Sunday, June 16

Ohio State-Michigan, pure hatred and the apex of the greatest rivalry

Jim Harbaugh was asked at his news conference earlier this week if he respects Ryan Day and his staff. Harbaugh, as he often does when asked something that makes him uncomfortable, hesitated before dodging the question.

“It’s all about our preparation for Ohio,” Harbaugh said. “The days, the minutes, the hours, everything leading up to this game, that’s where our focus is. Preparing ourselves and planning, gonna practice and then execute. Anything else is irrelevant when you get to this kind of big game.”

Ryan Day was asked something similar a day later. He, too, wasn’t interested in giving an honest answer.

“With everything going on and the things that are out there, we’ve kind of just stayed away from all the distractions and have just kind of focused on our team,” he said. “I think our guys have done a good job of it. … I’ve talked to them a couple times about what’s gone on this season, going into the game, but they’re focused on this game. They are focused on this season.”

Four years ago, after Ohio State’s 56-27 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor in Day’s first year as the Buckeyes coach, the rivalry seemed dead because Urban Meyer killed it. Meyer was no longer Ohio State’s coach, but the foundation of what he built carried over into the Day era and the Buckeyes stomped the Wolverines. The Game was lopsided, the recruiting results were lopsided and Ohio State was more concerned with Clemson than it was about its most bitter rival.

But the rivalry wasn’t dead. It turns out, it cannot be killed.

And if you’re looking for something to be thankful for on Thursday, how about this? The greatest rivalry in the sport, one that was on life support less than five years ago, isn’t only back. It’s better than ever.

After Harbaugh beat Ohio State for the first time, in 2021, he said in the postgame news conference that “some people are born on third base and act like they’ve hit a triple,” referring to Day’s status as the Buckeyes coach. A public shot at your rival’s head coach and everything he’s accomplished in his career? There’s no coming back from that.

Of course, Harbaugh later went on to say the comment was a counterpunch to Day, who reportedly said he’d “hang 100” on Michigan during a dispute on a Big Ten coaches teleconference. Alas, the motivation for that isn’t really important anymore. That’s not a comment you can just shrug off.

GO DEEPER

Michigan hasn’t fallen yet, but will gravity pull Jim Harbaugh’s program back to Earth?

But this year’s game is about so much more than public trash talking. From Ohio State’s side, you have an elite-level program that expects to win national titles living in a reality where it isn’t even perceived to be the best program in the Big Ten East anymore. Day has lost consecutive games to Michigan after the Buckeyes lost only once in this rivalry from 2004 through 2019.

Day has an impeccable record and was on the brink of winning a national title last year, yet many Ohio State fans question whether he is the right man for the job. Call it the ghost of John Cooper.

Michigan is seeking its third straight win in the series, which would have been an unthinkable notion in December 2019. But the Wolverines are currently being investigated for an alleged in-person scouting scheme and people are throwing the word “cheating” around. Harbaugh is coaching his team during the week, preparing the game plan and performing his media obligations per usual, but he’s serving a three-game suspension from the Big Ten and won’t be in Michigan Stadium on Saturday.

Many Michigan fans wholeheartedly believe Day hired a PI firm to investigate the Wolverines, and they attribute all of the program’s woes to Ohio State’s head coach. Day’s brothers have been roped into allegations that were rampant on X (formerly known as Twitter) and college football message boards.

You have real-life animosity between two coaches as the appetizer for a game that will very likely determine who wins the Big Ten and advances to the College Football Playoff.

The 2006 edition featured two undefeated teams in what was labeled “The Game of the Century.” Legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler died the day before the game from cardiovascular disease. The doctors said that all of the excitement leading into The Game likely contributed to his death.

It’s not supposed to get heavier than that. Many will tell you nothing can compare to 2006. Maybe this doesn’t. But it feels bigger in a different way.

This year we have two programs and two coaches who legitimately hate one another. Rivalries exist at all levels of sports and hate is probably more common in the stands than on the field. But this? This is natural.

Even Schembechler and legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes — the two men who presided over the Ten Year War from 1969 through 1978 — had love and admiration for one another. The two were close friends, even though they spent the entire year trying to figure out how to beat each other. Woody visited Bo in the hospital after he had a heart attack. Bo gave a eulogy at Woody’s funeral.

Those are the ultimate signs of respect. The two current coaches can’t even muster the energy to say the word.

The result of this game will reverberate, regardless of the outcome.

• Michigan wins: The Wolverines stay on top. They also maintain that the sign-stealing scandal has been completely overblown, and the win over Ohio State is proof they were always the better team. Even without Harbaugh on the sideline, Michigan is superior to its bitter rival. The win also legitimizes the results of the previous two seasons. Day, in turn, has to return to Columbus with his tail between his legs to a fan base that may have already turned on him.

• Ohio State wins: Day evens his record to 2-2 against Michigan and all is forgiven. His record against his biggest rival might not match Meyer’s (7-0) or Jim Tressel’s (9-1), but he gets extra credit for winning the biggest edition of this bitter rivalry. Ohio State reasserts itself as the class of the Big Ten and likely returns to the College Football Playoff to try to finish the job after coming close a year ago. Meanwhile, Michigan is knocked out of the CFP and begins to face even more pressing questions about Connor Stalions, the cheating scandal and how much the advanced scouting helped the program turn the tables in the first place.

When has a game been more compelling? Championship trophies are at stake on the field and self-worth is at stake off of it. For both teams.

Whether you’re an Ohio State fan or a Michigan fan, you can probably agree on one thing — that this is the best rivalry in college football and, maybe, sports. And the anticipation and genuine hatred that exists makes this Thanksgiving week sweeter than normal.

This is rivalry nirvana.

This is the epitome of what makes college football great.

Who’s not thankful this rivalry is back … and better than ever?

(Photo of Jim Harbaugh and Ryan Day: Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images)