ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Lovie Smith likely thought he could get through this week without recalling — or reliving — the only time he and Jim Harbaugh met as coaches in the NFL.
When asked about it, the first-year Illinois coach let out a soft chuckle.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t remember that game,” Smith joked, when asked Tuesday about the San Francisco 49ers’ 32-7 win against the Chicago Bears nearly four years ago. “I’ve tried to forget as much of it as I possibly could.”
On Nov. 19, 2012, Smith was in his ninth season as head coach of the Bears. On the other sideline at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh was in his second season as head coach of the 49ers, and a young quarterback from the University of Nevada named Colin Kaepernick threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns against the Bears.
But Smith lasted only six more games in Chicago after the loss to the 49ers, fired after a 10-6 season in which the Bears did not make the playoffs. Harbaugh spent two more tumultuous seasons with the 49ers, before taking over as Michigan’s head coach in December 2014.
This weekend will be the first time Smith and Harbaugh have met as college coaches, as No. 3 Michigan (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten Conference) hosts the Illini (2-4, 1-2) at 3:30 p.m. EST Saturday. According to Kent Stephens, a historian and curator with the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, Saturday’s game will be the first matchup between two former Super Bowl coaches who moved from the NFL level to the college level, and then met at the college level.
— Illini Football (@IlliniFootball) October 17, 2016
— Illini Football (@IlliniFootball) October 17, 2016
Per Stephens of the College Football Hall of Fame, Harbaugh and Smith are two of 17 coaches who have coached college programs and in a Super Bowl, a group that includes Pete Carroll, Dick Vermeil, Barry Switzer and Jimmy Johnson. Stephens also noted that Harbaugh and Smith are part of an even more exclusive group, just two of seven coaches who went to the college level after coaching in the Super Bowl. But they met only once as head coaches in the NFL.
Harbaugh, Smith said, is a coach who has won at every level and who brings a signature personality to Michigan. While Smith and Harbaugh don’t have a strong working relationship, Harbaugh’s interactions with Smith, he said, “have been pleasant and good … but our task is to prepare to play their team, and it’ll be a challenge.”
When asked this week about the 2012 game that pitted him against a Smith-coached NFL team, Harbaugh didn’t divulge many rich details about that matchup. Or many details at all.
“I don’t remember any meetings that we had in the NFL,” Harbaugh said Monday in Ann Arbor, during his weekly press conference.
Later that night, during his weekly radio show, Harbaugh budged. But in the wrong direction, as he took a listener question that asked if he had ever faced Smith as a head coach in the NFL.
“I don’t believe so, not as a coach, no,” Harbaugh answered. “Possibly as a player and him as a coach.”
Selective amnesia on Harbaugh’s part, perhaps.
Wednesday afternoon, Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno couldn’t remember much about that four-year-old matchup, either, save for a few details on Smith’s Bears team.
“Very well-coached,” said Drevno, who was Harbaugh’s offensive line coach in San Francisco from 2011 to 2013. “Very good defensive front. Did some nice things. Both two good teams playing against each other. It was so long ago, sometimes you forget, you know, but if I see a play I could tell you.”
Let’s jog their collective memory:
- Bears quarterback Jason Campbell summed up the loss: “Tonight was probably the worst nightmare.”
- Smith on the loss: “We have to leave this game as quick as we possibly can, because we didn’t do anything good. There’s nothing really to talk about.”
- Harbaugh on the quarterback controversy he suddenly faced with Kaepernick and Alex Smith: “I usually tend to go with the guy who’s got the hot hand, and we’ve got two quarterbacks that have got a hot hand. They both played great. Nothing here that you can dig for to get more. I’m not covering up anything or hiding anything. … Not a big mystery here. I just felt Alex still had some symptoms on Sunday and we were going to make a decision to go with Colin, and we’ll make that decision as we go forward.”
Kaepernick started the 49ers’ next seven games, and helped the 49ers to the Super Bowl, where they lost 34-31 to Baltimore.
Smith’s memory, this week, though, was a little more vivid.
“Going in we thought (Colin Kaepernick) was a good runner but didn’t know he could pass the ball that well,” Smith said. “They dominated us that game, and that was a good Chicago Bears team we took out there on Monday night. So that’s about all I tried to remember about that game. It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to.”
As of Thursday afternoon, No. 3 Michigan (6-0, 3-0) is a 38-point favorite against the Illini. Could we see a repeat of that lopsided, Harbaugh-coached contest again?
Harbaugh simply gave his standard game-week answer.
“Our task is prepare to play their team and it’ll be a challenge, a big game, championship-type football game for our team,” Harbaugh said. “It’s our duty to get prepared for it.”