Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Tenure Should Be Defined by More Than Just Ohio State

Jim Harbaugh is 0–4 against the Buckeyes heading into Saturday's showdown. That doesn't mean he's been a failure at Michigan.
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Jim Harbaugh is 0–4 against Ohio State, and if you pay any attention to college football, especially if you live in Michigan or Ohio, you will hear about that 0–4 record a lot this week. This is not just fair; it is essential to any conversation about Harbaugh’s Michigan tenure. College football has become a more national, corporate game in recent years, but rivalries still matter more than in any sport. Michigan-Ohio State is as big as any rivalry. You go 0–4, you carry that around every day. That’s how this works.

The problem is where the conversation often turns next: Harbaugh hasn’t beaten Ohio State, therefore he can’t win the big game, and his tenure at Michigan has been a major disappointment, and when will Harbaugh or Michigan look for an exit strategy? Let’s take these one at a time.

First: His tenure. Harbaugh is 47–16 at Michigan, and 32–11 in the Big Ten. Compare that to some other coaches at historically elite programs.

Harbaugh has won as many games in his five years at Michigan as Brian Kelly won in his best five-year stretch at Notre Dame, from 2011 to 2015. He has won more games in the last five years than Penn State’s James Franklin or Washington’s Chris Petersen.

Remember when Tom Herman was the hottest coach in the country? Herman has been a head coach for five years—two at Houston and three at Texas. He has won fewer games in those five years than Harbaugh has at Michigan. His current Texas team, his third, is his worst.

These are not all perfect comparisons, of course. Leagues are different, situations are different. Coaches don’t inherit the exact same talent. Michigan has won more games than any other program, but it was also 6–10 in the Big Ten in the two seasons before Harbaugh showed up. You can spin these things however you’d like. Still, the comparisons are relevant because they show you what often gets lost in the incessant overanalysis of the sport: Harbaugh has won a lot of games at Michigan.

There are a few programs that have clearly been better, of course. Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia. But the list is really not that long.

Now, about the big games. Harbaugh has never won the Big Ten East, and he won’t win it this year. He carries that around every day, too. This adds fuel to the criticism that he can’t win big games. But there are two problems with this big-game argument. One is the inherent implication that the other games don’t really matter. Of course they do. It is not easy to go 47–16.

The other problem with the big-game argument is that it’s not really true. Harbaugh is 3–2 against Michigan State, 3–2 against Penn State, and 1–1 against Notre Dame. Of those five losses, three came down to the final couple minutes, and two of those were to teams that made the College Football Playoff. They were still losses, obviously, but this is not a program that routinely folds in big games. Harbaugh’s teams compete. This year’s debacle at Wisconsin was a rare exception.

Jim Harbaugh does not have a big-game problem. He has an Ohio State problem, and so does every other team in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have just been that good. They are 39–4 in the league since Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor. No team has beaten them more than once. When Ohio State is focused and motivated, Ohio State wins—and against Michigan, Ohio State is always focused and motivated. In 2016, Harbaugh was one play away from beating Ohio State, winning the division and probably making the playoff. If Michigan wins that game, which went to overtime, the entire conversation around him is quite different.

Well, this is the job Harbaugh took. He understands. He does not say “Who has it better than us? Only one team in our league!” He does not promise to “attack the day with an enthusiasm unknown to everybody except the people in Columbus.” When you coach at Michigan, you are measured by winning the Big Ten and beating Ohio State.

That’s all fine. Perfectly logical. But if you want to say his tenure has been a failure for that reason, then just understand: You are saying Harbaugh failed because he turned Michigan back into a top-10 program instead of a top-five program. I prefer my analysis with more nuance than that.

And so here is Harbaugh, with a 9–2 team that is playing as well as almost anybody in the country … and yet, not as well as Ohio State. Last year, Harbaugh thought he had the team to beat the Buckeyes, but Michigan was outcoached and outplayed in Columbus and lost 62–39.

But when you look at how Harbaugh responded, you see why the “exit strategy” talk is silly. Harbaugh brought in offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who installed a new, modern scheme. He is far more flexible than some people like to admit. And though he wades into a few controversies a year, he is a grinder at his core, more steak than sizzle.

Harbaugh has held three jobs in the last 13 years. He is not the job-hopper he is made out to be, and like his teams, he does not fold. There has never been any indication he wants to be anywhere else. And Michigan, which has a long history of being patient with coaches, is not going to pull an Auburn and run from Harbaugh. This is why most of the speculation about Harbaugh leaving has come from national media or rival fans. People closer to the situation understand the deal: Michigan will keep Harbaugh, Harbaugh will keep pushing, and at the end of November, everybody will hope this is finally the year.

Ohio State has been better than Michigan. But Ohio State has been better than almost everyone. This does not change the fact that Michigan has the right coach.

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