I wanted to take a short break from political commentary to address something close to my heart. One of my home state’s football programs, the one I have been a die-hard fan of all my life, the Michigan Wolverines.
This a tough article to write. But someone has to write it. I have been telling friends and social circles for two years that Jim Harbaugh was on the hot seat when it came to Michigan's coaching job. My friends called me crazy and said, ‘good luck finding someone better.’
Their comments amounted to the conclusion that they would prefer middle-of-the-road mediocrity in the Big Ten than to risk being bad again in searching for a new coach. They said they prefer him over another Rich Rod or Brady Hoke. They said Harbaugh needed more time to build the team he needed to win.
It has been six long years, and we are further away from a division championship, let alone a conference championship, then we have ever been under the Harbaugh regime. The team has gotten markedly worse over the last six seasons, and at some point, the fan base needs to face the reality that hometown Jim might not be the answer.
Hype Arrives in Ann Arbor
I grew up with one Michigan coach, Lloyd Carr. He wasn’t flashy; he wasn’t loud. He was a solid, consistent coach who always put Michigan in a position to win. He didn’t always beat Ohio and didn’t always compete for a Big Ten championship, but he won.
He did enough of both to keep his job for as long as he wanted. In 13 seasons at Michigan, Carr carried a 75% win percentage, won one national championship, and won five Big Ten championships. Less remarkable, though, he was 6–7 in bowl games and 6–7 against Ohio.
Sidebar: Ohio and Michigan have a long-standing rivalry. We Michigan fans don’t call that team down south ‘Ohio State’ because they have this pompous way of representing themselves as ‘thee Ohio State.’ So we only officially acknowledge them at ‘Ohio.’ End sidebar.
After Carr’s retirement, Michigan Football has been treated to a roller coaster of hype and let down. Starting with the hiring of Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia. He was going to bring his new-generation, high-speed offense to Michigan. The only problem: the Michigan roster was full of classic, slower, smashmouth football players.
After three seasons of trying to smash a square peg into a round hole, amassing a 15–22 record, the university cut the experiment short and sent Rodriguez packing. They wanted to return to their identity, tough sledding, run-first, bruise you into submission football. Enter Brady Hoke.
Hoke was a Michigan man. Born and raised in Ohio (forgivable), he spent a lot of time coaching around the state of Michigan and ended up on Carr’s staff in the 90s. He knew Michigan, and Michigan knew his coaching style was in line with what they wanted from their team.
First season hype, and opposing teams not having enough tape on Hoke’s offense, led Michigan to an 11–2 record and a win in the Sugar Bowl. But as the seasons progressed, Hoke and his team regressed. After four seasons of winning fewer games each season and a 1–3 record against Ohio, Hoke was unceremoniously removed from the coaching job.
Enter Jim Harbaugh.
There was no bigger story in college sports than when Harbaugh decided to leave the pros for Michigan in December 2014. He was the number one choice on all Michigan fans’ wish list for head coaches. We got our guy. Glory and winning were going to return to the mitten.
Jim Harbaugh is like a toned-down, more successful version of Lane Kiffin. Equal parts high football IQ and social media lightning rod. Harbaugh used his social media acumen and ‘cool dad’ persona to recruit talented players and stoke rivalry discord among the fan base.
Another reputation Harbaugh had coming Michigan was that of a quarterback whisperer. He got the most out of his QBs and developed great ones. Something Michigan desperately need if they were going to compete in this new generation of ‘pass-first’ football.
Immediately, Michigan fans everywhere were preaching patience. He might not win right away, but in three or four years, when he has a team he has fully recruited and built, we will. Success was inevitable.
So the early season struggles came and went, the faithful remained steadfast. The first season the team went 10–3 and won the Citrus Bowl. Great start for Harbaugh. Fan predictions of his imminent success we spot on. Season two saw another 10–3 season, with a one-point loss in the Orange Bowl. Forgivable, they competed.
At this point, Harbaugh was 0–2 against Ohio, and Michigan was without a conference championship. My doubt about his ability to win big games and win games where his team is an underdog began to creep in.
Cracks Begin to Show
Season three was a wake-up call for all Michigan fans who began to see that maybe the massive hype of Harbaugh wasn’t going to translate to the same level of success on the field. At least on paper, the recruits were there, but it wasn’t showing through come game time.
Harbaugh’s third outing was a disappointing 8–5 season, another loss to Ohio, and another bowl loss in the Outback Bowl. At this point, the Michigan coach had a 1–5 record in games against Ohio and in bowls. For me, I had seen enough; I was already planning for his firing.
When I suggested that maybe it was time for Michigan to make a change then, my comments were met with immediate and almost unanimous condemnation. I was being impatient. I had too high expectations. I was being unrealistic. Okay, fine. I’ll give him another shot.
In season four, we saw a return to another 10–3 season, but again losses to Ohio and in the bowl game. I once again expressed my concerns that Harbaugh could not get us over the hump, and we expected more from Michigan. Again, the same barrage of naysayers.
Things got worse in season five with a 9–4 record with another loss to Ohio and another bowl game loss. At this point, after five seasons, Harbaugh is 0–5 against Ohio, 1–4 in bowl games, and is without a Big Ten championship.
Partly through a corona-shortened 2020 season, Harbaugh’s sixth, Michigan is displaying a full regression into mediocrity. It started with an easy win against Minnesota, followed by a close loss to Michigan State and then two embarrassing losses to Indiana and Wisconsin.
This is not what Michigan signed up for when they hired Harbaugh to the richest coaching contract in college football six years ago. They spent those millions to have a team that would compete on the national stage, win conference championships, and finally beat Ohio.
Harbaugh has done none of those things, and halfway through season six, he doesn’t appear to be capable of doing them now either. He has received twice the amount of time as Rodriguez did. Two more seasons than Hoke did. And in that time, Harbaugh has proven he isn’t the right coach for Michigan.
It pains me to say that, it really does. No one was more excited to see him get hired and don the maize and blue. I was certain glory was returning to Ann Arbor. But after six seasons, it’s crystal clear that those dreams are gone.
When you are the coach of the Michigan Wolverines, the winningest football program in the country, you have three things you must achieve:
1. Beat Ohio
2. Win Big Ten Championships
3. Compete on the national stage
In five full seasons and half of a sixth, Harbaugh has not accomplished a single one of those three expectations. At the end of the day, the athletic department at Michigan needs to face the reality that their ace-in-the-hole hiring of Jim Harbaugh did not play out the way they had imagined.
One of the most damning statistics of Harbaugh’s failures at Michigan is his record when his team is considered an underdog: 0–11. Not once in six seasons has his team outperformed the expectations of them to win a game.
Michigan fans will hate to hear it, and I hate to say it… For the sake of Michigan Football and the future success of the team and the university, the Jim Harbaugh era needs to end in 2020.