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Natural Born Rivals
Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer have long been destined to lead the game's most storied rivalry. But even they're surprised to learn of their remarkable shared history.
You don’t have to travel to Ann Arbor to catch the Jim Harbaugh show. If you live near a high school football field, Harbaugh will come to you. In June, the new Michigan coach toured the country, stirring excitement and controversy equally by orchestrating nine prep camps in six other states. Who would’ve known that Michigan football has struggled for nearly a decade? Like a magician with a silk handkerchief fluttering from one hand and a coin palmed in the other, Harbaugh has induced the public to focus on the wrong object: himself. His sleight of hand has been so deft that you might believe for a moment that Michigan, and not Ohio State, won college football’s first-ever playoff.
But if you do find your way to Ann Arbor, you’ll realize how Harbaugh reenergized college football without coaching a game. Here at Schembechler Hall, a gallery of artifacts eulogizes rosier days—cable-knit jerseys in maize and faded blue, shiny trophies and Tom Harmon’s shoe. No séance will raise these departed souls. But there isn’t a coach who understands the spirits of this program as well as Harbaugh, nor one as willing to risk his reputation to revive it.
On this afternoon in June, shortly after returning from his tour, Harbaugh is speaking quietly with a prep tight end from Massachusetts. Over the recruit’s left shoulder, he detects a reporter with a notepad loitering outside his office. His eyes widen, possibly in recognition of colliding forces. Recruiting. Publicity. And the curtain lifts.
“Gimme the ball!”
Harbaugh jumps to a stance, knees flexed, arms out. He backs his rear end into the recruit’s hip, bumps him off balance, boxing him out. “Basketball’s great for a tight end,” he says. His voice carries down the corridor. “Catch the ball. Get some reps.” He raises his hands and calls for a pass.
No one is sure what to do. Not the kid. Not his parents. Not Harbaugh’s assistant coaches, mustering to the sound. They all stare, as one does at a man up onstage courageously risking foolishness in search of inspiration. Suddenly, as if scripted, another recruit appears.
“Hey, you play basketball?” Harbaugh yells. He leaps toward the new recruit, posting him up. “Wait,” the kid says, confused. “Are you on offense or defense?” Harbaugh’s neck swells. “I’m getting the ball!” he says. There is no ball. This fact now self-evident, Harbaugh ultimately straightens, fixes his eye on some distant object, then ambles onward to further duty. (The tight end, three-star recruit Sean McKeon, enjoyed the display enough to commit the next day.)
Detractors claim that Harbaugh plays to effect. At a camp in Alabama, for instance, he trotted the fields barechested, jumping into the fray with potential recruits. Others say that Harbaugh is insensible to the ever-present lenses. Still, a third option exists: Maybe he is a performer by disposition.
“I’m about as transparent as a baggie,” Harbaugh says. What isn’t so clear to him, though, is why others have made Jim Harbaugh the provocateur of football coaching. But that he is. Before the arrival of Harbaugh, there was no personality strong enough to compete with Urban Meyer. A new, intensified period in the rivalry has begun—just as when Bo had Woody and Fielding had Knute, the balance of power in college football is once again poised to shift to the Midwest.
Later in his office, after posting up the prep, Harbaugh is present, though little more, his eyes darkly leveled on a greater burden. He sits against a backdrop of winged helmets and stray mementos (one plaque advises simplicity: just coach the team), declining to concede anything about the importance of beating Ohio State, much less Meyer. “It could be a nameless, faceless opponent,” he says. Harbaugh and Meyer met for the first time at an annual Big Ten coaches meeting this February, and they’re still learning to become rivals. But dig deeper into the record books and a shared history unfolds along the Ohio-Michigan border—a history that might indicate where this rivalry is headed.
NOVEMBER 1986, DAYS before facing Ohio State, Michigan’s senior QB Jim Harbaugh: “We’re going to play in the Rose Bowl this year. I guarantee it. We’ll beat Ohio State, and we’ll be in Pasadena Jan. 1.”
“I was sick as a dog,” says Harbaugh, remembering that trip roughly 200 miles south to Columbus. “Hundred-and-something [fever]. Got food poisoning. Just all night, throwing up. I think I slept an hour.”
The next afternoon, ignorant of the opposing quarterback’s sickly feeling, a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes was just happy to be part of the rivalry. It was the first year in college coaching for Urban Meyer, a 22-year-old Ohio kid on the staff of Earle Bruce.
“I was a GA by pay but full-time by responsibility,” Meyer recalls. “They were having a good year, but they lost to Minnesota. So all we had to do was win and we go to the Rose Bowl. … I can’t tell you my phone number or address, but I can tell you all the plays.”
Especially the one that provided the margin. In the fourth quarter, Harbaugh handed the ball to seldom-used tailback Thomas Wilcher. A Detroit product, Wilcher had found greater success in the high hurdles, winning an NCAA championship. But on this day, Wilcher didn’t need to leap, simply plowing the ball seven yards over the goal line to put the Wolverines up 26-17. They would hold on for a 26-24 victory.
IN THE JUNE DRIZZLE, Wilcher attends to the sidelines of Dakota High School in the Detroit suburb of Macomb. More than 1,000 prospects looking for scholarships clap in unison. The Sound Mind Sound Body camp might be the country’s best gathering of recruits—and coaches. Meyer will be here. Harbaugh too. Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, and Brian Kelly from Notre Dame, as well as Penn State’s James Franklin.
Dressed in a green pullover and baseball hat, Wilcher is too stout these days to clear a hurdle, but he still finds himself central to the fortunes of Michigan and Ohio State. Wilcher is the coach at Cass Technical High School, and although Detroit might no longer be the factory town it once was, Cass Tech stamps out top preps with industrial regularity. Players have generally rolled off the line to Ann Arbor, but the recent rise in Columbus has altered the supply chain, placing Wilcher squarely between Harbaugh and Meyer.
Last year Cass Tech running back Mike Weber was considered the best recruit in Michigan, a 5-foot-10, 210-pound bruiser with elite speed. “Mikey’s heart was at Michigan,” Wilcher says. Weber committed to previous UM coach Brady Hoke, but when last season disintegrated in Ann Arbor, Weber reconsidered.
Wilcher walks the fields, coaching the kids. He passes Dantonio, who won the Rose Bowl in 2014 and this year’s Cotton Bowl yet still is drowned out by whatever fuss Michigan happens to make. Dantonio’s scowl of the disregarded is deepening. Wilcher keeps walking, past Kelly, who stands under a tent, out of the rain, where he endures a shower of questions from a few website guys with a camera:
“Would you rather be a dragon or ride a dragon?” one of them asks.
“Ride a dragon,” Kelly says, his face enduring.
“Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande?”
Kelly and his colleagues must play along in this paddock session of modern coaching, lest they appear distant, out of touch. They have to seem like kids but adults also. Although it is possible that 51-year-old Harbaugh enjoys listening to Lil Wayne, perhaps there is more to his gift of a personalized Michigan jersey, which former QB Denard Robinson handed off to the rapper before a recent Detroit concert.
Wilcher continues his rounds, passing Buckeyes cornerbacks and special-teams coach Kerry Coombs, who looks like a living flag of Ohio State, scarlet golf shirt, head of gray hair. During Meyer’s first season in 2012, there were only two players from Michigan on the roster. He knew well the Wolverines’ long-held practice of poaching talent from Ohio. So he charged Coombs with returning the favor. “It was strategic,” says Coombs, a longtime Ohio high school coach. “How can you ignore a bordering state if they have great football players?” The first time Coombs flew into Detroit, also in OSU gear, the attendant at the rental counter claimed that he had run out of cars.
On Dec. 8, two days after Ohio State had won the Big Ten title, Coombs, Meyer and running backs coach Stan Drayton visited Cass Tech to sell Wilcher and Weber on Columbus. Weber quickly committed. His pledge was solid—for 20 days—until Michigan hired Harbaugh. “Mike’s family told him to listen to what Harbaugh had to say,” Wilcher says. “He liked what he said. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. It’s the effect that Harbaugh brought to the table.”
On Jan. 15, Tyrone Wheatley visited Weber. If there was anyone who could identify with the top player in Michigan, it was Wheatley, who himself had been a Detroit-area back and the state’s No. 1 recruit in 1991. Wheatley would become the Big Ten Offensive POY in Ann Arbor before spending a decade in the NFL. Weber’s recruitment was so critical to Harbaugh—for the roster, for perception—that he dispatched Wheatley to work the kid a few days before hiring Wheatley as running backs coach.
“It became a street fight to get him at the end,” Meyer says. On Feb. 3, the night before national signing day, Weber was on the phone with Harbaugh and Wheatley. Then Weber called Wilcher with news. “Around 1 in the morning on signing day, he called Ohio State and said, ‘I’m going to Michigan,’ ” Wilcher says.
The OSU coaches continued to reason with Weber, according to Wilcher, Drayton most diligently of all. He informed Weber that Karan Higdon, a back from Sarasota, Florida, was about to flip from Iowa to Michigan. As the night wore on, Wilcher says, Weber felt increasingly isolated. Harbaugh’s NFL pedigree was enticing, but why hadn’t he said anything about Higdon?
The following afternoon, as Weber marched to the podium at his press conference, he confided in Wilcher: “Coach, I’m really not sure.” Wilcher put it to him straight: “Mike, now is the time when you need to make a decision.” Weber flipped one final time and signed with Ohio State.
The next afternoon, the Chicago Bears announced that they had hired Drayton away from OSU. Weber immediately tweeted: “I’m hurt as hell I ain’t gone lie.” Says Wilcher: “Mikey is still confused.” According to Meyer, he was caught off guard: “The day after signing day, [Drayton] says, ‘I want to go look at this job.’ And then I get the call that he’s going to take it. I didn’t think about recruiting.”
But let’s not be naive about the stakes in the business of this game. Two years ago, Dantonio hired Curtis Blackwell, founder of the Sound Mind Sound Body camp and former assistant at Detroit’s Martin Luther King High School, to aid Michigan State in recruiting. Earlier this year, Harbaugh hired Chris Partridge, the coach at New Jersey’s Paramus Catholic High School, to do the same at Michigan. Defensive tackle Rashan Gary, the No. 1 player in the ESPN 300 rankings, will be a senior at Paramus Catholic this fall.
While the carousel spun in Columbus and Weber was left to wonder about his decision, Harbaugh took the stage, tweeting on Feb. 7: “Thought of the day—What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive! — Sir Walter Scott.” To be clear, he wasn’t talking about Iowa’s losing Higdon to Michigan. Regarding Weber, Harbaugh now says: “Was it a priority? Sure. Did that one leave a bruise? Yes. Did we get our nose bloodied and our lip split a little on that one? Yes. But today’s a new day. We’re back competing at it again.”
Meyer had beaten Harbaugh but in doing so had damaged his own standing in Michigan. “I spoke with Meyer,” Wilcher says. “I told him, ‘I get texts every day calling me a traitor. I went down to your camp and put on Ohio State s---. I’m from Michigan. My kids are from Michigan. You have to be honest if we’re going to continue to have a good relationship.’”
A ripple of recognition runs through the camp. In a side room of the high school, like a substitute teacher finally finding a class, Meyer quietly appears. He’s wearing the wrong colors in enemy territory, but that’d be hard to tell. The glare of a national championship ring tends to make people colorblind.
Standing against a wall in an OSU golf shirt, bottle of water in hand, chatting, Meyer catches sight of Coombs, who extends his right hand to the boss. Meyer steps forward and slaps it. With that loose, easy smile, Meyer lets out a yell: “Doctor Detroit!”
ROUTE 23 RUNS from Columbus to Ann Arbor, tying one campus to the other and eventually Harbaugh to Meyer. “It seemed like the longest drive,” Wheatley says of his trips south on the Wolverines’ team bus. Sometimes there is a valley. Often the road lies flat. It always carries on, though, same as this rivalry.
About 100 miles north of Columbus, Route 6 bisects Route 23 in Gibsonburg, Ohio, like the bottom bar of the uprights. About 12 miles due west on Route 6 lies Bowling Green. Here, Jack Harbaugh, Jim’s father, won a small colleges division national championship as a player in 1959, then returned as an assistant in 1968. Thirty-three years later, Urban Meyer, then 37, arrived in Bowling Green for his first head-coaching job. Success and potential carried him away after only two seasons, not looping him back to Columbus until a decade later.
About 15 miles due east on Route 6 lies Fremont, Ohio, home to Ross High School. On West State Street, in the warmed-over morning light of Billy’s Coffee Shop, 50 miles southeast of the Michigan border, a man sits down to a plate of eggs. Solomon Woodson started attending games in Ann Arbor in 1967. He still goes, tailgates at the golf course across from Michigan Stadium. Of all those games, one is unlike the others: Nov. 22, 1997, 11 years to the day after Harbaugh guaranteed victory. Michigan was ranked No. 1, Ohio State No. 4. Three rows up, behind the Buckeyes’ bench, Solomon Woodson watched his son, Charles, of Ross High and the Michigan Wolverines, backpedal to the 22-yard line. There he fielded a second-quarter punt. He raced down the opposing sideline, toward the Heisman Trophy, passing his half-brother, Shawn Simms, the OSU defensive ends coach, along the way. That is the rivalry—two states, two schools, one family.
Solomon Woodson forks through his plate, back in the present day of Michigan’s troubles. “That’s not a conversation you’d enjoy to have with Charles,” he says. “Charles would say, ‘We expect to beat Ohio State.’” His mood lifts when talk turns to Harbaugh. “It’s the best thing that could have happened. He can say, ‘I played against those guys. I beat those guys.’ He’s for real.”
URBAN MEYER SITS on a couch in his bunkered, windowless office in Columbus. It is quiet. He is remembering.
“We had just lost to Iowa on the last play of the game,” he says. “Earle Bruce was saying, ‘They’re gonna get me, they’re gonna get me.’ I was so young. I didn’t know what he meant.” It was November 1987, the week of the Michigan game. Meyer was readying for practice when a team manager summoned him to this very room.
“I walked in,” Meyer says. “Two or three coaches were crying. Earle Bruce was sitting right there.” He points to a bookshelf now overstuffed with volumes. “I stare at it sometimes and think, ‘Holy s---.’” Bruce had been fired. Later that week, in Ann Arbor, Ohio State won Bruce’s final game. In the coaching change to come, Meyer left Columbus. He carried the rivalry with him.
“I was raised in the Ten-Year War,” says Meyer, who was born in Toledo and grew up in Ashtabula, 170 miles to the east. “My dad was a big Woody Hayes guy. So I was born and bred with that staked on your heart.”
Occasionally, Meyer will institute a School up North week for his players. He distributes Ten-Year War tests. “The Victors” pumps from the speakers in the weight room. Along the hallways of the Woody Hayes building, the displays that commemorate the rivalry feel like a celebration of Ohio State’s recent dominion, 11 wins out of the past 13 meetings. Here lies a difference. Since taking over, Harbaugh has cleansed Schembechler Hall of countdown clocks, garb, etc. For Michigan, the goal of reclaiming the rivalry is distant, possibly so daunting that Harbaugh does not want to distract his players from the short-term goal of simply getting better. Perhaps that is why Harbaugh is not effusive when discussing Michigan. Meanwhile,Meyer waxes all he wants about the rivalry.
“It’s personal,” he says. “When I look across and see the winged helmets and their coaches and their players … I’ve been in rivalries. Utah-BYU. Bowling Green-Toledo. Florida, we had three: Florida State, Tennessee and Georgia. You make them personal, but they’re not. I didn’t grow up disliking Georgia. When I was 6, I was thinking about this rivalry. This one’s seared on your soul. It’s ingrained through every part of your body.”
Now, in Harbaugh, Meyer must adapt to a competitor whose fervor for the rivalry approximates his own. “I don’t know him,” Meyer says. “I know the name. I know what he’s done. I’m sure when you cut him open, this rivalry’s all over the place. There’s no rivalry between the two of us. But he grew up in the era too. This guy gets it. He was a part of it. This is very personal on both sides.”
Meyer pauses, then continues. “I hear he’s a heck of a motivator. I know when we play them, you better buckle your chinstrap as hard as you can because it’s going to be a free-for-all. That’s what I expect out of him.”
Meyer has other assumptions, surely. Stories of the conflict that Harbaugh, then at Stanford, so cleverly instigated with Pete Carroll, then at top-ranked USC, are recounted often within coaching circles. Notably when Harbaugh, who’d just arrived in Palo Alto, incorrectly predicted that Carroll would leave USC in a season. He said he’d heard it from a coach on the Trojans’ staff. (Recruiting. Publicity. The curtain.) There is also the postgame confrontation in 2011 with then-Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who said later that Harbaugh, despite the 49ers winning, had directed an expletive at him during the handshake. And more maddening Harbaugh anecdotes buzz along the coaching world’s party line.
What does this tell us? That Harbaugh makes them nervous. Harbaugh places himself in a rival’s presumed area of propriety, refusing to move, demanding a reaction. This is called competitiveness. Meyer knows all about it. He still remembers that Michigan-Ohio State week back in ’86 when Harbaugh guaranteed victory, which outraged college football’s conservative sensibilities—which is exactly what Harbaugh must have wanted. For all this time, Harbaugh has been forcing people to respond to him.
“That’s been brought to my attention a few times by colleagues,” Meyer says. “I’m at the point in my career where I’m good. I guess I’m better at handling situations than I’ve been in the past. So if something does show up, I’m not giving it much thought.” The Ohio State coach smiles. “I’ve been warned.”
THERE IS A knot in this rivalry, and Route 23 ties it in the northwest corner of Ohio. The roadway twists up and around Toledo, five miles south of the Michigan border, a place to which Harbaugh and Meyer have always been drawn.
Central Catholic High School coach Greg Dempsey sits in the press box, overseeing his team’s summer camp. But winter is on the mind. The winter of 2002, when Meyer, then the coach at Bowling Green, stopped by. School was out for a snow day. The two hit a diner. “Urban was different from everybody else back then,” Dempsey says. “He knew my life story. He was into building a relationship.” A year or so later, Harbaugh, then the coach at the University of San Diego, showed up. “He came all the way out here,” Dempsey says, shaking his head. There was a school picnic. They ate pizza. “He’s instantly returned Michigan to what it was without even playing.”
As Dempsey discusses the rejuvenated rivalry, two of Central Catholic’s star players from last season’s 6A state title team join him. Michael Warren, a 5-10, 185-pound back, rushed for 2,246 yards as a sophomore. James Hudson, also a rising junior, could be an even more valued recruit, a 6-5, 260-pound defensive end with power and agility. Coaches from Ohio State and Michigan have visited in recent months, making their faces known.
Hudson and Warren are Ohio kids. Hudson tweeted a picture of them in scarlet-and-gray gear from the Woody Hayes building. But they have learned enough about the recruiting game to understand that the best team in the land isn’t always the best team for them to land on. “I’d rather be on an up-and-coming team,” Hudson says. When Michigan hired Harbaugh, Warren’s father cautioned him to keep an open mind. “Think about how many kids, it’s their dream to go to the NFL,” Warren says. “And he knows everybody there.”
But blue chips alone don’t make Toledo a landmark on this trip along Route 23. A mile and a half from Central Catholic is the old Mercy Hospital. Decades ago, a Mercy physician, William Wiedemann, was the team doctor for Central Catholic. In the fall, he would attend home games, the field so unlike the hospital’s sterile passageways. In the summer lull, on July 10, 1964, at Mercy, Wiedemann delivered a baby boy, Urban Frank Meyer III.
On its way out of Toledo, two and a half miles south of the Michigan border, Route 23 runs by Biggby Coffee on North McCord Road. Inside sits Sue Crandall, one of Wiedemann’s daughters, who has short white hair. “Oh, Dad would have gotten a kick out of this,” she says. She never knew that the Ohio State coach was among the children that her father, gone these 47 years, had guided into life. “He liked football. He was competitive.” Crandall thinks back over how little has changed, from Urban and Jim to Bo and Woody. “They treat these coaches like gods.”
ALTHOUGH HARBAUGH HAS yet to coach a game at Michigan, his name and the debate of what’s to come can be heard along Ann Arbor’s pathways and in its summer-session classrooms and in bars that stretch beyond South University Avenue. Such is the thrill of anticipation.
Harbaugh carries the weight of it. Tucked into his office among the fields and arenas at the south end of campus, the Michigan coach minimizes expectations. “Our strategy would be to get better today than we were yesterday,” he says. “Get better tomorrow than we were today. ‘Improvement will lead to success’ theory. So simple that it just may work.” These words give meaning to his removal of countdown clocks. Harbaugh allows his players to focus inwardly, which is as simple as any coach could make it. He politely considers the question of Ohio State, yet he declines to grant the rivalry increased significance. “You want to be better than them,” he says. “It’s not fun to have other people think you’re not as good as they are. That fuels the whole thing. We want to win. We want to win that game.”
Then there is the question of Meyer. What role could a personal conflict play? Harbaugh keeps it simpler still—in his way.
“Your objective is the same,” he says. “You want to win. Ten-tenths, you want to win. If you know him, does that make you want to win eleven-tenths? In that movie, Spinal Tap, remember the guy’s talking about, ‘This goes to 11?’ It doesn’t. It’s 10 out of 10. It’s 100 percent. That’s as high as it goes. You can’t give 110. The point is, because you know somebody, or because you have some kind of personal—I mean, I played against my brother in the Super Bowl. Whether he was my brother or somebody I didn’t know, it doesn’t raise the level of how much you want to win.”
Then talk drifts south, to Route 23. In the early 1960s, Meyer’s father, Urban II, was raising a family in Toledo and working as a chemical engineer at the Hilton-Davis Sterling Drug Co. At the same time, Harbaugh’s father, Jack, served as an assistant at Perrysburg High School, where Route 23 performs a buttonhook westward around the city. Until today in his office, Harbaugh is unaware that both men lived 10 miles apart. But it is the next revelation that compels him to pick up his phone and betrays the fact that personal connections do register with him.
A woman answers on the coach’s speakerphone. “Hey, Mother,” Harbaugh replies, “it’s your son, Jim.”
“What’s going on?” says Jackie Harbaugh, her voice cheerily crackling to life through the speaker.
“I’m here with ESPN The Magazine. … I guess the interesting part of the story is that Urban Meyer and I were born at the same hospital six months apart.”
Jackie answers quickly. “It wouldn’t have been the same doctor, though.”
“No, it wasn’t the same doctor,” Jim says before further revealing his curiosity. “What was the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry in Toledo at that time?”
“Listen, we were 23, 24 years old. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about Michigan and Ohio State at the time. … I just respected Woody and Bo. [They] were from a different generation of coaches where you went by a handshake when you went there to coach. You know what I mean? Your word was a handshake then. And today, people don’t respect a handshake anymore.”
“I still do. All right, Mom, thank you.”
“Love you. Take care.”
“Love you, Mom. Bye.”
Harbaugh hangs up.
“Hmm,” he says. “How ’bout that? That’s pretty cool.” Harbaugh suddenly wants to know more about Urban Meyer: “Was he older?” Learning that he himself got a half-year head start in the race, Harbaugh, the competitor, grins. Or maybe it is a scowl.
After a while, there’s nothing more to discuss, at least not in Harbaugh’s mind. He grabs the arms of his chair. “Yeah,” he says, in an exasperated whisper. “Yeah.” He lifts himself to his feet. He makes for the door, talking as he goes. “Not to be rude or anything, but I just want to get back to—see if we can’t get better,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m getting better right now. I don’t feel like I’m getting better right now.” Harbaugh walks down the hall. He lifts a fist in the air. “Go Blue!”
WHEN OHIO STATE’S convoy of buses crossed the state line into Michigan, following Route 23 through the town of Whiteford, Woody Hayes would stand up, face the seats and say, “We have entered enemy territory.”
From there, it’s 35 miles north to Washtenaw Avenue, where Route 23 exhausts its narrative utility. Four miles west, Michigan Stadium sits empty—except for Section 12, Row 67, Seats 1 and 2. This is where John Baldoni has positioned himself for 20 years of fall Saturdays. Baldoni runs his own consulting firm and is the author of more than a dozen books on leadership, a certified observer of Michigan’s struggles. “No one was acknowledging the problems,” Baldoni says. “As a leadership person, that’s what bothered me.”
Baldoni was born in Ann Arbor while his father, Paul, was studying at the University of Michigan Medical School. After receiving his degree, Paul Baldoni relocated his family to Ohio, entering practice in Perrysburg, 11 miles south of Toledo. He remained a supporter of the team up north. “Dad enjoyed tweaking his doctor friends,” John Baldoni says. “He would bet a friend, an OSU dental school grad, $100 every year on the outcome.” Paul Baldoni had no inkling that, at Mercy Hospital, he had delivered a baby boy, James Joseph Harbaugh, who would one day influence the results of future friendly wagers. John Baldoni looks over the Big House. He talks about Charles Woodson’s runback, 18 years ago, the confidence that Michigan carried into those games only a recollection. “I was sick for a day when they hired Urban Meyer,” Baldoni says. “A brilliant move. Hiring Jim was equally brilliant. The two of them—this could be a great rivalry. We’re in for something special. Jim’s enthusiasm is contagious. It’ll rub off. He’ll bring the glory back.”
BEFORE THE PROSPECTS take the field at the Sound Mind Sound Body camp, Thomas Wilcher walks into a classroom at Dakota High School. A crowd gathers for a news conference. Wilcher locates Meyer. “Coach, you know who I am?” Meyer nods. The two shake hands. “Who else you got coming up?” Meyer asks. Wilcher grins. Leverage in a relationship is hard to deny.
There is a stir in the room. Heads turn. Conversations pause. Harbaugh walks in, wearing maize and blue. He sees Meyer and heads right over.
Harbaugh greets Wilcher, his old friend from Michigan’s ’86 backfield. Harbaugh and Meyer shake hands, for just the second time. They stand and look at each other, exhaling.
Harbaugh says something, briefly. Meyer does too. Their dialogue is lost to the resumed, performed chatter of the room. Harbaugh’s face is tense, serious. Maybe he is just worn out from the road. But this is Harbaugh, so one can never tell what came before, or what’s about to come now.
Then Harbaugh says something else, his words audible. It is a fragment of conversation. “Shirts and skins.” No doubt, it’s a reference to his stunt at the camp in Alabama.
Meyer laughs. He reaches out and slaps Harbaugh playfully in the right shoulder. The tension of the room deflates. Few people are so alike as one football coach is to another. Most of all, in their propensity to perform, even for one another.
But we all know that summer is the time for backslaps. Come the last Saturday in November, Ohio State will travel 200 miles up Route 23 to resume an old rivalry, and to shake hands at the end. To Harbaugh and Meyer, those are the only connections that will matter.