The Problem Is Harbaugh

Steve Deace

The reason Michigan hasn't beaten Ohio State yet, or won a Big Ten title yet, is Jim Harbaugh. What remains to be seen is if he can become the solution. 

We live in a false binary choice culture these days, which seems to pride itself on the ignorance that comes with a lack of nuance. Thus, I'm sure what I'm about to write will be totally taken out of context, but I'm a sucker for trying the truth nonetheless. Especially where my favorite team is concerned. 

So here goes. 

Let's get this out of the way first and foremost. I am grateful for what Jim Harbaugh has done to bring Michigan football back from giving tickets away with the purchase of a Coke Zero, emasculating public apologies, and losing to Rutgers and Maryland in the same season. We have been ranked in the AP top 10 more times since he's been here than we were the entire decade before he arrived. In his five years here, Michigan has been one of the 10 winningest programs in all of college football, too, while being scandal free with an outstanding APR. 

He's rebuilt the brand, the season ticket base, and in terms of sheer financial value without a doubt Harbaugh has been worth every penny the university has paid him. 

For these reasons, I don't want Harbaugh to leave, and I don't want him fired. I'm going to say what I'm about to say because I want him to realize the ultimate hope we put into him the day he was hired, and because I want him to realize his full potential.

Five years ago, if we had been told he'd go 0-5 against the Buckeyes, with two of the worst losses in the series' history, we would've never believed it. Nor would we have believed Harbaugh would not win a single Big Ten title, never even make it to the Big Ten title game, and go 2-10 against top 10 teams. 

Yet here we are. 

If you're satisfied with this, and if you have resigned yourself to this is the best Michigan football can be or is willing to be, there's no need to read any further. Heck, I'm pretty much there myself. 

However, after spending the weekend reading the various premium message boards and my Twitter feed, I'm going to take one more stab that Michigan football can again become the victors valiant. And it's not that those forums speak for an entire fanbase, but they often do represent the most passionate and zealous portion of that fanbase. Which is why they have so much influence over what the perception of that fanbase and/or team is. They're the mouth of the river. The source of the zeitgeist. 

The problem is Jim Harbaugh. What remains to be seen is if he can become the solution. 

Through all the Ohio State failures, three losses or more every season, and lack of championships for the champions of the west, one constant has remained. Assistant coaches have come and gone. Plenty of them, in fact. Schemes have been changed and updated, which is to Jim's credit. That shows he's trying to evolve here. Players also move on after their eligibility expires. Yet there has been one constant, and his name is Jim Harbaugh. 

And here's the problem with that: he’s not the ruthless coach we thought we were getting. Behind all the branding and persona, is a quirky but pretty nice guy if you listen to his podcast. Or watch the viral videos from those overseas trips. He's a pretty fun and cool dude. 

I don't believe those overseas trips get in the way of our players developing. Quite the opposite, I think it aids their holistic development as men. But at the same time, when Harbaugh is doing podcasts and planning overseas trips, what do you think Urban Meyer was doing, or Ryan Day is doing now?

There's an old story about Bear Bryant, when he needed to get a hold of someone over at the Auburn football offices early one morning for some reason. He called over there, and not only was the Auburn head coach not in yet, but nobody answered. "That's why they can't beat us," Bear Bryant said.

If you want to beat the people beating you, you have to be willing to do at least some of the things they're beating you with. That's why Bo Schembechler turned Michigan into such a carbon copy of the Ohio State program he once coached at, he earned the nickname "little Woody (Hayes)." 

Here's four examples of what I'm talking about:

1) No players were benched after that debacle at Wisconsin, and the same exact wide receivers out there dropping all those balls, and running short routes on third down, were trotted right back out there afterwards. Didn't Jim once play for a coach who benched running backs for just a single fumble? There's message board insider rumors of a marginal player's family spreading gossip and dissension in social media settings. Let's say that's true, why is he still here? 

2) If teams like Ohio State are cheating, instead of passive aggressive tweets or John U. Bacon quotes, turn their rear ends in like Bo turned in Illinois back in the day. You’ve got a platform. Either expose it or quit whining. Whining is for losers. Whining is what you do when you either don't have the cojones to do something about it, or you're looking for excuses. By the way, did you know Ohio State football actually had a better APR than Michigan last year?

3) Harbaugh is out there playing a NFL possession game with field goals like we’re gonna get bunches of stops, in an era when Nick Saban can’t even do that. See Alabama-Auburn the same day. This is college football in 2019. If you can't score 38-40 points on elite teams, you're probably not beating them. 

4) We have no true defensive tackles five years into his recruiting, which is the most important recruiting position in the sport. You can’t be an elite program without them. Harbaugh is yet to recruit and develop a quarterback in five years! Look at the lack of skill talent chosen in first round of the NFL Draft? Get a load of this: Michigan hasn’t had a skill position guy chosen in the first round since Braylon Edwards! What kind of roster management is that?

Five years isn't a learning curve, nor an outlier. It's pretty good sample size of who you are. Therefore, if this is who Jim Harbaugh is, or all he's willing to be, then the same results we'll continue to get. If that's good enough for the university, so be it. And chances are, you'll eventually have a year where things line up and that's the outlier. Like Ohio State loses a star quarterback to a season-ending injury/suspension, something like that, which you are in position to take advantage of. Similar to how Michigan's only win over the Buckeyes in 15 years was the season they had an interim coach.

But if the goal isn't an outlier season but an era worthy of this rivalry and calling yourselves the leaders and best, what's currently happening won't cut it. Is Harbaugh willing to do what it takes, and become what he must become? Only he knows that. 

Comments (21)
No. 1-9

He needs to hire back his old DC.


Well, we have seen positive improvements in modernizing the offense, but it took way longer to take shape than we all thought.

Maybe Harbaugh isn't hard enough. He certainly seemed fired up his first two seasons here, but he got suddenly withdrawn in 2017, whether it was because he knew he didn't have the team he wanted to compete at the level he should or something else we have no clue on, I don't know. None of us do. He did seemingly start to get a little more brash at the start of this year as if he actually had confidence this team could do some damage. Sadly, he was wrong. But we did see flashes of what could have been late in the season.

Michigan shot itself in the foot plenty of times during The Game. But what does stand out over all else is Ohio State just seems to be stronger and faster at virtually every position. Why that is, I can't say. Do they have better strength and conditioning coaches? Are they looking at recruits differently and aim for more pure athletes rather than how many rating stars they have? Speed and strength above all else and just better train the kids once they get here? I don't know. But it is pretty evident to me that OSU is absolutely bigger and faster and have been obviously so the last two years. The top SEC teams are also similarly stacked with huge but also fast players.

And for godsakes could one of our highly touted receivers actually catch the ball, and if they do catch it, don't run out of bounds before the first down when it's critical??

The team was looking good the last few games until OSU, yet again. Just when you think the team has figured itself out and is looking strong, they crumble. I can only put that on recruiting and coaching from where I sit.

For some reason, I still want to see Harbaugh stick it out and make it happen. We know he's a highly competitive personality. He's recognized when a change was needed on offense and has made good steps towards that end. He's also brought this team back to at least being respectable in its conference outside of OSU. The team's success and entertainment value has definitely helped pack the Big House and tv ratings. But goddamnit, could we at least be competitive with OSU? Losing is one thing, but to be absolutely blown out? C'mon guys.

Here's to hoping Gattis can help up the recruiting game. He certainly helped a fair bit in turning PSU around when Franklin took over there. Josh still seems to be finding his way as a full on OC and play caller, but here's to hoping some soul-searching in the off-season gets the coaches to identify where the changes and improvements are needed and attack them ruthlessly.

J.P. in DC
J.P. in DC

Steve, first and foremost your analysis is overall on point. Here, I agree with #1 and #2. #3 I don’t. Michigan is in offensive transition, and its personnel can’t match Gattis’ vision for a full game against an elite program. But for a Shea fumble and a DPJ drop, the halftime score is tied or close to it. That said, DPJ and Tarik Black have underperformed their ratings — I see that as a development issue. Michigan does not have a wide receivers coach to match the talent at that position. #4 I don’t. Michigan football had bad luck in both Aubrey Solomon (5 star) and James Hudson (4 star) defensive tackles leaving and the 2018 recruiting class being hurt by a port 2017 campaign and a change in DC. The 2019 class features solid DTs in Chris Hinton (4-5 stars) and Mazi Smith (4 stars). I would have found a way to get them on the field for OSU, where there raw size would have helped. Final Thought: to close the gap, Michigan needed to win the in-state on-field and recruiting battles with MSU. They appear ready to do that, with the 2021 class shaping up for UM dominance. Get the best in Michigan, add to it with strong national recruiting, and develop an offense that can score 50 points against an elite program. Harbaugh is working on that, but he’s not 5 years into that philosophy.


Serious question:

The record between us and Ohio state is 58-51-6.

Do you think Ohio State can even up the all time series in the by 2030?


Mark D'antonio beat Urban Meyer twice with far inferior treams and cost Ohio State two trips to the National Championship. The problem is Harbaugh period, end of story. Harbaugh has lost to OSU with superior teams (2017, 2018). If D'antonio had Michigan level teams he'd of owned the BIG. I dislike D'antonio, but truth is truth. No one has done less with more than Harbaugh. Harbaugh has recruited well, but it's about player development, passion, toughness, and preparation. Screw hype! Get tough, and develop players!


I have to agree with a lot of what I have been reading from Kirk Herbstreit, Charles Woodson, and others. Ohio State sees this game as the only game that matters on their schedule and Michigan does not. Coach Harbaugh comments after The Game was an example of that, so the only one that can change the culture where it is all about beating Ohio State and nothing else is Coach Harbaugh. If Coach Harbaugh beats Ohio State then everything else will fall into place. It's not about the talent level of coaching, it's about the lack of attitude they will beat Ohio State and it's the most important game on the schedule PERIOD!!

Steve, I totally think you nailed it in this column. The culture has to change and Coach Harbaugh needs to stop being the player's friend and start being a "Prick" ((With compassion)) and if a player doesn't meet the standard then he sits on the bench. The best player plays and if a player fumbles or drops the ball or has a personal foul because they hit a player when he was out of bounds then you sit on the bench and Coach Harbaugh says "NEXT Player"! If the player's feelings are hurt and want to enter the transfer portal then so be it. A wise man once said, "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions" that's how Bo changed a culture of mediocre football and yes this will work in this generation--Players want to win and play for Coaches who play the best player.


it is not just OSU he can't beat a team with a pulse.



Too bad you are a hack blogger that can't get a credential. I would love to see your punk ass say some of your nonsense to his face.


OSUs past 3 coaches would not beat OSU with UM's team. So this is BS.