Two decades ago, when Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr faced off against one another, the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry was perhaps the classiest in all of sports. The two coaches never showed anything but the utmost respect for one another. And while other rivalries like the now defunct Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia or the Miami (FL) vs. Florida State games of old often resulted in fisticuffs, such occasions didn’t feel as common in the days of yore for the Buckeyes.
Then came the series of unfortunate events for Michigan that was Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke that eventually led to Jim Harbaugh, and the concurrent transition from Tressel to Urban Meyer and, finally, to Ryan Day.
And here we are, in 2022.
Things feel different now. But perhaps it’s just the passage of time and the warmth of nostalgia that makes me yearn for the rivalry of yore. Regardless, the rivalry we see today, from a coaching perspective, shows two men who are not fans of each other and don’t try to hide it.
That disdain may be because the pair are so different. Day is kind of a boring coach, all things considered. Obviously he has a great mind for coaching, but he’s about as anti-drama as they come. Generally, he’s calm, cool, collected and logical. It’s what made moments like his near-fight with Greg Schiano earlier this season so wild.
Harbaugh is Day’s foil. He is eccentric and, at times, downright absurd. See challenging a walrus to a pushup contest, having a sleepover at a recruit’s house and his obsession with milk. And that’s not even getting into the whole thing with his khakis. He’s a distraction in and of himself, and seemingly can’t get through a presser without either a weird or disparaging comment.
(We should give credit where credit is due: Harbaugh’s eccentricity is in many ways a shield for his players. As much as he’s blamed refs, opposing coaches and others for Michigan’s shortcomings, that blame has never publicly fallen on his players, which is more than can be said for a lot of coaches. Looking at you, Brian Kelly.)
Those personalities show themselves in perceptions of Ohio State and Michigan. Ohio State has a ton of flash (think Marvin Harrison Jr.’s Louis Vuitton cleats), but Day is very much the anchor behind the scene that keeps his stars flashing at their flashiest. When we think of the faces of Ohio State football, Day is probably not even in your top five.
On the other sideline, Harbaugh is Michigan’s brand all by himself — he’s undoubtedly the face and name that comes to mind when you think of Wolverine football.
Of course these opposites would clash over time. We all have that person who gets under our skin. For Day, that person is Harbaugh. For Harbaugh, it’s pretty much anyone who crosses his path, including Day. Seriously, he just doesn’t have the patience to maintain positive relationships with many opposing coaches, players and officials. See here and here for examples.
For Day, that frustration boiled over in 2020 during a Big Ten coaches conference call, when Harbaugh interrupted Day while he was speaking to accuse Day of breaking rules. Day responded by telling Harbaugh to worry about his own team while Day worried about Ohio State. Later that week, Day famously told his team they’d hang 100 on the Wolverines. (That was in 2020 and Michigan backed out of the regular season finale due to COVID). It was reminiscent of that time Woody Hayes said “because I couldn’t go for three” in response to why he went for a two-point conversion against his rivals in 1968, but without any of the genial ribbing.
For Harbaugh, things came to a head with Day in 2021 when he made his now worn statement: “Sometimes, people that are standing on third base think they hit a triple.” The words came in the post-game presser after, *gulp* Ohio State fell on the road to the Wolverines and, while not said directly in reference to Day, were a clear statement about the well-oiled program Day inherited from Meyer.
Neither of these statements was kind hearted or friendly needling. Both were incredibly mean spirited.
When asked in his Monday presser about Ohio State and Ryan Day, Harbaugh deflected the question and even said there was “No need to hate.” It’s a break from the drama we’ve grown accustomed to.
But it’s still early in the week, and Harbaugh has time.