Lives of Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh lead to rivalry's new Ten Year War

WHETHER YOU ARE a Buckeye or you bleed maize and blue, you are afflicted with the myopia of caring about what happens Saturday when No. 3 Michigan plays at No. 2 Ohio State. You have to live with the result for the ensuing 365 mornings, waking each day in the jubilation, or the despair, of the final score.

For the rest of us, however, those of us without a Wolverine in the hunt, those of us who don't know the words to "Carmen Ohio," kickoff beckons as the dawn of a glorious era. It's not just that both teams are ranked in the top three for the first time in a decade. We dare to believe that the Ten Year War has broken out anew.

We dare to believe that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, the former unrelenting in his success and the latter revolutionary in his approach, will remake the Woody and Bo drama that enthralled us twoscore years ago.

It's been a long time. Ask any coach the difficulty of making up a two-score deficit.

We dare to believe in Meyer and Harbaugh because of their successes. Meyer, who has led three teams to FBS national championships, has the highest winning percentage (164-28, .854) among active FBS coaches with 10 years of experience. Harbaugh is second to Meyer in winning percentage among Big Ten coaches (78-31, .716). Harbaugh is first in yearly salary ($9 million) among college football coaches; Meyer is third ($6.75 million).

And we dare to believe in them because of their backgrounds. This rivalry is bred in their bones. They didn't have to immerse themselves in the history of 112 games between Ohio State and Michigan when they arrived on campus. They understood because they came of age in their respective states.

In an era of mercenary coaches, Meyer and Harbaugh have inhabited the jobs of their dreams. It is easier to imagine them staring at one another across the sidelines at the Horseshoe in 10 years than it is to imagine them anywhere else.

Meyer won the first meeting against Harbaugh last season, the No. 8 Buckeyes routing the No. 10 Wolverines 42-13. This year is different.

When Ohio State and Michigan kick off Saturday (noon ET, ABC) at the Horseshoe, they will play for at least a share of the Big Ten East title. They will play to remain a viable candidate for the College Football Playoff. And they will play for much more, for the pride and satisfaction that comes from vanquishing a rival of this magnitude with so much at stake.

That is not something anyone ever need explain to Meyer, the son of Ohio, and Harbaugh, the quintessential Michigan Man. All we need do is sit back and enjoy Saturday.

And the nine years that follow.

THE PASSION OF college football is rooted in a sense of place, not the lines on a map but the mental geography of attachment: the lure of identification by area code, the appeal of one set of colors, the repugnance of another. It is why you don't ask Meyer to sign something and hand him a blue Sharpie. It is why the only gray in this rivalry is what the Buckeyes wear.

Meyer and Harbaugh were born seven months apart in the same Toledo hospital. It had to be in Toledo, the city that precipitated a border dispute between Ohio and Michigan in 1835. The dispute became so heated that both governors called up their militias. Only the intervention of President Andrew Jackson prevented shots from being fired -- and prevented Toledo from being in Michigan.

Meyer grew up in the northeastern Ohio city of Ashtabula, while Harbaugh grew up in Bo Schembechler's hair. The son of former Michigan defensive backs coach Jack Harbaugh, Jim and his brother John spent their fall childhoods on the Wolverines practice field. The story is told that coaches' children never had been allowed at Schembechler's practices, but after Schembechler hired Jack Harbaugh, his wife Jackie had a word with Millie Schembechler, Bo's wife, and here came the Harbaugh boys.

"He'd come to practice along with Johnny," former Michigan assistant coach Jerry Hanlon said of Jim. "They'd be out here fooling around in the middle of my drills. And I had to say, 'Get the heck out of here! I don't care about you getting hurt. But don't hurt any of my players!'"

Schembechler never came out and ranked Jim Harbaugh as his favorite, but in the autobiography he wrote in 1989 with Mitch Albom, Schembechler spent the first three pages of a 12-page chapter on quarterbacks talking about him.

"Once, I went over to Jack's house and little Jimmy was there, watching TV, wrapped in a blanket," Schembechler wrote. "I kidded him, 'Hey, don't you have something more productive to do?' He grabbed a book and started reading.

"Even then," Schembechler wrote, "he hung on every word I said."

Schembechler thought enough of Harbaugh the adolescent that he gave Jim various sideline tasks on game days, like being the headset guy. Every head coach had a guy who followed him as he paced the sideline, making sure his headset cord didn't entangle the coach or anyone else.

"Bo was explosive and expansive and boisterous and ... Jim followed him up and down the sideline, unplugging his headsets, plugging it into the next jack along the line," said Todd Anson, Harbaugh's attorney and one of his closest friends. "He [was] at the foot of Bo since he was an 11- or 12-year-old boy on all the strategy, all the play-calling, all the interaction between Bo and his players and Bo and his coaches, and people don't really understand that."

Those fall afternoons are when Harbaugh fell in love with the maize and blue, when he watched his idol, Rick Leach, start at quarterback for Michigan for four years. From 1975 to '78, Leach went 38-8-1 (.819) as a starter, winning three of four against Ohio State. No defensive lineman ever shadowed Leach as doggedly as the kid he refers to as "Jimmy." When Leach looked at Harbaugh, he saw himself. Leach grew up in Flint, the son of a high school baseball and football coach.

"When my dad was coaching at whatever age I could remember back," Leach said, "these guys let me play catch with them, or throw the football with them, so I always had a fondness for Jimmy."

There is a film clip of Leach running for a 7-yard touchdown against Duke in the second game of 1977, his junior year. Standing just outside the right pylon, a gangly kid in a blue short-sleeve shirt and long pants bounces on the balls of his feet in anticipation as Leach circles around right end. As a game official signals the score, the kid shakes his right fist and claps twice as he runs into the end zone to clap Leach, still face down, on the back. Meet 13-year-old Jim Harbaugh.

"He wanted to play catch all the time," Leach said. "Of course he was around. He was a quarterback at that age. He asked a lot of questions. ... You know, occasionally, when things were going well, or I'm sitting on the bench while the defense was out there, next thing I know, there he was, asking me a question, giving me a pat on the back and an 'Attaboy!' so I mean, it was just different. And special."

Nearly 40 years later, Harbaugh still feels the same way. He made Leach the Wolverines' honorary captain for the Maryland game earlier this month. Harbaugh signed a photo of Leach taken at the coin toss and sent it to him:


You've always been a fierce competitor and great leader. It was an honor to have a Michigan Man lead us into battle. Jim Harbaugh"

Harbaugh also sent a letter across the battle line this fall. He mailed a congratulatory note to Earle Bruce when the former Ohio State coach (1979-87) dotted the I in Script Ohio, the most beloved honor an Ohio State man or woman may receive, before the Buckeyes played Rutgers.

Bruce, 85, remembered a young Jim Harbaugh being stationed on the Ohio State sideline with a job, maybe as a ball boy, or somehow assisting the referees. Bruce banished him.

"He was like a scout for them," Bruce said. "I told him to get the hell over on the other side of the field." He started laughing over the phone. Bruce had a warm friendship with Schembechler. He went 5-4 against Schembechler. He sees Schembechler in Harbaugh.

"I think he's a lovely guy," Bruce said.

Harbaugh's dad took a job as defensive coordinator at Stanford before Jim's junior year of high school. After two seasons at Palo Alto (California) High, Jim returned to Ann Arbor to play quarterback. Everyone in the athletic department badgered Schembechler about whether Harbaugh would sign, but the coach refused to worry. Schembechler knew a Michigan Man when he saw one.

Schembechler brought Harbaugh to campus in the last week of recruiting and offered Harbaugh the chance to play for the Wolverines. Harbaugh accepted. A few days later, he called back. As Schembechler recounted in his book:

"Uh, Bo. One more thing?"


"Is that a full scholarship?"

MEYER'S EARLIEST MEMORY of Ohio State football is watching an Ohio State-Michigan game, and then being summoned by his mom to the car. They walked through a shopping center in Ashtabula, listening to the game blaring from outdoor speakers. Although he was, by his estimation, only 5 or 6 years old, the memory gnaws at him.

"I can't believe I left the house," Meyer said.

The Meyer family may have been devout Catholics, but they held Woody Hayes in churchly regard. In the Meyer household, Ohio State football was appointment radio (in those days, no team appeared on television more than a couple of times during the regular season). Meyer didn't get a scholarship offer from Hayes, but he got to Columbus as soon as he could. After playing defensive back at Cincinnati, and a brief minor league baseball career, Meyer got the entry-level job of his dreams. Bruce, Hayes' successor, hired him as a graduate assistant.

"I was so inbred [that] it was Us and Them," Meyer said. It is the Sunday morning after his Ohio State team embarrassed Nebraska 62-3. But he steps away from the pleasure that watching that video brought him, and he is again a 22-year-old GA, thumbing through the media guide, looking at the assistant coaches he will join.

"You got Bill Conley, Randy Hart, Lenny Willis, Fred Pagac," Meyer said, "and they're all Ohio State former players. And I remember I was going down the list, and it said Chuck Heater on the staff.

"I knew the name Chuck Heater, because Chuck was a very good player."

At Michigan.

"And I was like, 'He can't be on the staff! You're not allowed to do that,'" Meyer said. "I remember it took me a minute to get over that. My first staff meeting, over in St. John Arena, I'm sitting there, way in the back of the room. I just kept staring at him. 'I can't believe Chuck Heater's in this meeting room. How does that happen?'"

Heater would go on to coach with Meyer on Bruce's staff at Colorado State, and then coach for him for seven seasons at Utah and Florida.

"He was in such a state of consternation over this thing, you know," Heater, now the defensive coordinator at Marshall, said with a chuckle. "Urban's such a serious guy. He's such a black-and-white guy. It's all or nothing. It's great or terrible. He couldn't process the fact that a Michigan guy was there."

Heater recalled going to a Florida coaching staff end-of-season party at Meyer's house in 2006, the year Meyer won the first of his three national championships -- by beating Ohio State, no less. Heater walked into Meyer's house wearing his Michigan letterman's jacket.

"He gives you that look sometimes," Heater said. "'What, are you crazy?'"

Meyer's first season as a GA in 1986 lined up as Harbaugh's last at Michigan. On the Saturday before the Ohio State-Michigan game, the Buckeyes defeated Wisconsin, but the No. 2, 9-0 Wolverines lost to Minnesota 20-17. They lost the Little Brown Jug. They lost their undefeated season. They failed to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title. And now they had to play at No. 6 Ohio State.

Conley, the Buckeyes' offensive coordinator who's now retired, remembered that on Sunday mornings, the coaches would take their families to the restaurant at the campus golf course for breakfast.

"I remember Urban saying, 'I can't wait for the Michigan game,'" Conley said. It was Sunday morning. "He took his job very serious, very dedicated to the job. He loved being at Ohio State."

Meyer remembers something else from that morning.

"I had an apartment on Neil Avenue," Meyer said. "I'm driving, and I turned the corner, and I see people hanging sheets out of those two twin [apartment] towers by the stadium, and it says, 'Muck Fichigan.'

"I thought, 'This is so cool.'"

The next day, Harbaugh walked into the Michigan weekly news conference, opened his mouth, and began to pour the cement of his legend. He guaranteed a Michigan victory. That's not something anyone who played for Schembechler ever had done. You kept your head down. What was it Bo repeated like a mantra? "The Team. The Team. The Team."

But Schembechler knew Harbaugh. He didn't dress him down. Oh, he dressed down Hanlon, his Harbaugh keeper and quarterbacks coach.

"I durn near got fired over that one," Hanlon said. "Bo wanted to know, 'Couldn't I control my players, what the hell's the matter with you?' this and that and the other."

Leach, then in the middle of his 10-year major league baseball career, dropped in to see Schembechler.

"We kind of get caught up real quick," Leach said. "He's looking at me, and he says, 'Hey, what do you think about what happened?' I said, 'Well, Coach, based on my relationship [with Harbaugh], maybe I should keep quiet. What's your reaction?'

"And he bends right over and looks at me and he says, 'At least I got a quarterback that's got enough stones to say that publicly!' And I thought, 'How in the hell did I get involved?'"

The legends around the guarantee say that Harbaugh said it to refocus his locker room after the Minnesota loss, and/or to deflect attention away from his father, who got fired that very day as head coach by Western Michigan after going 3-8 in his fifth season. The method to his madness came through on all fronts. Final score: Michigan 26, Ohio State 24.

The next year, the Buckeyes returned the upset, winning 23-20 five days after the firing of Bruce and the resultant resignation of athletic director Rick Bay. The drama took place in the coaches' meeting room, which is now Meyer's office. It made such an impression on the 23-year-old Meyer that nearly 30 years later, he stood up and re-enacted where everyone positioned themselves in the impromptu meeting in which Bay informed the staff.

"Everybody kind of comes to grips with it," Meyer said. "And then we have a team meeting two hours later. Go out and practice. And we all go home. I remember my mom was having cancer treatments at the time right at the [university] medical center. I remember sitting at home talking to her about it, because she loved Coach Bruce. We're sitting there, turn on the TV, and the band goes out to his house, performs at his house, and I get all emotional."

On the wall of Meyer's home office, there is a photo of his father, Bud, standing on the Buckeyes sideline in Michigan Stadium, decked out in Ohio State coaching gear, right down to the sideline pass.

"My dad was great, and loved Earle Bruce," Meyer said. "I used to give him all my old Ohio State jackets that we'd wear on the sideline. In pregame warm-ups, I had my sideline pass and I said to my dad, he was sitting right there, I walk over to him and give it to him. He puts it on and comes down on the field."

Meyer's wife, Shelley, said the photo means more to them now. Bud Meyer died five years ago this month.

"That was a huge deal, to be able to get his dad down on the sideline of that game, just because of the history of their love for that game," she said.

IT WOULD BE 25 years before Urban Meyer wore Ohio State gear on the sideline again. His career took him to Colorado State with Bruce, to Notre Dame with Bob Davie, to head-coaching jobs at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. He wore different colors -- including blue at a couple of stops -- and his 2006 Florida team won the national championship by routing, yes, Ohio State, 41-14.

Meyer remembered waking up in the predawn hours in Hawaii, where Colorado State was playing, to watch Ohio State and Michigan in 1990. After the Buckeyes lost, he went downstairs to breakfast and handed a five-dollar bill to the Rams' defensive line coach, Mike Trgovac, a former Wolverine.

For the most part, his identity as a Buckeye pulsed quietly. But the meaning of Ohio State and Michigan imprinted itself on Meyer in one way critical to his success as a head coach. Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen worked for Meyer at four stops: at Notre Dame as a GA, and at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida as an assistant.

"If you look at everywhere he's been," Mullen said, "he's done an amazing job of embracing the rivalry and within the university, getting the teams to understand how important rivalry games are, what they mean to your program, what they also mean to the alumni and everybody involved in the school."

Meyer, since coming to Ohio State, is 4-0 against Michigan. As successful as Meyer has been in his 15 seasons as a head coach, his winning percentage in rivalry games (19-3, .863) is slightly higher.

Former Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris, who now lives in Columbus, said that Meyer "treated the rivalry we had with Toledo the same way that he treated the rivalry with Michigan and Ohio State. The whole, 'team up north' thing, all of that, not necessarily speaking the name of the opponent. That whole thing is pretty consistent."

The Rockets, "that team up north," were just 25 miles up I-75. If anyone asked Meyer during those two years where he was born, what did he say? That hospital up north?

FOR NEARLY 20 YEARS, Jeff Holzhausen, an Ann Arbor health insurance executive, has given a tour of the Forest Hill Cemetery adjacent to the Michigan campus on one evening during the week of the Ohio State game. Holzhausen leads Wolverines fans to the gravesites of Schembechler, Bob Ufer, the former Michigan radio play-by-play broadcaster, and Fielding H. Yost, the coach who established Michigan as "Champions of the West" in the first quarter of the 20th century.

"It sits on a hill, pretty much the highest point in Ann Arbor," Holzhausen said, "and overlooks the campus and the medical center. It's really an amazing place. Fielding Yost's gravestone says, 'I want to be buried where the spirit of Michigan flows the warmest.' It's right there. You can hear the band practice from Fielding Yost's grave."

Holzhausen has led as many as 300 fans on his cemetery walks. He takes the group to each gravesite, gives a little talk about each man, and then smashes a buckeye with a maize-and-blue hammer. Last year, Holzhausen had a group of about 70, including Jake Rudock, the fifth-year transfer quarterback from Iowa. Rudock, who had stayed behind after practice to watch video, drove up with his dad.

He listened as Holzhausen spoke at Schembechler's grave of a new era in Michigan football.

"It just shows how much Michigan was a part of their lives and how important it was to them," Rudock said. "If you ever got a chance to walk around that cemetery, it's pretty cool."

Rudock, an old but new Wolverine, had come to appreciate the tradition and meaning of playing for Michigan. That is to say, he had spent time almost every day with Harbaugh, and heard him talk about Schembechler.

"He always tried, I think, to make Bo proud as a coach," Rudock said. "I really think that."

It was early evening, yet well after sunset, seasonably cold for late autumn. Ann Arbor had received almost a foot of snow over the weekend. And yet the fans had gathered because of what Michigan football meant to them.

'There's no doubt in my mind how much it means for one of Bo's guys to come back and right this ship," Holzhausen told his crowd. "There's no doubt in my mind, when folks mention Yost and folks mention [former Michigan head coach Fritz] Crisler and Schembechler, they're going to mention Harbaugh, too."

Michigan football had been reborn in 2015, reborn because of the driven man who coached The Team, The Team, The Team, who stood quiet and unseen in the back as Holzhausen spoke. Harbaugh, without telling anyone, had come to reconnect with his old coach, to fuel his inner Michigan Man.

Holzhausen asked if anyone would like to say anything. Out of the back, a familiar voice said, "Well, if you don't mind, I'd like to say a few words."