Ann Arbor — Before this Michigan football season had even begun, Billy Taylor was telling anyone who would listen that something about this team felt profoundly familiar.
For those who played for demanding and exacting Bo Schembechler in his first season at Michigan in 1969, watching the current Wolverines under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, who played quarterback for Schembechler and has carried on the bloodline, there is a sense of déjà vu.
“I’ve been telling people it’s ’69 all over again,” Taylor, the former Michigan tailback, said. “I know what leadership means and what it brings to a team and an organization. I know Jim Harbaugh’s work ethic.”
He knows that work ethic, because he saw it for himself from Schembechler all those years ago.
And on the eve of the annual Michigan-Ohio State game, the 112th meeting between the two programs, Taylor, like so many others, senses the similarities between Harbaugh’s first Michigan team and Schembechler’s first as the Wolverines prepare for the Buckeyes.
The 1969 Buckeyes coached by Woody Hayes were defending national champions and riding a 22-game winning streak. The 2015 Buckeyes coached by Urban Meyer are defending national champions but had their 23-game winning streak snapped at home last Saturday by Michigan State.
Ohio State has commanded this series in the last decade, winning nine of the last 10 and beyond that, 11 of the last 13. Michigan is ranked No. 12 and is 9-2, 6-1 Big Ten, while Ohio State is ranked No. 8 and is 10-1, 6-1. The winner on Saturday will get a spot in the Big Ten championship game if Michigan State loses to Penn State later that day.
This season, Michigan lost its season-opening nonconference game at Utah and fell to Michigan State and struggled at Minnesota but won. The 1969 team also lost a nonconference game, to Missouri, lost to Michigan State, and struggled in the first half against Minnesota before flipping a switch.
After losing to the Spartans, the ’69 team won four straight, including back-to-back road games at the end of the stretch heading into the Ohio State game. After Harbaugh’s team lost to MSU, it won its next four, including back-to-back road games heading into the Ohio State game.
For the 1969 team, the 51-6 rout at Iowa completely shaped the players’ outlook for Hayes and the Buckeyes and primed them for the unthinkable — upsetting their rivals in Schembechler’s first season.
“I heard those kids in the locker room, they were going crazy saying, ‘Let’s get Ohio State! Bring them on!’ ” Jerry Hanlon, Schembechler’s long-time friend and assistant said of the postgame scene at Iowa. “I asked Bo what we should do, and he said, ‘Hell, let ’em go, let ’em go,’ and we did.
“I said, ‘What the hell, we’re going to beat Ohio State.’ That was the attitude. They were ready to play the Green Bay Packers. I had a really good feeling about it.”
Harbaugh, during his weekly news conference on Monday, wouldn’t directly make the comparison of his team to Schembechler and the 1969 Wolverines, but with snow on the ground earlier this week, he briefly reminisced about that game in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.
“I heard players from the 1969 team talk about the practice, the preparation the week before the game when there was snow,” Harbaugh said. “They came in on Monday and, as the story goes, Bo assembled the entire team on Monday morning at 8 o’clock, called everybody down to the facility for a team meeting and gave them all shovels, and they went out to the practice field and shoveled off the practice field and had banks of snow on the sideline.”
The season before, Ohio State dismantled Michigan, 50-14, at Ohio Stadium. Schembechler, who had played for Hayes at Miami (Ohio) and had left his job at Miami for Michigan, knew what buttons to push as he prepared the Wolverines for the Buckeyes.
Schembechler made sure the number 50 was everywhere as a reminder.
“He knew we should have been pissed, so he made sure we were pissed,” offensive guard Dick Caldarazzo said. “He was going to cram those 50s down our throats. There were 50s on the shower curtains, on the lockers, on the helmets of the demonstration team, and there was a 50 above their jersey number.
“Bo put the screws to us with the 50.”
Jim Brandstatter, now the play-by-play voice of the Wolverines, received his demonstration team white jersey that week with the red numbers of the OSU left tackle he would be emulating and, just under the neck, he saw the number 50.
“I don’t know if that worked, because everyone who played on that ’68 team didn’t need anyone to remind them Ohio State put it on us and went for two,” Brandstatter said. “That’s something you never forget. Everyone who played in that ’68 game knew the damn score. It was Bo giving you a little nudge.”
Before the Michigan-Ohio State game, Schembechler readied his team in the locker room.
“We thought we’d win, we believed it, Bo believed it,” Taylor said. “I remember he brought in a newspaper saying Michigan has two chances of winning, slim and none. He told us, ‘We’ve had a great week of practice. I’ll tell you what, we’ll kick their (butts).’ He hit the chalkboard and knocked it over, and then we surfaced from the tunnel.
“That game was something special. The greatest team effort I’ve been a part of. Everybody’s game was cranked up two, three notches. We were relentless. The Buckeyes scored first and that ticked us off. I had a big run to set up our go-ahead touchdown, the defense was great, we had (six) interceptions, and were tackling for losses. It was a great team effort. Probably nobody in the country, even our faithful fans, thought we’d beat Ohio State that day. Bo and the coaches, we knew we were going to beat them.”
Michigan, an enormous underdog, upset Ohio State, 24-12, with all the scoring in the first half. Barry Pierson, who had a 60-yard punt return that paved the way for a Michigan score, also had three interceptions.
“The player of the game, by far, was Pierson,” Brandstatter said.
Pierson sees it differently.
“They can say whatever they want, but everybody stepped up,” he said. “If you’re a team, you’re a team. It’s not an individual thing.”
The postgame celebration on the field was magical. Hanlon had never left his perch in the press box before the end of the game, but he did with two minutes left so he could experience the jubilation. The Michigan Stadium field was crowded with students, fans and the players.
“You didn’t want to get up into the locker room. You didn’t want to leave,” Caldarazzo said. “It was really cool, but you wanted to get with your guys. That locker room was nuts, something like I’ve never seen.
After a celebration, everyone jumping around on each other and singing ‘The Victors,’ you started to take off your shoes and uniform, and every guy was exhausted. It was such a team effort. We had practiced our (butts) off all week. We were emotionally drained, and thinking, ‘Holy cow, what did we do?’ ”
Taylor senses something similar will happen for Michigan on Saturday.
“Bo brought the right RMA, the right mental attitude,” Taylor said. “Harbaugh and his staff are bringing the RMA, and it depends if the team has the DNA. You put that together, you’ve got a powerful combination.
“We’re going to beat the Buckeyes, there’s no doubt in my mind. We’re going to find a way to win that game. (Harbaugh) taught them to win and how to find a way to win. That’s an intangible you can’t put a label on, how important it is believing you can win.”
After all, that’s how the Wolverines felt in 1969.
Ohio State at Michigan
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV / radio: ABC / WWJ 950, WTKA 1050
Line: Pick ’em
Records: No. 8 Ohio State 10-1, 6-1 Big Ten; No. 12 Michigan 9-2, 6-1
Series: Michigan leads 58-47-6