohio State and Michigan were both ranked in the top five in the country when they met. In the 13 meetings between Ohio State and Michigan from 1968-1980, nine times both teams were ranked in the top 10, and five of those games featured the top ranked team in the country. The only regular season games Michigan lost from 1970-1974 were to Ohio State.

In 1969, Bo Schembechler’s first year as head coach at Michigan, Schembechler faced an undefeated Ohio State team that was defending national champion and being touted as perhaps the greatest college football team ever. The number one ranked Buckeyes lost 24-12 in Ann Arbor in what is considered one of the most memorable upsets in college football history. Ohio State came into the game with a 22-game winning streak and looked certain to repeat as national champions. Woody Hayes called it his most disappointing loss ever.

It is highly likely that on the last Saturday this coming November, Ohio State will be ranked No. 1 and come into Ann Arbor with a 24-game winning streak. Harbaugh, who played quarterback under Schembechler from 1983-1986, will likely face an undefeated and defending national champion Ohio State team in his first year as head coach at Michigan, just like Schembecher.

Michigan fans are hoping it will be Deja Blue all over again.

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites.