It started today not with a bang, but a whimper.
There are a lot of reasons Ohio State fans have found reason to be skeptical of Harbaugh’s hire at Michigan. He hasn’t held a head coaching job longer than four years. He never won the biggest of the big ones at either level. The pull of the NFL might never go away.
But all he does is flat-out win. San Diego football was a mediocre program before Harbaugh existed; he went 29-6 in three seasons with the Toreros. Stanford was 16-40 for the five years before he arrived; he recruited Andrew Luck and got better each year, finishing 12-1 in 2010.
He was just as good in the pros, taking over a San Francisco 49ers team that had gone eight years without a winning season and reaching three straight NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl. Even with this year’s 8-8 record mixed in, Harbaugh went 44-19-1 in four seasons by the Bay and had illustrious postseason success.
So the man can coach. He’s a personality. He’s a powerhouse. He’s exactly what had been missing from one of the Big Ten’s regal programs, which has again found the ability to go out and grab the best coach available.
Ohio State did it when it grabbed Urban Meyer, a two-time national champion. Penn State might have done it when it snagged James Franklin, who won games in the SEC at Vanderbilt of all places. Michigan State grabbed a tough, intense coach in Mark Dantonio and has become a yearly power as well. The Big Ten East is in good hands, it appears, for the foreseeable future, even if Ohio State – 24-0 in the last three seasons – is the clear alpha dog at the moment.
I also don’t see how this won’t make the last Saturday in November even more entertaining. People say the The Game is always the game, that no matter what the records are, it’s a special occasion, the greatest rivalry in sport.
They’ve felt compelled to say that, though, as the Ohio State-Michigan game hasn’t matched up two elite teams since 2006 when the squads were No. 1 and No. 2 going into the contest. The only time since each team was ranked in the top 20 of the Associated Press poll at game time was 2012, when Ohio State was fourth and Michigan was No. 20.
The Game, robbed of so much of its impact and some emotion the past few years even as both squads have put together near upsets, will remain appointment viewing in the Midwest and perhaps become it again across the nation. This is good for the rivalry even if it might upset a balance of power that has been tilted toward Ohio State in 12 of the past 14 years. It can’t be assumed that Michigan will win The Game next year, the year after that or even the year after that, but it seems likely that it will include a better caliber of squad on both sides.
“I think it’s exciting,” Ohio State defensive lineman Joey Bosa said. “I guess some Ohio fans don’t like it, but I think it’s exciting because what is a rivalry if both teams aren’t doing well? He obviously will turn that place around in less than a year.”
But for all that this might mean for the rivalry and for the Big Ten, it won’t start with the fervor of Woody and Bo. The two men were cut from the same cloth, were each born in Ohio, they coached together, butted heads in a way that Meyer and Harbaugh will have to grow into.
It could happen next fall if Jim upsets Urban the way Bo upset Woody in 1969, but for right now, it’s not a close embrace. Harbaugh barely mentioned Ohio State in his opening press conference or halftime basketball introduction – he’s come a long way since guaranteeing and then delivering a victory as the starting quarterback – while Urban Meyer had little of substance to say about Michigan’s new mentor at Sugar Bowl Media Day on Tuesday.
“I know his brother (Baltimore Ravens coach John), and I actually met his father at the Super Bowl,” Meyer said. “It’s a very good football family. … I don’t know (Jim), but anytime you add a quality coach to the Big Ten or college football, I think that’s all good for college football and great for the Big Ten.”
The recruiting battles will likely be intense – a “365-days-a-year competition and challenge” is how Luke Fickell put it – but that’s no different than it was when Brady Hoke was putting together great classes his first few years at Michigan, too. This will only be The Rivalry again as long as Michigan steps up in the standings and then in late November as well.
A new day has dawned. The possibilities are endless. Let the fun begin.