Recharging this rivalry not so easy
The story of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry will always best be told through the tale of Woody and Bo.
For 10 years, Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes and Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines reigned over the Big Ten and captivated the country. Teacher vs. pupil. Dear friends and fierce competitors, their legacies are linked.
More than three decades since their Ten Year War concluded, Michigan and Ohio State are about to play one of the highest-stakes games in the history of series that will reach 113 games Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.
With modern-day titans of coaching on each side and both teams contending for a national championship, this feels as if it could be the start of something big: a new era of epic competition between two coaches with roots that trace back to the men who defined the rivalry.
On one side, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, a Buckeye by birth who was mentored by Hayes’ successor in Columbus. With three national championships on his resume, he is 4-0 against Michigan since taking over at Ohio State.
On the other, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, who played quarterback for Schembechler in the mid-1980s. After turning around Stanford and taking the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl, he returned to Michigan and needed just two seasons to make the Wolverines great again.
“Ohio State-Michigan is always special, but when you put such brash personalities and big personalities, guys who have a little bit of an ego with all they have accomplished, and you put them on sideline with all that’s at stake it just really adds to the drama,” said ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback whose father played for and coached under Hayes.
The best rivalries have always been at their most compelling when the teams are being led by powerhouse coaches, whether it was Tom Osborne at Nebraska facing Barry Switzer at Oklahoma or Florida’s Steve Spurrier matching wits and throwing zingers at Bobby Bowden and Florida State. Meyer vs. Harbaugh is not just a throwback for Ohio State-Michigan.
“This is college football at its finest and at its peak in my opinion,” former Ohio State linebacker and Fox NFL analyst Chris Spielman.
Schembechler was an assistant to Hayes at Ohio State for five years before eventually taking over at Michigan. Their teams played 10 times from 1969-78. Michigan won five, Ohio State four and there was one tie. One or the other won the Big Ten title every year, unless they shared it.
They were gruff and uncompromising. They were the embodiment of Big Ten football and the faces of two programs that in many ways mimicked each other. And they loved each other like family, though competition took precedent during the fall.
“They never talked to each other during the season,” said Bruce Madej, the longtime former sports information director at Michigan.
Hayes and Schembechler set the tone for the rivalry some fans just call The Game.
“It’s like two brothers or two best friends trying to beat each other,” Herbstreit said.
Growing up in Ashtabula, Ohio, the northeast part of the state, Meyer and his family were unabashed Buckeyes fans. His first taste of college coaching was at Ohio State, where he was a graduate assistant in 1986 and ’87 for Earle Bruce, the man who worked for and then replaced Hayes as Buckeyes head coach in 1979.
Meyer, 52, said he approaches the rivalry the way Schembechler and Hayes did and wants his Ohio State teams to harken back to the Buckeyes of his youth.
“I didn’t say like, but there’s a mutual respect,” he said this week. “And I learned it from those two, two of the greatest coaches of all time. They handled themselves with incredible class, toughness, demanded of their players, and you got to see that every time those two teams played. So that’s my memory, and that’s how we go about our business here.”
Harbaugh, 52, was born seven months before Meyer in the same hospital in Toledo, Ohio.
“What a small world, as they say,” Harbaugh said.
The son of a coach, Harbaugh’s father, Jack, worked for Schembechler in the ’70s, and eventually Jim Harbaugh played for Bo. The last time Harbaugh was involved in a football game in Columbus, he was Michigan’s quarterback in 1986, delivering on a victory he guaranteed.
“He is one of Bo’s boys,” Madej said. “That adds to everything that we have here at Michigan and I think that adds to the rivalry.”
Ohio State has won 11 of the last 12 meetings with Michigan, including the series only 1-2 matchup in 2006. The day before Ohio State beat Michigan 42-39 to earn a spot in the national championship game, Schembechler, long since retired from coaching but still very much a much a presence at Michigan, died.
In the years that followed, Michigan sifted through coaches and lost its identity. When Harbaugh arrived in 2015, even Buckeyes could feel a difference.
“There’s no question he has intensified the rivalry,” said two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, who never lost a game to Michigan in his four years of service for Hayes during the 10-year War. “Quite frankly, I was happy to see them hire Jim Harbaugh.”
In typical Harbaugh fashion, he did not reminisce this week.
“Just really thinking about the process of preparation this week,” he said. “Getting ready for the actual game.”
The Buckeyes won the first meeting of Harbaugh and Meyer 42-13 in the Big House last season. While Harbaugh has never been shy about taking a fellow coach to task, he has traded no barbs with Meyer. They are not close but clearly admire each other’s work. Saturday in Columbus one will likely end the other’s chance to win a national championship.
They will likely never share a bond the way Schembechler and Hayes did, but Meyer and Harbaugh could be about to write the next memorable chapter in one of college football’s greatest rivalries.
This story has been corrected to show that there have been 113 games, not 114, in the series, when taking into consideration a vacated game.
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