Thirty years ago, Jim Harbaugh made no bones about it. "I guarantee we'll beat Ohio State this Saturday and we'll be in Pasadena on January 1st," Harbaugh, then the senior quarterback at Michigan, said before the Wolverines' game against the Buckeyes. "There's no doubt in my mind about that."
Thirty years ago, Jim Harbaugh made no bones about it.
"I guarantee we'll beat Ohio State this Saturday and we'll be in Pasadena on January 1st," Harbaugh, then the senior quarterback at Michigan, said before the Wolverines' game against the Buckeyes. "There's no doubt in my mind about that."
Thirty years later, there also is no doubt what he would do if he could do it again, even though Michigan won 26-24 at Ohio Stadium when Matt Frantz's 46-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide in the closing moments.
"Having done it, I don't recommend it," Harbaugh said Tuesday of making a guarantee.
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Now in his second year as Michigan coach, Harbaugh will bring his Wolverines, No. 3 in this week's College Football Playoff rankings, into Ohio Stadium for the first time as a player or coach since Nov. 22, 1986. Just like then, The Game has major ramifications, with Ohio State sitting No. 2 in the rankings.
In all likelihood, this year's version will come with no guarantee.
"All you can offer is your advice and … I would say, experience," Harbaugh said when asked whether he gave his players any guidelines on what to say. "On that topic I have experience. And 30 years later I found it not necessary to make a guarantee. What are you really guaranteeing?"
That's pretty much how Ohio State coaches and players saw it then.
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"Didn't think much of it," said Chris Spielman, a junior linebacker on the '86 team. "Because when people make that statement there are no consequences if it doesn't happen. It's everything to gain, nothing to lose."
Michigan coach Bo Schembechler had to roll with it. He knew Harbaugh was trying to take the Wolverines' minds off of an upset loss to Minnesota the week before that ruined Michigan's unbeaten season and likely cost it a shot at a national title. And Harbaugh was dealing with the news that his father, Jack, had been fired as coach at Western Michigan.
"He told Jim, 'You better back it up,' " Shemy Schembechler, Bo's son, recalled this week. "But he knew exactly what his quarterback was, he knew his flamboyant personality and what he was all about. … If anything, Bo loves it because he loves the confidence of his quarterback in preparing for this game and saying, 'We're going to win.' "
Current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who is 4-0 against the Wolverines, was in his first year as a graduate assistant on Earle Bruce's staff in '86. He couldn't recall the reaction when the staff heard of the guarantee.
"I remember it was typical (response) if someone says that," Meyer said, meaning that it became valuable fodder for the build-up.
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Such motivating factors become moot once the game begins, then rises again to linger in the lore of the storied series, especially if the guaranteeing team pulls it off. Meyer's recollection of the 1986 season was that the Buckeyes lost their first two games, to Alabama and Washington, and "went on a nice run, I think nine straight" wins, Meyer said. Michigan won its first nine games before losing to Minnesota and needed to beat the Buckeyes to tie OSU for the Big Ten title and qualify for the Rose Bowl.
As for the game itself, Meyer said, "Vince Workman had a touchdown and we missed a field goal right at the end and went to the Cotton Bowl and won that. So I remember it very well."
That's a seriously condensed version. The Buckeyes jumped to a 14-3 lead, one of the TDs a spectacular cross-field run by Workman. Harbaugh rallied the Wolverines to a 26-17 lead only to see a Jim Karsatos-to-Cris Carter TD pass cut the lead to 26-24 midway through the fourth quarter.
Then came the Buckeyes' final drive, stalling at the Michigan 29-yard line. Frantz was sent on to try the longest field goal of his season. Kicking toward the south end zone, he hit it strong but it curved left and wound up well wide of the goalposts.
The guarantee had been fulfilled.
Now comes Harbaugh's first return trip to the Horseshoe, 30 years in the making.
"I'll be excited for it," Harbaugh said this summer. He spoke of "going to play a good team on the road in a big stadium - and if we can get some weather in there, some snow, some rain, that's the ultimate. … And if you can come out the victor, there's nothing better in life, that I've found."