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Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh: The Big Ten’s Big Two

Can Michigan’s new man overtake Ohio State’s latest legend and reignite college football’s best rivalry? Would you bet against him?

Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh

Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh speak at Big Ten media days in Chicago.

Paul Beaty/AP (2)

It may be a while before the name Rashod Berry rings with real significance between the ears of Ohio State football fans, a seemingly endless sea of rabid supporters with a penchant for putting all things Scarlet and Gray on a pedestal. Berry, a freshman tight end, is a million miles down the list of BMOCs in the most talent-laden program in college football, but already he’s part of a story – a rather embarrassing one – that belongs in Buckeyes lore.

In the twists-and-turns department, it isn’t much of a story. Berry merely showed up to a team meeting last week in Columbus clad in a royal-blue T-shirt. If you know the blue worn by Ohio State’s No. 1 rival, the Michigan Wolverines, you’re well aware that royal is several shades off-target. Tell that to Urban Meyer.

“Get out,” the Buckeyes’ coach snapped at poor Berry in front of the entire team. “Get out of our meeting. You’re not allowed in here.”

Meyer’s conniption spoke volumes. Since ESPN called Ohio State-Michigan North America’s greatest sports rivalry in 2000, the Buckeyes have won 12 of 15 games against the Wolverines, including 10 of the past 11. Also since then, nearly twice as many Buckeyes – 19, to Michigan’s 10 – have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. OSU has won two national championships, including last season’s, and played for two others, to Michigan’s not-even-close. Yet the rivalry, lopsided as it is, burns as fiercely as ever.

And we do mean ever. The rivalry lost quite a bit luster in recent years, but it has roared back at full force thanks to Michigan’s hiring of Jim Harbaugh.

Meyer’s victory over Nick Saban and Alabama in the 2014 College Football Playoff solidified the widespread belief that the two most accomplished coaches in the college game are essentially equals. One might rank Saban over Meyer or vice-versa, but most would agree to a 1-and-1A arrangement. Harbaugh, though, has college football fans in Ann Arbor, throughout a worried rest of the Big Ten and beyond adding a layer to their thinking. It’s a layer of bemusement and, more so, of anything-is-possible.

Harbaugh is a strange dude, no doubt. He’s also a killer coach, a force of fearlessness and motivation that could have Michigan nipping at OSU’s heels in no time. The results could soon reposition the Big Ten as, in a throwback to decades gone by, Buckeyes-vs.-Wolverines and then everybody else. It also could threaten the Southeastern Conference’s increasingly waning status as the national bully.

But let’s examine the “strange” for a bit.

Harbaugh seems to get off on steering interviews into a ditch of weirdness. At Big Ten media days in Chicago – an annual gathering of coaches, top players and reporters – he pretended not to understand a question about his alma mater’s long-despised rival.

“Ohio State in particular?” he finally asked, disingenuously, after a rephrase.

Harbaugh described returning to Michigan as “coming out of the womb, and it’s just chaos.” After pretending to be befuddled by another reporter’s simple question about his Michigan memories, he went into soldier-in-the-jungle mode: “You’ve gotta just brush ’em aside,” he said, waving an arm as though clearing a path through dense foliage. “They’re thick. [But] they’re wonderful.”

Famously khakied and occasionally shirtless, Harbaugh is an odd duck. OK, so what? He’s also the same guy who, in four years as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, averaged 11 victories and reached three NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl. Prior to that, he was a sensational college coach, first leading the University of San Diego to unprecedented heights and then authoring a rebuilding story at Stanford that defied the imagination.

Harbaugh has chased down a Meyer-esque coaching giant before: Pete Carroll. Harbaugh inherited a 1-11 team at Stanford and in 2007, in his initial season there, toppled Carroll’s USC monster as a 41-point underdog — perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the Pac-12 Conference. Two years later, Harbaugh’s Cardinal machine destroyed the Trojans by five touchdowns in Los Angeles. Does anyone want to raise his or her hand right now and argue that Carroll isn’t one of the very best football coaches in existence? Jimbo has kicked Petey’s ass and thrown him for a loop. Not every time, of course, but enough times that Meyer should be concerned about what’s coming.

Meyer himself is pretending to be unfazed by Harbaugh’s return to, as legendary Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes called it, “that school up north.”

“There is a buzz,” he said in Chicago. “I checked the Internet, and there it is – it’s real.”

Meyer is off to a 3-0 start against Michigan, which already makes him something of a heroic figure in this rivalry’s history. Current Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez was 0-3 at Michigan against Ohio State from 2008-2010 and lost those games by an incredible combined score of 100-24. There have been other, even more dramatic swings in the series. OSU’s Jim Tressel won nine of ten games against the Wolverines. His predecessor, John Cooper, was 2-10-1 in The Game from 1988-2000.

But now, fans of both sides of this storied rivalry are imagining a second coming of the Ten Year War, that blessed period from 1969-78 during which Bo Schembechler’s Michigan teams and Hayes’ Ohio State teams played on equal terms – rag-dolling the rest of the Big Ten in the process – and routinely were ranked in the top five in the country. Is that too much to ask for?

“I don’t really know how the fans think about it,” Buckeyes star senior defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said last week in Chicago, “but I know as an Ohio State player we’re looking to continue to win.”

That shouldn’t be too tough for OSU to do in 2015, as Michigan rebuilds. But Harbaugh is in place to change all that, and soon. He’s aligned against perhaps the finest coach in all of college football – 1? 1A? What’s the difference? – yet bent on shoving the Buckeyes’ recent dominance in the rivalry into the abyss. Doubt this maelstrom of a man at your own peril.

In This Article: Football, sports

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