Sticking to Sports: Jim Harbaugh and where Michigan fits into college football today
If you were to ask college football fans across the country, “Which fan base is least realistic about the current state of its program?” I’d be willing to bet one school would come up significantly more often than any other — the University of Michigan. The Wolverines boast one of the most impressive resumes in college football: the most wins in the country, 42 Big Ten Championships, 11 National Championships and three Heisman Trophy winners. However, much of this success dates to an era long since bygone. One doesn’t have to think very hard to come up with differences between today’s game and that of 1901, when Fielding Yost led the program to a perfect season and outscored opponents 550 to zero.
At this point, Michigan’s vaunted history seems an albatross of expectation and black-and-white memory more than something relevant to the contemporary college football landscape. As I see it, four programs currently exist in a different stratosphere from the rest of the sport, and Michigan is neither in this group nor particularly close to it. Since the advent of the College Football Playoff in 2014, Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State have dominated the sport. I am defining this somewhat loosely, but think something along the lines of multiple CFP appearances, consistent national championship contention and rosters composed of five-star recruits across the field that reflect dominance on the recruiting trail (I think Georgia’s SEC title and run to the National Championship Game, along with the flood of touted recruits to Athens, indicate that Kirby Smart has the Bulldogs on the precipice of joining this group, but I have chosen not to include them on the grounds that they have not yet sustained this level of success). While Michigan fans tend to still consider the program one of the sport’s blueblood programs, the on-field results indicate that this team dropped out of the sport’s top tier.
Meanwhile, since he took over the program in 2015, Jim Harbaugh has failed to win the Big Ten, failed to beat his rivals (a 1-6 record against Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame) and failed to qualify for the CFP. Harbaugh inherited a program that had been in the doldrums since the tail end of the Lloyd Carr era and guided it to a 10-3; however, he lost to both Michigan State and Ohio State. In year one, fans had no trouble forgiving losing to his rivals; the Michigan State game was as strange a loss as you will see (if you don’t believe me, find the highlight on YouTube), and while Ohio State dominated in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines’ 41-7 romp over Florida in the Citrus Bowl left a satisfying taste in their faithful’s mouths. The following season, the Wolverines were a dubious spot on a fourth-down J.T. Barrett run in overtime away from making the playoffs. However, last season, Harbaugh’s team went just 8-5 and again failed to win a rivalry game. By the time the clock ran out on a disappointing 31-20 home loss to the Buckeyes, calls for Harbaugh’s job flew freely, an idea that would have seemed unthinkable when he was hired. Over the course of three seasons, Harbaugh went from senior status being, to according to many fans, in the hot seat. Prior to his hiring, Michigan fans yearned for their former quarterback to return to Ann Arbor and restore the program to national relevance. Three years later, the same fans have grown impatient, tired of losing to Ohio State and Michigan State, disappointed that the team has yet to win the Big Ten.
After a season opening loss in South Bend at the hands of Notre Dame this year, Harbaugh’s critics have new ammunition. A new stat emerged in the community of Harbaugh haters — Michigan had lost 17 consecutive games on the road against ranked opponents. Let’s set this stat aside for a moment and consider Harbaugh’s resume as a whole.
In 2004, Jim Harbaugh received his first head coaching job at San Diego. Not San Diego State, but the University of San Diego, the Toreros. In three years there, Harbaugh went 29-6, including back-to-back 11-1 conference-championship seasons to close out his tenure in Southern California. From USD, Harbaugh took over a Stanford program coming off a 1-11 season. After four years, Harbaugh had the Cardinals at 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl. It took just four seasons to turn a laughingstock program into a national powerhouse. A few days after his Orange Bowl victory, Harbaugh agreed to take over the San Francisco 49ers, inheriting a team that hadn’t had a winning season in nine years. In his first three years, Harbaugh made it to the NFC Championship Game every year, including a run to Super Bowl XLVII that came up one Kaepernick-to-Crabtree fade away from a title. The most cursory of looks at Harbaugh’s resume shows a repeated ability to turn mediocrity or worse into championship-caliber football.
This resume represents the biggest reason why calls for Harbaugh’s job are premature. Let’s say you fire Harbaugh — who could you possibly find with such a track record of success? Harbaugh would be able to find another premier job much more quickly than Michigan could replace him with a similarly successful coach. Any Michigan fan who wants Harbaugh out has lost his sense of where Michigan fits into college football today. Yes, Harbaugh has not beaten Ohio State, but no Michigan coach has of late. The Wolverines boast just one win against their archrivals since 2003, and that came in the awkward Luke Fickell transition season between the consistently dominant Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer eras in Columbus. As for the 17-straight road losses to ranked teams, that streak dates back to 2006, Harbaugh’s final season in San Diego; to fault Harbaugh for the failings of Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke seems at least a bit unreasonable. For closing in on 20 years, Michigan has not won the requisite games to be considered a college football elite in terms of on-field product, so Wolverines fans must set aside the pride that accompanies their tradition-steeped program and accept that building sustained success will take some time.
While Harbaugh’s win-loss record since his return to Ann Arbor is unexceptional, he has taken significant strides toward restoring Michigan to something resembling the powerhouse programs of Yost or Harbaugh’s coach from his playing days in Maize and Blue, Bo Schembechler. With the help of Don Brown, Harbaugh has built a dominant defense, churning out NFL draft picks and improving on a year-to-year basis despite sending so many players to the NFL. His offense may have finally found the quarterback it lacked for much of his first four seasons in Shea Patterson.
None of this is to say that Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan has been perfect, or that Harbaugh should feel no pressure to beat his rivals. Without a doubt, success at Michigan lies in beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten. However, before Michigan fans kick Harbaugh to the curb, I’d encourage them to have a bit more self-awareness about the state of their program.
Ultimately, the greatest reason for Michigan fans to continue to support Harbaugh has to do with the stakes of his hypothetical future dismissal. If Jim Harbaugh, who is both turnaround specialist and a “Michigan Man” as well-versed in the program’s traditions as anyone (which Rodriguez can attest is a prerequisite for success in Ann Arbor), cannot restore the Wolverines to national prominence, then who can? That question is one I very much doubt Michigan fans will ever want to wrestle with.