If the Gophers rally behind their new coach and upset heavily favored Michigan on Saturday, it won’t be the first time Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh has experienced that.
In 1986, Harbaugh was a Heisman candidate at quarterback for No. 2 Michigan, when the Gophers visited in mid-November.
Bo Schembechler needed one more victory to pass Fielding Yost as Michigan’s winningest coach. Harbaugh was among the players who pooled money to have a plaque made in advance, so they could present it to Schembechler after the game.
Rickie Foggie, Darrell Thompson and Chip Lohmiller had other ideas. Lohmiller drilled a 30-yard field goal as time expired for a 20-17 Minnesota triumph. It was a defining moment for Gophers coach John Gutekunst, the former defensive coordinator who had taken over when Lou Holtz left for Notre Dame.
“There were other low points in my college career, but that was one of them,” Harbaugh said this week.
The Wolverines’ national title hopes were dashed, and they dropped to No. 6. The next week, they played at No. 7 Ohio State. Was Michigan finished? Hardly. Harbaugh guaranteed a victory over the hated Buckeyes, then backed it up, passing for 261 yards in the 26-24 victory.
Of Harbaugh’s guarantee, Schembechler said, “I’d have said it myself if I had any guts.”
The players finally presented Schembechler with his plaque.
“We had to pay an extra $30 to have the inscription changed from Minnesota to Ohio State,” Harbaugh told the Chicago Tribune that day. “If we had lost this one, it would have cost us more money. We couldn’t afford to lose to Ohio State.”
Harbaugh went on to a 15-year NFL career, including long stints with the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts. While he was still playing in the NFL, from 1994-2001, Harbaugh worked as an NCAA-certified unpaid assistant for Western Kentucky, then coached by his father, Jack Harbaugh.
Jim Harbaugh was an offensive assistant and recruited for the Hilltoppers, prepping for his own coaching career.
In 2001, a new coach joined Western Kentucky’s conference — Jerry Kill at Southern Illinois.
“Jerry and I kind of developed a bond early,” Jack Harbaugh said this week. “I’m very fond that we had that time together.”
Jim Harbaugh had a good laugh this week, recalling the 2002 game between Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky, which was on its way to the NCAA Division-IAA championship. The Hilltoppers won 48-16, as the teams combined for 111 combined rushing attempts and only 13 passes.
“They were trying to out-power each other,” Jim Harbaugh said. “Jerry Kill was running the power, my dad was running the power, and it was a game within the game to see who could run power the most. It’s heartwarming.”
In 2004, Jim Harbaugh landed his first head coaching job, at the University of San Diego, and brought Jack aboard as an assistant.
“We’re sitting around the office one day,” Jack Harbaugh recalled, “and I can’t remember the play we were working on. But I said, ‘You want to find out about that play, get on the phone and talk to Jerry Kill. Because there’s nobody who knows it better than he does. There’s nobody who can teach it better than he can.’
“And they called him. Jerry ended up spending a great deal of time on the telephone, sent some video of the play, and it became an integral part of what they were doing in San Diego.”
Jim Harbaugh spent three years at San Diego, going 27-2 in his final 29 games before taking over at Stanford.
He inherited a Stanford team that went 1-11 in 2006 and turned it into a national power, going 12-1 in 2010 before leaving for the NFL.
With the 49ers, he reached three NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl — a 34-31 loss to the Ravens, coached by his brother, John Harbaugh — before missing the playoffs last season. Management agreed to mutually part ways with Harbaugh, who was soon on his way back to Michigan to replace Brady Hoke.
Michigan went 5-7 in Hoke’s last year, including a 30-14 home loss to the Gophers, but now Harbaugh’s Wolverines enter Saturday’s game as two-touchdown favorites, at 5-2 and ranked No. 15.
The Gophers (4-3) will be playing their first game since Kill’s sudden retirement, with Tracy Claeys eagerly stepping in as interim head coach.
Jack Harbaugh will be home in Milwaukee, pulling for the Wolverines, but that doesn’t change the fondness he and his wife, Jackie, have for Kill’s former team.
“Jackie and I will be sitting around here on a Saturday — especially when John and Jim were both in the NFL — and if Minnesota was on television, we wanted to watch,” Jack Harbaugh said. “Jerry Kill did it the old-fashioned way. For me it’s just a flashback to the old days. I crank the lever on this chair of mine, and lean back and have a smile on my face, and with some great memories.”
• Ohio State has 28 consecutive Big Ten regular-season victories under Urban Meyer, one short of the record conference winning streak for a Football Bowl Subdivision school. Florida State won 29 consecutive ACC games under Bobby Bowden from 1992 to 1995. The Buckeyes have a bye this week but can match the record Nov. 7, when the Gophers visit Columbus.
• Wisconsin could have quarterback Joel Stave (concussion) and running back Corey Clement (sports hernia) back for Saturday’s game against Rutgers.
Without Clement, the Badgers rank only 11th in the Big Ten in rushing offense (152.5 ypg). Wisconsin, which plays at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 28, has won five road games in a row and is bowl-eligible for the 14th consecutive season.
• ESPN’s Big Ten Blog has plenty of good content each week, and it also delivered a true 21st-century romance. Two Michigan alums, Kate and Brandon, met in the comments section of the blog in 2012. Kate was bleu_girl_04, and Brandon was AAWolv. Their conversations about Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini gradually turned flirtatious. They met in 2013 and married last weekend — a Michigan bye week, of course. Their best man was even a guy named Tom Brady (but not The Tom Brady).
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
1. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0): With J.T. Barrett back as the starting qurarterback, the Buckeyes looked scary good once again last week.
2. Michigan State (8-0, 4-0): Taking advantage of quarterback Connor Cook’s brilliance, Aaron Burbridge leads the Big Ten in receiving.
3. Iowa (7-0, 3-0): The Hawkeyes have two road victories against ranked teams (Wisconsin, Northwestern) for first time since 2010.
4. Michigan (5-2, 2-1): The Wolverines lead the nation in third-down defense; opponents converting only 19.6 percent of the time.
5. Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1): Dave Aranda’s defense has allowed only seven touchdowns in the Badgers’ past six games.
6. Northwestern (6-2, 2-2): Last week’s victory at Nebraska made the Wildcats bowl-eligible for the first time since 2012.
7. Illinois (4-3, 1-2): This team looms as a sneaky tough opponent for the Gophers on Nov. 21 at TCF Bank Stadium.
8. Penn State (6-2, 3-1): Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is the Nittany Lions’ new career leader in passing yards and completions.
9. Nebraska (3-5, 1-3): The Cornhuskers’ five losses have come by a combined 13 points for snakebit first-year coach Mike Riley.
10. Gophers (4-3, 1-2): Minnesota’s scoring offense ranks last in the Big Ten at 20.4 points per game.
11. Rutgers (3-4, 1-3): The Scarlet Knights need three more victories to get bowl-eligible, and the schedule is tough.
12. Indiana (4-4, 0-4): The Hoosiers were outscored 46-0 combined in the fourth quarter in losses to Rutgers and Michigan State.
13. Maryland (2-5, 0-3): The Terrapins rushed for 241 yards against Penn State, but they also had five turnovers in what turned out to be a 31-30 loss.
14. Purdue (1-6, 0-3): The Boilermakers had a bye after their loss to Wisconsin to get ready for Nebraska’s visit.