Toledo has long been split when it comes to Ohio State and Michigan.
Though the city sits in Ohio – thanks to the bloodless boundary dispute between Ohio and what was then the territory of Michigan in the 1830s – it’s 96 miles closer to Ann Arbor than Columbus, making the city of around 280,000 people divided in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.
In the 112th meeting between Ohio State and Michigan, the Glass City will play a major part. Both Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh were born in Toledo, and while neither was raised there, their place of birth is just the start of the pair’s personal connections to the rivalry.
“These two are similar in that they have a prior connection whereas the other (coaches) have not,” Ohio State historian Jack Park said. “I think one thing, both coaches coming in to their jobs have a connection to the schools and both coaches had a lot of big-time success before they took the job.”
Harbaugh played quarterback at Michigan from 1983-86, going 3-1 against Ohio State with a 2-0 record as a starter. After completing 16 of 19 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns as a junior, the now-Michigan coach brashly guaranteed a Wolverines victory before the 1986 game and delivered. Harbaugh completed 19 of 29 passes for 261 yards in a 26-24 Michigan win.
While Meyer never suited up in the game, the rivalry and his connection to Ohio State still hold great influence over the coach. Meyer was a graduate assistant under Earle Bruce for Harbaugh’s guaranteed victory in 1986 and got his first win in The Game the following year as the Buckeyes won 23-20 with Meyer serving as the graduate assistant in charge of receivers for Bruce’s final season.
“Obviously that's the game of games,” Meyer said when Ohio State hired him in November of 2011. “That's the game that I grew up watching.
“So I understand the significance of it. And I remember my experience in that game was the first year when Jim Harbaugh guaranteed to win here in Ohio Stadium, and the second one was Coach Bruce's final game at Michigan, and we were able to beat Bo Schembechler and Michigan. So the one thing I know about that game, as much as there is dislike and hatred across college football in some rivalries, there's a share of that, but there's also a lot of respect in that rivalry, and I'm looking forward to coaching in it.”
Harbaugh’s hire gave the annual clash between Ohio State and Michigan an unprecedented pair of nationally relevant coaches at the helm this season and figures to reignite a rivalry that had been somewhat dormant in recent years. The Buckeyes have taken 12 of the last 14 from the Wolverines, including the last three with Meyer on the sidelines.
“It’s definitely going to be big,” senior linebacker Joshua Perry said of the first Harbaugh-Meyer clash. “I know it’s kind of the start of an era. It’s always big to be a part of the first of something, but we still have a mission. We still have an objective, and we have to make sure we prepare the right way so we can achieve our goal.”
Harbaugh didn’t embrace the perception of himself as a savior of Michigan football when he was hired in December of 2014, saying he was uncomfortable with that title, and added that his days of promising a victory over the Buckeyes are long gone.
“I make no guarantees. I made a guarantee a long time ago,” he said with a laugh at his introductory press conference. “And I've learned from that. I've grown. I understand that you don't make guarantees.”
While he promised nothing upon his arrival, the Michigan athletic department’s ability to get Harbaugh to return to his alma mater paid dividends on the field immediately. His team enters the game with Ohio State 9-2 on the season with both losses coming to ranked opponents. The Wolverines, who were a combined 12-13 the two seasons prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, are No. 10 in the country College Football Playoff Rankings.
Not only has Harbaugh had instant success on the field but he also immediately invigorated the Wolverine fan base as the school not only got the “Michigan Man” they coveted, but also a coach who put together a 58-27 record as the head coach at the University of San Diego and Stanford and went to three straight NFC Championship games as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Glenn “Schemy” Schembechler III, son of the legendary Michigan coach, said Harbaugh has done more for interest and passion for Wolverine football – and thus for the rivalry – than any coach in some time.
“Look at how the donations have come flowing in since he got hired,” Schemy said. “The alumni base is certainly rejuvenated to say the least and I just think the excitement around Michigan football has certainly increased based on a year ago and even compared to 10 years ago, that is certainly the case.”
Upon Harbaugh’s hiring, fans of both teams began dreaming of a scenario in which the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry would enter a new era reminiscent of the 10-Year War, the most storied period in the game’s history and one that featured one of the greatest coaching clashes in the history of the sport.
For 10 years Schembechler walked one sideline while Hayes stalked the other. The two first met in 1969, and the looming 2015 contest mirrors that game in some regards. In his first season at the helm, Schembechler led the Wolverines to a win against the defending national champion Buckeyes in Ann Arbor and that’s exactly what Harbaugh will be tasked with this season.
“I don’t think many Ohio State fans thought there would be any trouble in that game at all,” Park said of the infamous 1969 loss to Michigan. “There was one good group of people who thought that they could pull it off, and that was the team and the coaches.”
The Wolverines shocked the world that year, winning 24-12. A Michigan win won’t be as surprising as Buckeye fans have an eye towards history. If Harbaugh and the Wolverines fall to Ohio State Nov. 28, he would become just the second Michigan coach since 1929 to lose his first meeting with the Buckeyes. That would put him in the unfavorable company of Rich Rodriguez, who is also the only Wolverines coach to go winless against the Buckeyes with an 0-3 record in the rivalry.
Some of the details of the 1969 game and the 2015 edition don’t line up – Schembechler was not a known commodity prior to Michigan while Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor with national relevance and Ohio State had laid waste to all opponents in their path in 1969, a far cry from the 2015 Buckeyes – but the potential for the current coaching rivalry to match Bo and Woody exists.
“Absolutely, I think it can,” Park said. “I’m not predicting it will, but I think it can. I don’t think there is any question it can. It all depends on what happens in Ann Arbor. I think there is no question that this could turn in to a real thing equal to Woody and Bo. I hope it does.
“If it does become another Woody and Bo, Michigan has to start winning some games. The pressure is on Michigan to do that.”
If the Harbaugh-Meyer rivalry approaches the historic clashes of Woody-Bo, it will be on the field only.
Bo coached under Woody at Miami University before Hayes left for Ohio State and following their 10-year coaching rivalry it was revealed how close the teacher and pupil were off the field.
The same cannot be said for Meyer and Harbaugh, who have hardly crossed paths aside from that 1986 game when the former was an Ohio State graduate assistant and the latter quarterbacked the Wolverines. For his part, Harbaugh called Meyer a “heck of a coach and a gentleman” at Big Ten Media Days in July.
While Harbaugh and Meyer don’t have the history that Woody and Bo had before they came to the rivalry, Schemy concedes that the current pair of coaches could match the success that his father and Hayes had at their respective schools.
“The idea that on a year-by-year basis as long as they are coaching their respective teams, that competitiveness is certainly going to be there,” Schemy said. “What Jim brings to Michigan obviously is the toughness and the physicality. In so many ways his coaching philosophy has certainly been influenced by my dad.”
Harbaugh has acknowledged the influence that Schembechler had on his approach to coaching, and as the younger Schembechler pointed out his intensity mirrors that of the legendary Michigan coach.
In one regard he has a leg up on Bo, however, as Schembechler came to Ann Arbor with no experience in the rivalry and no previous attachment to Michigan. Harbaugh arrived with an overwhelming passion for the Wolverines.
“To come back as football coach at the University of Michigan,” Harbaugh said in December 2014 when he was hired, “I have to tell you that I have thought about that, dreamed about that since the time I was a young lad, 9-10 years old, and throughout my adult life, dreamed about coaching at Michigan, and now it's time to live that.”
While Harbaugh compares to Schembechler in his mind-set, the most direct comparison between Meyer and Hayes comes from their success.
Considered the greatest Ohio State coach in history, Hayes went 205-61-10 with the Buckeyes, a winning percentage of .743, while capturing five national titles. Meyer has gotten off to a blistering start in his Ohio State career with at 48-4 (.923). While two of his titles came at Florida, Meyer’s three national championships are the most FBS titles of any man who has coached at Ohio State aside from Hayes.
John Johnson, a confidant of Hayes’ and a graduate assistant from 1972-75, said the comparisons between the coaching rivalry that is set to start Nov. 21 in Ann Arbor and the one he had intimate knowledge of are apt.
“They had a great love-hate relationship, and that could develop with the two guys that are there now. No question about that,” Johnson said. “Urban Meyer is a disciple of Coach Hayes through Coach Bruce and through Lou Holtz and from having followed the team from when he was a kid and when Coach Hayes was coaching. And then of course Harbaugh is a disciple of Bo Schembechler, no question.”
Meyer would be honored by a comparison to the legendary Ohio State coach as his mentor, Bruce, was in turn mentored by Hayes. A portrait of Hayes hangs in Meyer’s house, just another piece of evidence highlighting the personal connection between Meyer and Ohio State, one matched by Harbaugh at Michigan.
“Urban is Ohio State and Harbaugh is Michigan,” former Ohio State player and current graduate assistant Jim Cordle said. “Those two guys battling, it does add some intensity. It’s because of who those guys are as coaches that it adds some intensity to it.”
Who they are – two men personally linked to the Ohio State-Michigan game – has rejuvenated the rivalry.