Ohio State vs. Michigan just hasn’t been the same since Lloyd Carr retired in 2007. It’s been missing a certain element that defines what’s supposed to be the best rivalry in all of sports, and has lost much of its luster on a national scale.
But that’s about to take a dramatic turn, and fast. In fact, it already has.
According to multiple reports, Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett has already closed in on a monumental deal with former San Francisco 49ers—and Stanford Cardinal—coach Jim Harbaugh, which will automatically make him the savior of the Wolverines’ football program following the dismissal of Dave Brandon. (Had he not landed Harbaugh, he would have been sent out angry mob style.) It was an all-or-nothing pursuit after waiting for the NFL regular season to end, and it seems as if the big-time gamble is going to pay off; expect “interim” to be stripped from his title.
“I think it’s a good move,” said former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. “I’m sad how Coach Hoke left, but obviously Coach Harbaugh is a great coach and he was a great player at Michigan. He’s basically Michigan royalty right now. He’s the man right now. I think he’s going to do a great job and help out recruiting. He’s had success at every school he went to, every team he coached at. I think it’s a great fit for Michigan.”
A few weeks ago, hiring Harbaugh seemed like an unimaginable fantasy. Not only were the 49ers in the playoff hunt, but Harbaugh had shut down any possibilities of a return to Ann Arbor and expressed his interest in staying with the professional ranks on multiple occasions—even as recent as last week.
However, it seems as if the offer was too good to pass up, because Michigan is expected to announce the hire on Tuesday. And this is a very, very good thing.
“Jim is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around,” former Stanford athletic director and current Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said on Sunday, according to SI.com. “My guess is him coming in will take that rivalry to new levels.”
Harbaugh is responsible for building the Stanford football program you see today. From 1993-2006, the Cardinal went 67-90, including a 16-40 mark in the five seasons leading up to his hire. His fiery personality and coaching tactics made an immediate impact on the players, instantly re-creating the culture into a winning brand.
Stanford quadrupled its 2006 win output with four in Harbaugh’s first season and then won five in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2009 that his style of play had taken into full effect. The Cardinal won eight games for the first time in as many years, making statements with upsets against No. 7 Oregon and No. 11 USC while introducing a new era of Stanford football, or as I like to call it, Har-ball.
Harbaugh took Stanford to its first 12-win season in school history in 2010—his final year—and set up the program for long-term success, as it holds a 41-12 record under then-offensive coordinator David Shaw. Harbaugh then, of course, went 44-19-1 with San Francisco, appearing in three NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. But that wasn’t enough for a franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs in nearly a decade.
That’s the 49ers’ loss and Michigan’s gain. And the Big Ten’s. And, believe it or not, Ohio State’s.
“I don’t know him,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer when asked about the Harbaugh-to-Michigan deal. “Obviously I’ve seen what he’s done and he seems like a heck of a coach.”
I think I speak for most Ohio State fans when I say that though I despise anything that comes from that state up north, I’ve been not-so-secretly hoping and praying that the Wolverines would somehow not screw this one up for the sake of the conference’s perception and The Game’s national recognition.
Ohio State has won 10 out of the last 11 matchups with Michigan. I’m not saying I’m not happy with that—heck, the Buckeyes can win every single game for the rest of eternity, and I’d be good with it—but there’s been less and less value to each of these wins as time has went on.
Since the No. 1 vs. No. 2 Game of the Century in 2006, Michigan has been ranked for The Game three times (2007, 2011, and 2012), having been no higher than No. 17. Before then, the last time the Wolverines weren’t inside the Top 25 was in 1993, and they were ranked inside the Top 10 at some point during the season for 38 (!) straight years prior.
That’s what has always made this rivalry so special: the implications of the outcome and what was on the line.
For someone that lives to hate Michigan—and has struggled to do so as of late—I haven’t felt anything close to the level anxiety and excitement from the Game of the Century or the matchups from the early 2000s. But with Harbaugh, that changes; I’m already daydreaming of a modern “10 Year War” between he and Meyer.
It also brings a massive amount of credibility to the Big Ten, with a tremendous tilt toward the East Division—much like the SEC West. On one side, you have Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, Mark Dantonio, and James Franklin. On the other, it’s… well, it’s the West. (See Big Ten title game for more details on division separation.)
Now Ohio State has one more quality opponent to add to its resume for future College Football Playoff berths, and I like that. It also gives outsiders less of a reason to keep the Buckeyes out for lack of competition. I like that a lot.
I give Hackett and the Michigan boosters a golf clap for nailing this, but that’s as far as I’ll take it. From here, I’ll have to assume that Harbaugh can get the Wolverines back to national prominence—and that he’ll be able to do it with the currently loaded roster that Brady Hoke failed to succeed with.
I’ll also have to assume that Harbaugh’s name alone will turn around a 2015 recruiting class that possesses six commits just five weeks before National Signing Day.
Actually, I don’t have to assume that one. It should come with ease.
“I would walk into the seventh ring of hell with that man. He changed who I was as a person,” Eric Bakhtiari, who played for Harbaugh with the 49ers and at San Diego, told MLive.com. “He takes losers and makes them winners. It’s as simple as that.”
So from one Ohio State fan to Jim Harbaugh and the upcoming new-look Michigan Wolverines: Good for you, but most importantly, good for the Buckeyes, The Game, and the B1G.
(P.S. Michigan still sucks.)