Three Years Later, Can Jim Harbaugh and Michigan Advance Past Novelty Act?

As Scott Frost embarks on his inaugural season in charge of Nebraska, attention turned to another former quarterback and his Michigan Wolverines at Big Ten Media Days on Monday.
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CHICAGO — Toward the end of his hour-long availability at Big Ten Football Media Days on Monday, Jim Harbaugh was asked if he had any lessons for Scott Frost. Seated a stone’s throw away, the new Nebraska coach commanded the kind of crowd Harbaugh garnered three years ago, in his own Big Ten debut, and the parallels come easy: Each a successful coach, drawn back to lead his alma mater. Both schools traditional powers, fallen slightly from grace.

Three years in, Harbaugh is still working on the playbook.

“I think every new job, even if it’s at your alma mater or a different university, you’ve got to kind of watch and see how things run for at least six months or a year—find out where all the potholes are, so to speak,” he said by way of advice. “I don’t think it’s that different. I knew my way around Ann Arbor.”

This was not insightful Harbaugh, not funny Harbaugh, not trying-to-get-your-goat Harbaugh. It was uninteresting, plain-truth Harbaugh who came to Chicago to kick off year four of his Michigan reign. And after three adequate seasons, that might be exactly the right tone to strike.

Sure, Harbaugh got in a few oddball comments over the course of the afternoon: his belief that an eight- or even 16-team playoff would be best for the game, an eye-rolling standoff with a media member, a meditation on compounding percentages. But on the whole, he was brief and even cliched. He did not take the bait, not once, on the mere suggestion that his team has underperformed. After a long question about the Wolverines’ record against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State over his tenure—they’re 1-5—Harbaugh stated what would become his mantra of the day: “The improvement will lead to success, will lead to championships.”

It’s not that Harbaugh’s job is on the line. He’s a long way away from that kind of hot seat. Rather, the attention has moved on: last year, to darling newcomer P.J. Fleck, and this year to Frost, who may have the chops and the talent to hold college football’s fleeting focus. Harbaugh, meanwhile, has lost his novelty. He’s established, but as what?

This season will go a long way in answering that question.

Harbaugh’s Michigan teams have been good. In 2015 and ’16, he finished 10-3. Last year, the Wolverines dipped to 8-5, with an offense that was at times painful to watch. Still, Harbaugh and the Michigan tradition were enough to land Shea Patterson, the quarterback transfer from Ole Miss who—if he continues to develop like he did over his first two seasons of ball—could command the Big Ten come September. This is still a team that can flex and land a major transfer, and its 2018 recruiting class landed seven four-star recruits. It was the third highest-ranked class in the Big Ten—which is higher than Michigan has ever finished in the conference during Harbaugh’s tenure. That is to say: this is still a team in transition, that can trade on building toward a big season. Or at least it was, and maybe 2018 has to be that year.

In a Big Ten East division that’s as loaded as it ever was, Michigan won’t have an easy road to the conference title game or a coveted playoff berth. It opens the year at Notre Dame, and when conference play begins, it’s against Frost and Nebraska. In the season’s final six weeks, the Wolverines get perennial Big Ten West champion Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State back-to-back-to-back, then a two-week reprieve (Rutgers and Indiana) before finishing against Ohio State. In more positive terms, that means Patterson, after a Week 1 challenge, will have more than a month to get ready for the games that could make or break 2018 in Ann Arbor.

On Monday, Harbaugh seemed focused on saying as little as possible, and he avoided discussing the past at all costs—even when framed in the rosiest terms. After telling his reporters he wants his team to improve by 1% each day, he wouldn’t say what improvements it’s made thus far; to do so, he explained, would be “tooting [is] horn.”

"I have really high expectations for the first day of practice,” Harbaugh continued. “I just can't wait for that. And then I'll get to day two and want to make that the best day we've had."

It was more of that all afternoon, with an infusion of repeated gratitude. “(I'm) thankful to have a season to gear up for,” he said several times. “I've talked to a lot of people who don't have a season to gear up for, and they're sad about it. And I'm sad for them.”

Harbaugh will have plenty more seasons to gear up for—whether it’s at Michigan or eventually elsewhere in college or back in the NFL. The days of khaki pants in Ann Arbor are far from numbered, but the days of Harbaugh being the best show in the college game are long gone. The interim is sticky: neither new nor established, neither weighed down by expectations or trying to live up to past success. It’s not a world we’re familiar with Harbaugh inhabiting, but we’d better get used to it—at least for a while. By the rules of compounding percentages, if Harbaugh has his 1% way, this team will be 49% better than it was on the plane to Chicago.