The Rivals, Part I: Full Circle

On December 23, 1963, James Joseph Harbaugh was born at Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio. Just 201 days later, Urban Frank Meyer III took his first breath in the same building. Today, they are the head coaches in The Greatest Rivalry in All of Sport, the opposite sides of a coin. Equal, but not the same.

Urban Meyer played defensive back for the University of Cincinnati, although I use the word “played” in the loosest sense. Barely seeing the field as a walk on, Meyer’s entire playing career is contained in a small paragraph in the 1985 Cincy media guide: “A reserve at safety … holder for PAT and FG attempts.” His time on the team wasn’t wasted, however; he used it to observe coaching techniques. (SPOILER ALERT: That comes in handy.)

Jim Harbaugh’s path was different to say the least. A star quarterback at Michigan, he was 24-5-1 as a starter. He finished second in the nation in pass efficiency and third in Heisman trophy voting in 1986. That season, he famously guaranteed a victory over Ohio State and a Rose Bowl appearance, a promise he delivered with a 26-24 win in Columbus.

On the other sideline that day was a young graduate assistant just starting out a coaching career that would take him from Earle Bruce’s Buckeye staff to Illinois State, Colorado State and Notre Dame before landing his first head coaching gig at Bowling Green in 2001.

That year also marked the end of Jim Harbaugh’s NFL career in which he started 140 games for four different teams and threw for 26,288 yards and 129 touchdowns. During the last eight years of that run, he worked as an unpaid assistant for his father, Jack Harbaugh, at Western Kentucky, where he helped recruit 17 of the players on WKU’s 2002 Division I-AA (now FCS) national championship team. After a couple of years coaching QBs for the Oakland Raiders, Harbaugh snagged the head coaching job at the University of San Diego, where he compiled a three-year record of 29-6.

In the meantime, Urban Meyer had translated his success at Bowling Green and Utah into a top-tier job at Florida. In his second year at the helm, he defied conventional wisdom and destroyed his former employer Ohio State in the 2006 BCS National Championship Game. Two years later, he would add another title to his résumé.

In 2007, Jim Harbaugh took over at Stanford, a program that, despite making some gains under Ty Willingham, had fallen off under the guidance of Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. Steadily improving each season, Harbaugh delivered a 12-1 campaign in 2010 with the lone loss coming against an Oregon team that would appear in the national championship game.

2010 would be Urban Meyer’s last at Florida. After taking a leave of absence for health-related issues following the 2009 season, Meyer returned to the team at the request of athletic director Jeremy Foley. The Gators went 7-5, and Meyer resigned for good on December 8, 2010.

A month later, Jim Harbaugh became the head coach of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and led the team to a 13-3 regular season record and an appearance in the NFC championship game. This success also revitalized the stalled career of quarterback Alex Smith, who had played for Urban Meyer at Utah. The next two years were just as successful, with the team reaching at least the NFC championship game each season, and facing off against the Baltimore Ravens—coached by Jim’s brother John—in Super Bowl XLVII, a game the Niners lost by 3 points.

By then, Meyer had taken over at Ohio State, stabilizing a program reeling from disappointment after an impermissible benefits scandal led to the sudden resignation of coach Jim Tressel and a rocky season under interim coach Luke Fickell, who was nevertheless retained as a defensive coordinator and expert recruiter. Meyer delivered on his reputation as a master motivator by coaxing a 12-0 season out of a team that wasn’t allowed to participate in the post-season. He followed that up with another perfect regular season, before losing both the Big Ten championship game and the Orange Bowl. Last year, Meyer’s Buckeyes overcame long odds and more than their share of adversity to win the first ever College Football Playoff, despite being underdogs in their final three games.

Harbaugh’s Niners went 8-8 last year as his relationship with the team’s front office deteriorated beyond repair. In December, he and the team parted ways, although the amicability of that split depends on who you ask. At the end of the month, after much speculation about his future plans, Harbaugh was introduced as the next head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

The two coaches now head up opposing armies in a war that predates either of them, a sports rivalry that began in the shadows of an actual dispute between the two states over a 468-square-mile strip of land that, yes, included the future site of the very hospital where both men were born. The Great State of Ohio won the land dispute. The winner of the Meyer-Harbaugh War remains to be seen.

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