ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was asked Monday what people in Ohio should think of him, since, thanks to his personality quirks, some view him as crazy and some just crazy like a fox.
“Not crazy,” Harbaugh said, which in itself was a little crazy.
In Columbus, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer continued his longstanding tradition of never saying the word “Michigan” while barring entrance to the Buckeye football facility to anyone dumb enough to wear an article of clothing with the color blue on it.
He’d consider that not crazy also.
So too, presumably, would Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, the legends of Ohio State and Michigan, respectively, who during the so-called “Ten Year War” (1969-1979) coached against each other and built up a rivalry that remains as heated as ever.
The second-ranked Wolverines and the third-ranked Buckeyes meet Saturday in Ohio State – noon kickoff, as always.
It’s the first time since 2006 that the game has national championship implications for both teams. This isn’t about one team trying to play spoiler or a new coach arriving or a lame duck about to leave. The battle lines and participants are set, the first of many to come with Harbaugh perched here and Meyer dug in down in Columbus, each with a powerhouse in progress.
There is a long tradition of great coaches on both sides of this series – Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr each won national titles, after all. They were more senatorial or professorial though. No one has ever quite channeled the unhinged competitiveness of Hayes and Schembechler the way Meyer and Harbaugh do. No other coach ever pushed quite like these guys. You never had to wonder if, say, Brady Hoke was crazy.
This, here and now, is a battle between two pure-breed alpha dogs, each an accomplished winner, each in his prime, each barreling forward with everything they have.
This is just their second match-up (the Buckeyes won handily in Ann Arbor last year, but that was considered a rebuilding Wolverine team). They battle regularly in recruiting, however, even trying to raid each other’s states for talent. It’s unlikely a day goes by where they don’t think of each other.
What’s it like competing against Urban Meyer, Harbaugh was asked Monday.
“Unique, in that it’s at the highest level,” he said. “In terms of competition on the field or recruiting, Urban is at the highest level. The competition is at the highest level.”
The idea that this could be the start of another Ten Year War, that these games will go down in history as particularly significant in a rivalry that is always significant, is not lost on anyone, even the participants.
“Second coming of two legends,” Wolverine offensive lineman Erik Magnuson said. “It’s cool.”
“The two coaches you have going against each other are two of the greatest in college football,” Michigan linebacker Mike McCray said. “Once we get older [we’ll] look back and [see] that we were part of history.”
Like Meyer and Harbaugh, no one was ever quite certain what Hayes and Schembechler would do next. Hayes was a true character, the kind of guy who, in 1970, decided to start walking to work to help America decrease its dependence on foreign oil. It was three miles each way. He even did it in the winter. Schembechler was ferociously driven, holding to bedrock truisms of life, such as, “Early is on time and on time is late.”
The rivalry, back when the rest of the Big Ten offered few obstacles, became all-encompassing.
One time Hayes and assistant coach Edward Ferkany were on a recruiting trip in metro Detroit, scheduled to drive back to Columbus that night. Still in Michigan, the gas tank grew low and Ferkany tried to pull off Interstate 75 to refuel.
“Coach, we gotta stop,” Ferkany pleaded according to Michael Rosenberg’s book, “War as They Knew It.”
Hayes would have none of it, claiming they’d push the vehicle if need be.
“Keep the [expletive] car going,” Hayes barked back. “We’re not stopping in this goddamn state and paying taxes.”
They somehow made it to Toledo and filled up on proper petroleum.
That was Hayes, though. He dubbed Michigan “that school up North,” which Meyer has co-opted as an abbreviation, TSUN. In 1968 (pre-Schembechler), when leading Michigan 44-14, Hayes decided to go for two. When asked why, he declared, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”
For his part, Schembechler was asked, in 2004, at age 75, if he knew anything about “The Dead Schembechlers,” a Columbus-based, anti-Wolverine rock band that dressed in matching Woody Hayes outfits, declared a University of Michigan diploma as “worthless as confederate money” and believed Tressel’s sweater vest held mystical powers.
Schembechler enjoyed the slightest of advantages in the 10-year battle with Hayes, posting a 5-4-1 record. Upon learning of the band and their songs – who can forget the “hit” tune “Schembechler Kicked My Crippled Dog?” – he proudly declared to John Niyo of the Detroit News: “I still matter in Columbus!”
This is part of why Meyer and Harbaugh feel like the perfect foils, the perfect fits. Neither is the most well-adjusted individual out there, both slightly (or more) awkward socially. It’s easy to envision someone starting a band where everyone dressed in Harbaugh’s khaki-based ensemble.
Harbaugh played for Schembechler at Michigan and in 1986 even guaranteed victory over Ohio State (the Wolverines won 26-24). Schembechler loved Harbaugh, but declared him his cockiest quarterback ever. Meyer was a defensive back at Cincinnati, but always eyed the chance to coach in Columbus and nearly worked himself to death before getting there.
Neither has anything to prove professionally. Meyer has won three national titles, including two at Florida. Harbaugh rebuilt the Stanford program and then took San Francisco to the Super Bowl before returning to Ann Arbor. Neither can imagine being satisfied for a second, though. They feed on the challenge.
The two were coincidentally born in the same Toledo hospital, less than a year apart. “We’ve talked about it, being born in the same hospital,” Harbaugh said. “What a small world, as they say … I’ve always taken great pride in Toledo …”
As he riffed, Harbaugh broke into a brief one-man play, re-enacting an apparent common conversation.
“Where were you born?” Harbaugh said, imitating a questioner before playing himself.
“I was born in Toledo, Ohio.”
So it went on Monday, Harbaugh giving oddball and at times hysterical answers if only to get through his media responsibilities and onto preparation for the game, which is all that matters and all he wants to do anyway.
That’s the only way guys such as Meyer and Harbaugh can operate. Whatever doubt, whatever fear they possess will be washed away by work and more work and the thrill of the battle, the chance to walk in the shoes and along the sidelines of Woody and Bo and everything else.
“Healthy, fair and honest competition,” Harbaugh called it.
It should be start of something big, like historically big.
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