A Tale of Two Johns: Like Cooper Had to Beat Michigan, Harbaugh Has to Beat Steelers

December 08, 2010 | Glenn Clark

2-5 isn’t quite 2-10-1.

That being said, 2-5 might not be a totally fair representation.

Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh has learned a tough lesson this week following his team’s heartbreaking 13-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday.

In Baltimore-much like in Columbus, Ohio-fans simply won’t accept rivalry losses.

John Cooper was a tremendous college football coach. During a head coaching career at Tulsa, Arizona State, and Ohio State that spanned from 1977-2000; Cooper posted a 192-84-6 record and tallied nine conference championships.

Cooper was the head coach of the Buckeyes from 1988-2000. He went 111-43-4 during that span, claiming three Big Ten titles. Cooper guided the Buckeyes to bowl appearances in 11 of his 13 seasons and finished with a losing record only once-his first season in Columbus. Cooper counted wins in both the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl during his time as the Buckeyes’ head man, and played in bowl games on New Year’s Day or later an impressive nine times.

Cooper had incredible success as the Head Coach at Ohio State. The type of success that might have earned him the right to determine his own fate. “Might have” if not for one glaring problem.

2-10-1.

As head man in Columbus, Cooper’s Buckeyes posted just a 2-10-1 record against the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State’s biggest rival.

It wasn’t just that Cooper’s teams struggled in their regular season finale against the opponent alumni and fans despised the most. The bigger problem was that Ohio State’s battles with Michigan regularly determined the final outcome for the Buckeyes’ season.

In 1993, Ohio State entered the Michigan game with a 9-0-1 record, but a 28-0 loss in Ann Arbor cost them an outright conference title. In 1995, Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George lead the Buckeyes back to Ann Arbor with an undefeated record and national title dreams. After a 31-23 defeat, the Buckeyes were sent to the Citrus Bowl instead.

1996 provided the greatest heartbreak for the Buckeyes in the John Cooper era, as they entered the Michigan game again undefeated and ranked #2 in the country. The Buckeyes had a 9-0 lead at halftime against Lloyd Carr’s Wolverines, but ultimately fell 13-9 at home.

OSU would eventually win another game against Michigan under Cooper in 1998, but they never posted back to back wins in the series under his guide. Cooper was fired following an 8-4 campaign in 2000. While academic and off-field troubles surrounding the program played a role in his firing, his record against Michigan ultimately played a major role.

In fact, when new coach Jim Tressel took over in Columbus he made a point to put special emphasis on the Michigan rivalry. After the former Youngstown State head coach was hired by the Buckeyes, he made a memorable halftime speech at a Ohio State-Michigan basketball game, according to ESPN.com…

“I can assure you that you will be proud of our young people, in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the football field.”

Following Sunday’s loss, Harbaugh now holds a 2-5 record against the Ravens’ heated AFC North rivals, including the 2009 AFC Championship Game.

(Every Ravens fan knows that both of Harbaugh’s wins in the rivalry came in games where Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger was not on the field. That’s why the 2-5 record may not be such a fair representation.)

In 2008, Harbaugh’s second loss to the Steelers cost the Ravens a shot at the division title and forced them to hit the road in the playoffs. After a hard fought divisional round win over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, the Ravens appeared flat when they hit the field for the conference title game at Heinz Field. Harbaugh’s third loss to the Steelers cost the Ravens a trip to Tampa Bay to face the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

(Harbaugh’s first loss to the Steelers-a Week 4 Monday Night Football defeat early in 2008-was also a loss that could have earned the Ravens home field advantage had they won the game. Week 4 losses just don’t tend to be quite as agonizing as losses in Week 15.)

Harbaugh’s fourth loss to the Steelers wasn’t quite as crushing. Despite losing in the Steel City in late 2009, the Ravens held on to earn a Wild Card playoff berth via a tiebreaker after the teams finished with matching 9-7 records.

Harbaugh’s fifth loss in the series shapes up to be as crushing if not more than any of the others. Had the Ravens held on for a Week 13 win over the Steelers, they would have controlled their own destiny (and actually held a one game margin of error) to win the division, receive a first round bye and host a playoff game in the divisional round.

The Ravens were a home win over the Steelers away from having a significantly clearer path to Dallas and a chance to again play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy this season.

We know now that the path isn’t so clear.

Had Sunday’s loss been to the Cincinnati Bengals or Cleveland Browns, it would have been difficult for fans to stomach. Sunday’s loss was particularly costly, and it would have left a dark cloud hanging over Charm City no matter who the opponent had been.

Yet because it was a rivalry loss, because it was the Steelers, there is simply no doubt that the black cloud left by the defeat remains darker than anything that came from fires on The Block or in Mt. Vernon.

(As an aside, does anyone see symbolism in the fact that the city has dealt with multiple REAL black clouds after a Steelers loss?)

The fact is, this fanbase CANNOT stomach losses to the Steelers, especially not losses of such magnitude. Losses hurt, but losses to the Steelers are absolute gut punches.

As Drew Forrester and I opined last week on “The Morning Reaction” on AM1570 WNST, this city doesn’t look at a Ravens loss to the Steelers as a NFL loss. The city tends to look at such losses as a loss to the city of Pittsburgh in general. There’s a natural feeling that it wasn’t a football team that won on Sunday night, but instead the entire Western Pennsylvania area.

It leads to frustration, pain and anger. As I wrote immediately following Sunday night’s game, the ability for fans to be rational goes completely out the window after a loss to the Steelers.

Harbaugh found that out Tuesday night during his radio show on WBAL.

A caller to the show questioned Harbaugh on the job status of DL Coach Clarence Brooks, one of the more respected assistants on the Ravens’ staff.

Harbaugh didn’t handle the question well, chiming back “Clarence Brooks does a great job. We will fight our tails off. If that’s not enough, then find another team to root for” according to the National Football Post.

It wasn’t the only time Harbaugh lost his cool during the show. Again according to NFP, Harbaugh also explained at one point: “if you’re not proud of this football team, then you don’t know football.”

Harbaugh probably didn’t handle the questions the best way he could have. There’s no doubt that his frustration reflected poorly with the fans who were listening, even if his answers were fair.

But the problem wasn’t the response. The problem was the result.

Ravens fans are NEVER going to be accepting of losses to the Steelers.

When the Ravens lose to the Steelers, the fanbase is going to respond poorly. This won’t be the last time a John Harbaugh-coached Ravens team plays the Steelers with major AFC North or overall playoff ramifications. In fact, the majority of the games the two teams will play against each other will be played with a lot on the line.

While college football and the NFL aren’t similar in many ways, this is an area where the rivalry is much like Ohio State-Michigan.

It isn’t just a rivalry because the two teams (or fanbases) don’t like each other. Ole Miss and Mississippi State don’t like each other, but their games rarely mean much of anything in the SEC. Ravens-Steelers games regularly mean a lot in the AFC.

The comparison is something John Harbaugh should really understand. John went to Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. His father (Jack Harbaugh) was an assistant under Bo Schembechler at Michigan. His brother (Jim Harbaugh) was a quarterback for the Maize and Blue. (Jim’s teams were 3-1 against Ohio State.) Ohio State-Michigan is in John Harbaugh’s blood.

In that way, Harbaugh probably understands well what happened to Cooper at Ohio State. Hopefully that understanding can be transcendent.

If John Harbaugh is going to succeed as the Head Coach of the Baltimore Ravens, he is going to HAVE to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There’s just no getting around that.

Harbaugh is not in jeopardy of being run out of town like Cooper was at Ohio State.

I repeat, Harbaugh’s job is NOT in jeopardy. Certainly not at this point anyway.

But if he’s going to succeed here long-term, he’s going to HAVE to beat the Steelers. If not, a few annoying calls to a radio show will turn into general discontent, and eventually a much more vitriolic fanbase.

That’s what happened to Cooper in Columbus.

Harbaugh doesn’t have to win EVERY game against the Steelers. Since taking over at Ohio State, Tressel has gone 9-1 against the rival Wolverines, which isn’t a realistic expectation for Harbaugh against the Steelers.

But he has to start winning SOME meaningful games against the Steelers, or the Ravens won’t accomplish the things they need to for Harbaugh to be successful as a Head Coach.

And if 2-5 is a pace that continues for Harbaugh against the Steelers, Harbaugh’s story will likely have a similar ending as Cooper’s.

-G

Comments on Facebook

Comments are closed.