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Harbaugh smiles about '86 guarantee, doesn't repeat it

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
After guaranteeing a victory, quarterback Jim Harbaugh leads Michigan to a 26-24 victory over Ohio State in Columbus in 1986.

Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh skillfully and pleasantly brushed off the question after his team had beaten Penn State on Saturday.

"That was a long, long time ago," Harbaugh said, smiling. "In my youth, in my youth."

It was a long time ago, that day, a Monday after Michigan — which had been ranked No. 2 and quarterbacked and captained by Harbaugh — was upset by unranked Minnesota, dashing the Wolverines' national title intentions.

Harbaugh, young, bold and brash, told reporters there would be no lingering effects from the Minnesota game as the Wolverines prepared for the regular-season finale against archrival Ohio State. In fact, he declared the unthinkable.

"I guarantee you we'll beat Ohio State and be in Pasadena," he said at the time.

Now in his first year as his alma mater's coach preparing the Wolverines for their game against the Buckeyes on Saturday at Michigan Stadium, he smiles at the questions about that day long ago, but he won't revisit that bold guarantee.

His teammates backed him up in the 26-24 victory at Ohio Stadium in which Michigan tailback Jamie Morris ran for 210 yards and two touchdowns and OSU kicker Matt Frantz missed a field goal wide left. Harbaugh was 19-of-29 for 261 yards.

Jim Harbaugh releases a pass during Michigan's 26-24 victory over Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 22, 1986.

"He's 22 years old," his coach, the legendary Bo Schembechler, told reporters after the game. "What do you want me to do, have him stand up and say, 'I hope we play a nice game?' He went out and said we were going to win.

"Everybody thinks I'm upset. I'd have said it myself if I had any guts."

Everyone thought Schembechler, who passed away on the eve of the 2006 Michigan-Ohio State game, would be angry at his quarterback.

"He damn near fired me," Jerry Hanlon, a Schembechler assistant and Harbaugh's position coach at the time, said, laughing at the memory. "He wasn't mad at Jim. He said to me, 'Can't you control your players?' I said, 'You know him as well as I do. You think I'm going to follow him around and hold onto his hand? He gets that (brashness) from the head coach, not from me.' "

Why did Harbaugh say it?

"It's just Jimmy," Hanlon said. "He's cocky, he's confident, he's going to compete at the highest level he possibly can. That's exactly the way he felt."

Harbaugh after the game explained his rationale.

"That loss to Minnesota was pretty devastating," Harbaugh said. "I didn't want to go through the week with that lingering. So I said what I said to get me out of it.

"I just wanted to get those cobwebs out and start thinking about Ohio State, because I knew we were down to a one-game season. I wanted to put the pressure on myself so that I knew when I left that field out there I didn't leave anything back. I knew that if I made that kind of statement, I would give everything I could to make it come true."

Still, the Michigan assistants were surprised how Schembechler handled it.

"Bo had known Jimmy since he was 9 years old and Jimmy was a brash kid then," said former Schembechler assistant Bob Thornbladh. "I think Jimmy called (Schembechler) Glenn when he was nine. Bo would belly laugh at Jimmy.

"But we were all very much surprised, and we thought he would come down on Jimmy. He would say, 'There's one voice at Michigan, and that one voice is mine.' The players were allowed to speak in simple, declarative sentences and under strict control.

"It surprised me he didn't get mad at Jimmy and talk about it in front of the team, that this isn't how you do it, but he saw in Jimmy this leadership quality and this belief in himself. It started to permeate the team, and everyone believed in Jimmy. It was beautifully done by the old man, who believed in this kid who was the leader."

Jim Harbaugh talks to teammates on the sidelines during Michigan's win over Ohio State in 1986.

Morris expected what his teammates expected from Schembechler after the Harbaugh guarantee, and he, too, was floored.

"The truth was, I was amazed," Morris said. "All I thought, 'What's Bo going to say?' But Bo seconded him. Bo said our quarterback shot his mouth off and we have to back him up."

Michigan had a slow start, but momentum changed late in the second quarter and into the second half. Morris gained 150 of his 210 yards in the second half, and the Wolverines finished with 529 yards to OSU's 358.

"It was the game I thought it would be," Morris said. "I don't know how to explain what I mean by that, but it's what you dream about when you come to Michigan, winner takes all and goes to the Rose Bowl. I had never been to the Rose Bowl, and I got my opportunity and it was in Columbus where we had to beat the Buckeyes of Ohio State.

"That was our masterpiece."

Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman had 29 tackles.

"I remember chasing Chris Spielman around," said offensive tackle John 'Jumbo' Elliott. "Unlike other linebackers you could count on playing one or two ways versus certain schemes, Spielman had a great feel for the game, great knack, and he was a quick little son of a gun. I remember chasing him around half the day, which will wind a guy."

After the game, Elliott was informed he made All-American for his play that season, but he was more focused on what Michigan had accomplished.

"It was just one of the biggest victories ever," Elliott said. "You get a Rose Bowl, Jimmy had the guarantee and we backed it up — well, we were forced to — and Jamie had a great game. That's a pretty perfect day in Wolverine land, right? I remember an unbelievable feeling when the raucous crowd went to dead silence. Nothing like a road victory and nothing like a road victory in Columbus."

And Harbaugh and his team backed up his guarantee.

"If it's not his best game, it's one of his best games," Morris said. "He was artful, he was good, he was Jimmy."

Ohio State at Michigan

Kickoff: Noon, Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV / radio: ABC / WWJ 950, WTKA 1050

Line: Michigan by 1.5

Records: No. 8 Ohio State 10-1, 6-1 Big Ten; No. 12 Michigan 9-2, 6-1

Series: Michigan leads 58-57-6

UM's 1986 season

at Notre Dame: W, 24-23

Oregon State: W, 31-12

Florida State: W, 20-18

at Wisconsin: W, 34-17

Michigan State: W, 27-6

Iowa: W, 20-17

at Indiana: W, 38-14

Illinois: W, 69-13

at Purdue: W, 31-7

Minnesota: L, 20-17

at Ohio State: W, 26-24

at Hawaii: W, 27-10

Arizona State (Rose Bowl): L, 22-15

Jim Harbaugh's 1986 stats: 180-of-277 passing (65.0 percent), 2,729 yards, 10 touchdowns, 11 interceptions. Harbaugh also had 94 rushing attempts for 118 yards and eight TDs.