AP Sports Writer
There’s no mistaking these two for Bo and Woody — yet.
But it’s not for a lack of trying, at least not on Jim Harbaugh’s side of the equation.
Days ahead of his coaching debut in the century-plus Michigan-Ohio State rivalry and his first head-to-head matchup with Urban Meyer, the Wolverines’ new boss upped the emotional ante by making a surprise night-time visit to the grave of his mentor. With his father and 15-year-old daughter in tow, Harbaugh showed up unannounced for what has become a campus tradition in Ann Arbor, Mich., the week before the Ohio State game: a cemetery walk to honor several of the school’s football legends.
After saying a few words to a gathering of 200 or so — “I draw daily inspiration from coach Schembechler, like so many that knew him,” Harbaugh said — he proceeded to smash a buckeye nut with a maize-colored hammer in front of Bo Schembechler’s grave.
So those fears about Saturday’s game being short on sizzle?
Sure, Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State last week — the Buckeyes’ first this season — pushed any national title game implications into the background. And no matter who wins, both the eighth-ranked Buckeyes and the No. 12 Wolverines need a Michigan State loss at Penn State to claim the East Division spot in the Big Ten championship game.
But just like the “Ten-Year War” waged between Schembechler and Woody Hayes, his just-as-crusty Ohio State counterpart, there’s plenty at stake each time these two meet. And just like those two legends, these two appear to be natural-born rivals; in fact, Harbaugh and Meyer were birthed at the same Toledo hospital just six months apart.
“I thought that was very interesting and did not know that and it was neat. Neat,” Harbaugh said earlier this week, when he was still playing it cool. “Proud of that.
“But … I always say my reaction to the coach vs. coach buildup is he’s not going to be blocking anybody, he’s not going to be tackling anybody,” he continued. “I’ll be standing over there on the sidelines blocking and tackling nobody.”
Meyer had already re-energized the Buckeye program and established himself as a worthy successor to Hayes when Harbaugh arrived on the scene to great fanfare in late December. He took another step in that direction by winning a national championship — Meyer’s third, after two at Florida — weeks later. But even though Michigan State and coach Mark D’Antonio have given the Buckeyes a run for their money in the Big Ten lately, there was no doubt where Meyer’s attention was focused as the new season rolled around.
“I’ve been in rivalries,” he told ESPN.com in August, listing several from his coaching stays at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. “You make them personal, but they’re not.
“When I was 6, I was thinking about this rivalry,” he added a moment later. “This one’s seared on your soul. It’s ingrained through every part of your body. … I’m sure when you cut him (Harbaugh) open, this rivalry’s all over the place.”
Yet Harbaugh and Michigan aren’t the only things on Meyer’s plate this week. The loss to the Spartans was the Buckeyes’ most befuddling yet, bad enough that star running back Ezekiel Elliott announced he’d be eligible for the NFL draft and threw Meyer under the bus for questionable play-calling during the game.
Meyer tamped down some of the controversy by agreeing with Elliott. “Not very good,” he acknowledged Monday, “I have to do better.” But after looking shaky for long stretches this season, few things would restore the Buckeyes’ luster than a win over Michigan. Especially since the Buckeyes have won 11 of the last 13 meetings.
The two college football superpowers both boast tradition, big brands, bigger budgets, first-class facilities and they battle ceaselessly for blue-chip recruits. Meyer and Harbaugh were opponents once before, but just barely, in 1986. Meyer was a graduate assistant on Earle Bruce’s Ohio State staff at the time and Harbaugh was a snot-nosed QB who guaranteed a victory — enraging Schembechler, his coach at the time — and then improbably delivered.
Asked about his memories of that game, Harbaugh simply shrugged and said. “I’m sure we’ll talk about it as the week goes on.”
That fooled absolutely no one, least of all the players who have taken part in the remarkable revival Harbaugh has orchestrated in the span of a few months.
“He knows what he’s doing when it comes to this game,” Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden said.
Bolden wouldn’t say whether Harbaugh cautioned his team about doing the same. But asked how his coach might respond if anyone who did, he simply shook his head.
“I don’t really want to know,” Bolden said.