The Problem Is Harbaugh
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.