Jim Harbaugh had finally defeated Ohio State. As Michigan’s head coach, he’d lost his first five against the Buckeyes, a failure that had come to define his otherwise pretty successful tenure. It fed some of the cries for his dismissal in 2020, when a 2-4 season ended with a COVID-canceled game against the Buckeyes, an act that seemed merciful.
A year ago though, his team had bullied Ohio State 42-27 around inside a snowstorm, vanquishing the program that had seemingly left their rivals behind. It was Michigan that was headed to the Big Ten Championship game and the playoff afterward. Everything was suddenly different.
Harbaugh was asked if he'd been fueled by comments through the years from Buckeye coaches and players.
"Let’s move on with humble hearts, take the high road,” Harbaugh said. “There's definitely stuff that has been said that has spurred us on even more, sure."
He paused. It could have ended there. It didn’t. The humble-heart and high-road bit was forgotten.
"Sometimes, there are people standing on third base that think they hit a triple … but they didn't," Harbaugh said.
It was a full-on shot at Ohio State coach Ryan Day. By way of Harbaugh’s thinking, Day had it easy when in 2019, without any head coaching experience and just two years in Columbus, he was handed the keys to a program that Urban Meyer had turned into a national juggernaut.
Harbaugh, on the other hand, was almost born into this. He grew up in Ann Arbor with his father, Jack, who worked as an assistant for then-Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. He played at Michigan, going 2-0 as a starter against the Buckeyes. Even with the pedigree of a NFL player, his coaching career included three seasons at FCS San Diego, resurrecting Stanford and leading the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl before he returned to U of M.
And so the third base comment had, no doubt, been brewing for a long, long time.
And it is the spice that makes this rivalry so special and makes this particular game even bigger, if possible, than a clash between two 11-0 teams and everything that goes with it on the line at noon Saturday in Columbus.
“Kind of irrelevant,” Harbaugh said of the comment on Monday. “I think it’s irrelevant.”
It isn’t though, at least not for Ryan Day.
The truth is the 43-year-old Day was born in New Hampshire and not into some football privilege. He played quarterback at University of New Hampshire and with minimal pedigree climbed up the coaching ranks through four colleges and two NFL teams. Meyer is no sentimentalist. He hired Day as a co-offensive coordinator in 2017 based on his ability to help the Bucks win.
Besides, no matter how he got the job, Day is 45-4 in four seasons at OSU.
Yet even a Buckeyes fan knows that there is just enough of a kernel of truth, and the potential for it to become a larger truth, that the line stings and thus makes this Saturday a potentially defining one for both men.
Day needs this one. He has too much talent to lose consecutive games to Michigan. He also got Ohio State to dole out $1.9 million a year to lure defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to toughen up the Buckeye defense that got pushed around in 2021.
The Game is the game. It is what is remembered, what is recalled. “Like two superheroes going after each other,” Harbaugh said. Meyer went 7-0 against the team up north. Day isn’t about to get fired, but starting 1-2 against Michigan is treacherous. Missing the playoffs again with this core group is even worse.
Is he a lesser version of Meyer (one of the best coaches of this era who, himself, underachieved with a few Buckeye teams)? Or can he maintain or even elevate the program?
That’s the burden of coaching at a place where everything is expected.
“The expectation is to win them all,” Day said last summer about OSU. “… that’s just the way it is.”
You can’t win them all if you are losing to Michigan. You can’t last too long if your program is lacking in physicality, the base of everything legendary coach Woody Hayes ever built. All the pyrotechnics on offense and all the blowout victories over Indiana and Rutgers don’t count for much.
And you certainly can’t have Jim Harbaugh chirping at you about being born on third base. And perhaps that is what Harbaugh knows. He isn’t known for his wit, so he seems to have enjoyed this one.
“There is no need to hate,” Harbaugh said of the rivalry. “Be thankful of the opponent … Be grateful to have the opportunity to play in this game.”
Nice sentiment, but not one based in historical reality. A year ago he was labeled a loser. A year later he’s hoping for a win streak. There is never really more or less pressure on either coach in this game; the obsession is a 365-day a year affair.
Yet Harbaugh doesn’t have to prove he can do it anymore, just that he can do it again. And Ryan Day has to prove that whatever he was given was well-earned.
It’s a different twist in a season where everything and every championship is still possible for each team, including crushing, lasting disappointment.