NEW ORLEANS -- Forty stories above downtown New Orleans, the sound of clinking glasses and spirited conversation filled the Ohio State hospitality suite on Saturday night. As the clock ticked toward 10 p.m., Urban Meyer worked his way to the exit to prepare for the next morning’s 6 a.m. staff meeting. Just before leaving, Meyer was told that Jim Harbaugh’s chances to become the next head coach at Michigan had moved from probable to inevitable. Meyer’s eyes popped, his eyebrows arched and he mouthed one of his favorite sayings: “Wow.”
Meyer nodded his head from side to side as he digested the information, deciding if he wanted to say anything about the arrival of a new rival. “I don’t know him,” Meyer said. “Obviously I’ve seen what he’s done and he seems like a heck of a coach.” He mentioned how the hire would be good for the Big Ten and silently pondered commenting on the myriad possibilities.
Harbaugh’s coming hire at Michigan resonates on many different levels, but the most immediate significance for Ohio State is that it finally has a worthy foil in Ann Arbor, and in the Big Ten. Consider this the start of a wonderfully acrimonious, deliciously contemptuous and unwaveringly intense rivalry. The power of Harbaugh can be summed up by the fact that he’s hijacking the news cycle during the same week that Meyer is readying to play his old nemesis, Alabama’s Nick Saban, in an inaugural College Football Playoff semifinal on Thursday night.
With the Harbaugh era looming in Ann Arbor, Ohio State’s three-year joyride under Meyer could finally hit a speed bump. Since he started in Columbus before the 2012 campaign, the Buckeyes have gone 36-3 overall and 25-1 in league play, essentially lapping the competition. Only Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio served as a worthy adversary, as shown in the Spartans’ decisive Big Ten title game win last year. But even the specter of Sparty took a hit last week with ace defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s departure to Pittsburgh. Harbaugh has a lot to do to make Michigan nationally competitive again -- and Ohio State is miles ahead -- but his arrival will give the Wolverines the instant credibility and relevance that they lacked under Brady Hoke.
Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler had their Ten Year War, which ended in 1978. This next decade could well be the sequel, as Michigan will have a coach who can compete with Meyer’s fire, acumen and relentless obsession with winning. The result should be some of the most riveting theatre in college football. “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 in a phone interview on Sunday. “My guess is him coming in will take that rivalry to new levels.”
The party certainly isn’t over for Ohio State, as Meyer has a three-year start on Harbaugh and the Wolverines. The Buckeyes are poised to return a roster that is guaranteed to start next season ranked in the top three, on paper the most talented Meyer should have so far in Columbus. Michigan has no functional quarterback, no distinguished star and a depth chart filled with recruits whose production hasn’t come close to meeting their lofty potential.
But Harbaugh proved to be deft at both recruiting and player development during his tenure at Stanford, as Bowlsby recalls the revival of that program as the result of 100 savvy, small decisions as opposed to one big one. While landing Andrew Luck is largely regarded as the Cardinal’s turning point, those around the program view the hiring of strength coach Shannon Turley as equally pivotal. Not only did Harbaugh lure great players like Luck, David DeCastro and Shayne Skov, but he also inherited an underachieving roster and re-wired it into a winner.
Harbaugh also targeted USC’s Pete Carroll soon after his hiring in December 2006, tweaking him publicly and refusing to bow to the USC dynasty. “I think there was some personal animosity between the two of them,” Bowlsby said. “Not sure what that stems from. It got to be chippy in a hurry. It was mostly about USC being in a position [Harbaugh] wanting his Stanford team to be in.”
There is some comparison to that situation with Ohio State and Meyer, the bell-cow team with the rock-star coach. However, Michigan is the winningest program in college football history, so the hard reset of the institutional mindset shouldn’t be quite as daunting. There is little doubt Harbaugh won’t be able to resist a target like Meyer, much like he won’t bow down to him.
Where will we see Harbaugh’s chase begin? The first scene could play out at Cass Tech High in Detroit, the football powerhouse where Ohio State has two players committed: defensive end Joshua Alabi and tailback Michael Weber. (Ohio State also signed blue-chip defensive back Damon Webb from Cass Tech last year.) Harbaugh could start by lobbying Weber, the four-star prospect who flipped to Ohio State from Michigan earlier this month. Harbaugh will have a powerful pitch, as he can sell both a pro offense and his NFL experience as the best way for prospects to reach the next level. Expect Michigan to brand itself like Stanford, as a jayvee pro-style team.
It needs the help, with Harbaugh walking into a recruiting class that desperately needs momentum, as it has just six committed players and ranks No. 96 nationally, according to Rivals.com, behind schools like Army, Louisiana-Lafayette and Middle Tennessee. Michigan will certainly go on a late flurry and add to its class, but there’s nowhere near enough quality talent left to approach the maximum 25 scholarship players. This means the class will rank somewhere on a scale between lost and limited, and any poached players will be seen as major prizes.
However the first shots are fired, though, remember something that Meyer and Harbaugh would hate to admit -- they’re not all that different. They were both born in Toledo, Ohio, six months apart. (Meyer is 50 and Harbaugh turned 51 earlier in December.) They both had demanding fathers who inspired their success. They both have shown a singular focus on winning that often trends toward mania. Yes, Harbaugh was shaped by a 15-year NFL career while Meyer was a walk-on who rose traditionally through the college coaching ranks. But the common ground remains that both are most comfortable in a football bubble, so much so that neither would want to spend a whole lot of time reflecting on their similarities.
On Saturday night, Meyer took a pass. His smirk said more than his words, as he rapped his fingers on a chair, looked out the window and relished the prospect of a new foil. But the twinkle of possibility soon left his eye, realizing that an old foil loomed much more important in the near future than a new one in the distance. “Time to go to bed,” Meyer said. “Big day for the Buckeyes tomorrow.”
Soon enough, he’ll wake up to a new tomorrow with the arrival of a new rival. And, rest assured, there will be plenty more to say.