Lloyd Carr cried.
That was 16 years ago, the day after the former Michigan coach’s beloved mentor, Bo Schembechler, had died. That was also the day before the 2006 Michigan-Ohio State game at The Shoe. The winner would advance to the BCS Championship Game.
Ohio State won 42-39 in one of the most emotionally wrought games in rivalry history. And Lloyd Carr cried. It was about the loss on the field, but it was also about the human loss.
“From the moment we heard the news the game, I think, was the focus of our team,” Carr told CBS Sports.
Bo would have wanted it that way.
The 118th Michigan-Ohio State game is about to be played, and it seems right that we’re here again. For the first time since that ’06 meeting and fourth time ever, the Wolverines and Buckeyes both enter undefeated. For the second straight year, the winner advances to the Big Ten Championship Game and — pending an expected rolling of a substandard Big Ten West opponent — undeniably a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Perhaps no other rivalry wades so deep in the coaching DNA of its past. The Iron Bowl entered a different phase when Nick Saban arrived at Alabama to eventually battle — and mostly beat — a passel of different Auburn coaches. Oklahoma-Texas shares time with a state fair. Florida-Georgia is played in an NFL stadium.
We’re not here to rank the rivalries this Rivalry Week. That’s like having to pick your favorite child — not fair (and constantly changing). But there is something different, something desperate and lasting about Michigan-Ohio State that doesn’t let go.
Mostly because the programs don’t let go of their past. Both are influenced to this day by the patriarchs who made this series a rivalry: Schembechler and Woody Hayes. Bo coached under Woody at Ohio State before emerging as his chief coaching rival. The pair waged “The Ten Year War” from 1969-78 during which Schembechler elbowed in on Hayes’ Big Ten dominance.
Carr coached for 10 years under Schembechler. Jim Harbaugh played for Bo. As Michigan’s quarterback, Harbaugh was so infused with the gritty coach’s demeanor Harbaugh once guaranteed an Ohio State win and a Rose Bowl berth in 1986. Then he led a team that followed up and did it.
“Jim Harbaugh was destined to someday come back and coach at Michigan,” Carr said.
“You’re shaped by whatever happened in your past. We have scars,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said this week.
Day has only one scar, considering he was speaking of the lone Big Ten loss of his four-year career. That was last year at Michigan.
Harbaugh has lasting marks of a different kind. If Michigan wins, it will continue to be because Captain Comeback has been channeling Bo from the moment he took the job. Harbaugh still has residual fear from the time he was 10 minutes late to his first team meeting as a player. The freshman quarterback was harangued, humiliated and punished by Schembechler for days afterward.
“There’s a deep, lasting scar there,” Harbaugh once told CBS Sports. “It’s not even a scar. It’s a broken bone with a rod stuck in it. It’s like a broken femur.”
On Saturday, No. 3 Michigan has a chance to prove it is the better team, if not the better program. No. 2 Ohio State has monopolized the spotlight and sizzle from its hated rival across the last couple decades. That’s the dichotomy of this rivalry. The programs have dueled back in forth in recruiting and in the media, but it only matters during that fourth Saturday in November.
“We’re right where we want to be,” Carr said.
These days, no matter what the result, it is largely agreed upon that Ohio State has the better program. It is a modern quarterback factory. The wide receivers room might be the best in the country despite the injury loss of Jaxon Smith-Njigba for an extended period. Third-string running back Dallan Haydan was able to produce 146 yards last week at Maryland.
While Michigan meandered through the post-Carr years with Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, Ohio State played in a combined six BCS and CFP postseasons, winning two national championships since 2002. Urban Meyer passed control of the current run to Day.
Still, Michigan has been historically dominant in the series leading it 59-51-6 all-time. You figure it out.
Michigan could wreck what looks like a magical Ohio State season. The Buckeyes have beaten every opponent by double digits and been ranked in the top three all season. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud is a narrow Heisman Trophy favorite.
Ohio State has dominated lately. Michigan hasn’t won back-to-back games in the series since 2000. Oh, the horror for one of these programs who make up half the top four in the CFP Rankings.
With a win Saturday, it would be Michigan that could reverse course and stake the claim of being the best program right now.
The nature of these types of rivalries are going to change big time in the near future. Maybe not diminish but change. In an expanded playoff, both Ohio State and Michigan would surely get in. Heck, they might both get in this year despite Saturday’s result.
But there is something so cutthroat about this matchup. Ohio State went out of its way to focus on that scar this week.
“We’ve been licking our wounds for 365 days, hearing all the laughing and everything that everybody has been saying,” Stroud said.
“It sucks. It sucks,” defensive end Zach Harrison said. “You’re constantly reminded of it.”
The current coaches have sometimes gone at each other like grade schoolers. In August 2020, word leaked that Day wanted to “hang 100” on Harbaugh and Michigan. Not bad for a native of New Hampshire who joined the program from the NFL in 2017.
“Sometimes people are standing on third base, think they hit a triple, but they didn’t,” Harbaugh sniped at his counterpart.
The rancor will be bouncing off the walls of Ace of Cups, a club on High Street Saturday morning in Columbus, Ohio. Veteran punk bad “The Dead Schembechlers” will be playing a concert at the club three hours before the noon start. Among their … hits? … “Harbaugh to Hell,” “You Lost to Appalachian State” and “Bomb Ann Arbor Now.”
You don’t have to squint that hard to see Schembechler’s influence even today. Harbaugh’s offense features a 5-foot-8, 210-pound running back, Blake Corum, who rushes like a ball of chainsaws. Corum might as well be football offspring of Michigan greats of the past from Butch Woolfolk to Tyrone Wheatley to Mike Hart.
“We’re still in that mold,” Carr said.
Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel once won a national championship with a conservative style Woody would have loved. In 2002, the Buckeyes won half their 14 games by seven points or less.
Meyer restored the rivalry’s roar if only because the native Ohioan had grown up steeped in the Hayes-Schembechler battles. His offense was up tempo, but his style was demanding. It was more than a coincidence that Harbaugh was hired at Michigan two weeks before Meyer won Ohio State’s last national championship.
There had to be a response to the escalation of tensions. In essence, The Ten Year War was extended.
The result of these meetings has been zero sum. The elation for the winner is absolute. The depths of despair for the loser is bottomless. Until last November, the result had been absolute for Ohio State, which had won eight in a row over Michigan. It was more than that — 15 of the last 16 and 17 of the last 19.
Then the Wolverines broke through in the cold and snow with a dominant 42-27 showing last year in the Big House. All it took was seven long years of Harbaugh being good but not great as Michigan’s coach. Great means beating your biggest rival once in a while in The Game.
Of course, the result could not endure at Ohio State. In a corresponding move, the Buckeyes plucked defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State days after Ohio State gave up those 42 points, the most scored by Michigan in the series since 1943. Knowles has delivered on a team that was criticized in 2021 for its lack of toughness. The Buckeyes have improved from 59th in total defense to ninth this season.
The 57-year-old Knowles has been a part of significant rivalries at Cornell (vs. Penn) and Oklahoma State (Bedlam vs. Oklahoma) — even one Egg Bowl as Ole Miss linebackers’ coach. But nothing like this.
“When you’re young and in the profession, you look at it as the pinnacle of the profession,” Knowles said this week, “… This is the biggest stage there is. You take all that and multiply it by a thousand.”
Carr, 77, remains master and commander of Michigan’s last national championship in 1997. A warm feeling is returning now that his Wolverines have broken through again against the hated Buckeyes.
These days, the coach who spent 28 years as a Michigan assistant or head coach prefers to watch The Game from his living room to avoid the traffic, the crowds. He can’t avoid the history.
“Those two guys had built the rivalry as great as it’s always been,” Carr said of Bo and Woody. “They took it to a different level. They still have their impact.”