Jim Harbaugh correctly pointed out controversy follows Urban Meyer wherever he goes. For some reason, everyone decided that was a big deal.

By Joan Niesen
July 19, 2019

CHICAGO — More than a day after Jim Harbaugh offered up a few thoughts on a podcast, I’m still looking for the controversy, still wondering how the college football world has nuked the coach’s lukewarm take into something so scorching.

Here’s what Michigan’s coach told The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami. Brace yourself. Or don’t. “Urban Meyer's had a winning record,” Harbaugh said on the podcast. “Really phenomenal record everywhere he's been. But also, controversy follows everywhere he's been.”

Let’s see, then: A year after Meyer was being excoriated over how much he knew (which was a lot more than he initially claimed) about the allegations of domestic abuse against former assistant coach Zach Smith, on the heels of the coach’s three-game suspension and eventual retirement, Harbaugh dared to suggest Meyer’s career was controversial. Meyer—the man who spent last fall talking himself in circles until most fans were too dizzy to realize everything he’d ignored, who saw 31 of his players arrested in six years at Florida, 10 of them charged with felonies.

But certainly, instead of taking Harbaugh’s words in stride, or even acknowledging them as accuracy from one of the game’s more bombastic sets of vocal cords, let’s drum them up as controversy. Instead of thinking, wow, a college coach actually speaking the plain truth, let’s expound upon the fact that Harbaugh’s teams at Michigan never beat Meyer’s Ohio State squads—because one must beat another coach in order to point out obvious truths about him, it seems.

By that logic, then, is Harbaugh allowed to point out Meyer’s “really phenomenal record”? Or is that kind of analysis also restricted only to the coaches of the 32 squads lucky enough to put up Ws against Utah, Florida and Ohio State during Meyer’s tenure?

This might be the silliest piece of “news” to come out of college football in 2019, but it also offers a lens into the sport today, where coaching is supposed to be some sacred fraternity where winning trumps morals and the truth is better delivered watered down, or not at all. The Big Ten without Meyer has a controversy vacuum, and so in looking to fill it, we’re creating a hubbub over a coach acknowledging Meyer’s own controversial past. Unpack that.

“I don't think it was anything that was anything new or anything of a bombshell,” Harbaugh said Friday in his morning media availability, when the first question he fielded was about his treatment of Meyer on the podcast. “It's things that many of you all understand and have written about.” Later in the day, he doubled-down, asserting (correctly) that Meyer’s off-field legacy is “well-documented.”

Sure, Harbaugh didn’t need to say what he did. And he knew before uttering that sentence, innocuous in any world but this one, that it would turn heads. Really, it’s just a shame he didn’t have the guts to utter it a year ago, when Meyer was defending his own indefensible conduct. That would have held more weight, but it doesn’t make what Harbaugh said Thursday any less true.

What does cheapen his take is his further treatment of the subject of Meyer—or rather, the coach’s absence. Asked later on Friday if his team has an opening in a Big Ten East without its winningest coach this decade, Harbaugh offered first a stare and then a recalcitrant answer: “That’s something I don’t know.” Strictly speaking, yes, but the coach would have served himself better by doing anything other than playing dumb. Sure, a rookie head coach, or any change that major, might work in our favor. Or even: Ryan Day has proven he has what it takes to keep Ohio State competitive. In part by Harbaugh’s doing, the Big Ten has been Urban vs. Jim for the past four seasons, and his most recent comments extended that rivalry beyond the end of Meyer’s coaching career. So if Harbaugh is going to style himself as a truth-teller, that should extend further than just pointing out the easy critiques.

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