ANN ARBOR — Michigan and Ohio State coaches have entered into an ultimatum for more than a century.
The terms aren’t itemized in the contract, but they are present before dollar amounts are mentioned or hours of private jet use are detailed: If you don’t win the Ohio State-Michigan game, your position will be terminated.
Wes Fesler and John Cooper were a combined 2-13-2 against Michigan. Both were shown the exit door because of it. Bennie Oosterbaan and Bump Elliott may have kept their jobs if more wins against Ohio State were part of their resumes.
Jim Harbaugh is the latest entrant into the high stakes game of employment roulette. So far, life at the deep end of the pool hasn’t included much splashing for Harbaugh. He’s 0-2 against the Buckeyes — 1-2 against Michigan State — and don’t think that it escapes Harbaugh’s mind.
“The record is what the record is. [I’m] well aware of what the record is,” he said in October. “We know what the records are. We want to win those games.”
The pressure to beat one's archrival has beginnings dating to the William Howard Taft Administration in 1909.
Albert Herrnstein was a star on Fielding Yost’s famed point-a-minute teams in 1901 and 1902, and four years later, Herrnstein was Ohio State’s head coach. In four seasons, he was 28-10-1 and won a Western Conference championship. But Herrnstein was 0-4 against Michigan. He didn’t return for a fifth season.
The 2017 game isn’t Harbaugh’s Waterloo, but it’s an opportunity to beat back lingering questions about Michigan’s immediate future. When you win the Ohio State-Michigan game, it acts as an injection of penicillin, with any malady being extricated.
Growing up in Perrysburg and Ann Arbor, with a father who was a UM assistant, gave Harbaugh a firsthand glimpse of the magnitude of the rivalry.
“The first time I was at the game was 1973, the 10-10 tie,” Harbaugh said. “Then and afterward I understood it was the biggest game of the year — arguably the biggest rivalry in college football, arguably one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports. I came to understand that as a youngster and even more so when I actually played in the game.
“You understand what it means to play in that game, what it meant while you were playing that game, what it means five, 10, 15, 20 years afterward. You understand it more the longer the time goes on.”
QB UPDATE: For the second consecutive year, there’s intrigue surrounding Michigan’s starting quarterback for the Ohio State game.
Last year there were questions about whether Wilton Speight would play. This season the inquiries are about Brandon Peters, who suffered a concussion at Wisconsin.
Peters, a redshirt freshman, is in concussion protocol, which won’t allow him to practice until Wednesday at the earliest. Once Peters is symptom-free, according to Harbaugh, he has to go without symptoms after exertion. Then he would be cleared for practice.
If Peters can’t play, fifth-year senior John O’Korn will presumably be the starter. He’s started four games this season, including two of Michigan’s three losses (Michigan State and Penn State). With O’Korn behind center, the offense has failed to find a rhythm.
“John has remained diligent every single week in preparation and game plan,” Harbaugh said. “Always sitting on a spring ready to play.”
The wild card is Speight, who has been out since Sept. 23 with three fractured back vertebrae. He practiced last week, though he wasn’t cleared for contact. If he’s able to withstand hits this week, it’s possible Speight could play against the Buckeyes.
“He’ll be evaluated again by the doctors this week,” Harbaugh said.
SPOTTED: Yes, Michigan remains bitter about the end of last season’s Ohio State game.
“Everyone knows we definitely won that game, hands down,” junior running back Karan Higdon said.
Added senior defensive lineman Maurice Hurst: “Until I’m an old man I’ll think he’s short.”
Instead, the replay official ruled that Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett converted a fourth-and-1 by the slimmest of margins. It’s perhaps the most scrutinized, controversial play in the history of the rivalry.
One play later, Curtis Samuel scored the game-winning touchdown in double overtime.
“We put the game in the hands of the referees, and that’s one of the worst things you can do,” Higdon said. “We have to make sure we don’t make that same mistake this year. We talked about it amongst ourselves.”
For the past year, fans of both teams have passionately debated whether Barrett reached the first-down marker. Inside the Michigan locker room, it’s a play that still impacts players.
“It motivates us a lot,” Hurst said. “You know any play can really change the game, and you want to make sure you’re doing all the little things right and you want to make sure it doesn’t get to that scenario where it has to be decided on one play at the end of the game.”
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