Published 9:58 AM EST Nov 21, 2018
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh knows every detail except the latitude and longitude of where he was when he understood the importance of the Ohio State rivalry.
“Nine and a half years old,” Harbaugh said. “The first game I went to was in 1973. Sat in the south end zone with my mom, my brother and my sister. It was a 10-10 tie at Michigan Stadium.”
Harbaugh, whose father Jack was a Michigan assistant coach then, said after seeing that game the yearly Wolverines-Buckeyes battle became the highlight of his year.
“It was even better than Christmas,” Harbaugh said.
Forty-five years later he still feels the same, maybe even more so this season. The ramifications of Saturday’s showdown between No. 4 Michigan and. No. 10 Ohio State (Noon, Fox) in Columbus seem more consequential than usual.
“Over the years, this game has just grown to become the biggest rivalry in college football,” said Jim Betts, 69, who played from 1968-70 at Michigan.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, 54, learned about the rivalry early growing up in Ashtabula, Ohio.
“I know both universities (have) the respect factor,” Meyer said. “I didn’t say ‘like.’ But there is respect.”
Since Meyer became coach, Ohio State is 6-0 against Michigan. To continue the streak, the nation’s No. 2 offense, averaging 541.8 yards a game, must take down a Michigan team ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense (234.8).
As one-loss Power Five teams, the Wolverines and Buckeyes both understand they must win Saturday, and then beat Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game, to have an opportunity to be in the College Football Playoff.
And as if that weren’t enough, this year’s game has subplots to add more spice.
“I believe this will be (Ohio State coach) Urban Meyer’s last game coaching in the Shoe – I think he’s going to retire,” said fan Jeff Hamms who will attend his 39th Ohio State-Michigan game.
Meyer, 54, has shown discomfort coaching on the sidelines, and said earlier this season an enlarged congenital arachnoid cyst on his brain had caused headaches that brought him to his knees during a game against Indiana.
On Michigan sports talk shows, one topic of conversation is whether Harbaugh can finally beat Ohio State as a coach. He did beat Ohio State as a Michigan quarterback. He’s 0-3 against the Buckeyes since taking over Dec. 16, 2014.
“As far as fans go, I would say there’s a decent amount, not a majority, who see this game as a referendum on Harbaugh,” said Mike Stone, host of a morning show on 97.1 The Ticket. “If they lose this game, there will be a segment that says, ‘He’s still a failure because he hasn’t beaten Ohio State.’”
But Stone said the majority of Michigan fans view the game’s importance as an opportunity to reach the Big Ten championship game for the first time. “Then if they take care of business there, and get to the playoffs, they bring the program back to the prominence it once had.”
Michigan’s leading rusher Karan Higdon (1,106 yards) created a stir this week when he guaranteed a win against Ohio State. But Harbaugh said on Tuesday’s Big Ten Conference call Higdon was badgered into the guarantee.
“What Karan was saying was he was confident, believes in his team, his teammates, his coaches,” Harbaugh said. “That’s real. That’s genuine. I thought the reporter was pretty silly with his ‘Do you guarantee? Do you guarantee? Do you guarantee?’”
Coaches dislike bulletin board material, but fans are into it during Michigan-Ohio State week.
Betts lives in Michigan but grew up in Cleveland. He is going to niece Millicent’s home in Galena, Ohio, 22 miles from Columbus, for Thanksgiving. His brother, Greg, is a Michigan fan, but Greg’s wife Shelley’s family cheers for the Buckeyes.
“We have endured a lot of abuse over the last number of years, so we hoping this year will be different so we can put an end to the family feud,” Betts joked.
Brian Fogle, 50, owner of a Columbus landscaping business, has one of the largest Ohio State memorabilia collections. It includes a leather jacket signed by more than 300 of Ohio State’s greatest players. He ignores statistics and hype this week.
“This is a war,” Fogle said. “It never matters where teams are ranked.”
What does matter is how much fans enjoy the rivalry. “It gets pretty wild,” Fogle said. “I remember in 2002, we were walking down High Street at nine in the morning, and all I could see was a sea of Scarlet and Gray. I remember saying, ‘That is where I want to be.’”
Hamms said he is nervous about this game, and he never is nervous about Michigan-Ohio State game. He’s fretting because Michigan has looked impressive since losing to Notre Dame in its opening game. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, have often strained to win.
Because of the drama surrounding Meyer’s future, Hamms said: “This is the biggest game Urban Meyer has ever coached, at any level, for any school, including for the national championship.”
It’s fair to say this game is significant for many, including Harbaugh.
“To us this is as big as it gets,” Harbaugh said. “It’s the most important thing in our football lives.”
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