Why Has Jim Harbaugh Failed Against Ohio State?

BruceHooley

Perhaps we should have known from Jim Harbaugh's first steps to the podium upon his introduction as Michigan's head football coach on Dec. 30, 2014.

As he approached the stage, Harbaugh stumbled ever so slightly over a labyrinth of TV cables before regaining his balance.

"Did anyone see that?" he asked with an air of self-deprecation. "A lesser athlete would have gone down."

The remark drew snickers among the faithful because it was vintage Harbaugh.

Quirky, brash, confident and determined to press through momentary missteps to get where he was going.

Nothing, the prevailing belief in that room that day was, would deter Jim Harbaugh from restoring Michigan's proud football tradition and perhaps doing things no Michigan coach had ever done.

Five years later, it's Ohio State fans who are having, if not the last laugh, then certainly the longest-lasting.

Harbaugh is indeed on the cusp of doing something no Michigan coach has ever done.

Trouble is, it's something no Michigan coach ever aspired to, and something probably no Michigan coach but Harbaugh could survive.

If he loses to Ohio State on Saturday in a noon kickoff, Harbaugh will be the first coach in Michigan history to lose five straight games to OSU.

Coach
Years
Record vs. OSU
Consecutive losses to OSU

Bo Schembechler

1969-89

11-9-1

2

Gary Moeller

1990-94

3-1-1

1

Lloyd Carr

1995-2007

6-7

4

Rich Rodriguez

2008-10

0-3

3

Brady Hoke

2011-14

1-3

3

Jim Harbaugh

2015-2019

0-4

4

His immediate predecessors, Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez, didn't get that chance.

Both were gone after losing three straight to the Buckeyes, who will enter this 116th installment of the rivalry as 11-point favorites to complete an undefeated regular season.

Michigan is 8-2, which isn't bad, but isn't what the faithful expected when Harbaugh signed a seven-year contract after elevating both Stanford University and the San Francisco 49ers from awful to elite before coming home to Ann Arbor to coach his alma mater.

Why hasn't Harbaugh gotten Michigan where he and everyone else outside Ohio envisioned?

 The obvious answer is, Urban Meyer.

When Harbaugh arrived at Michigan, Meyer had already won a national championship at Ohio State and was returning perhaps his most-loaded roster ever.

The Buckeyes of 2015, Harbaugh's first season, featured two of the first four picks in the NFL Draft, three Top Ten picks, five first-rounders, seven selections in the first two rounds and a record 12 picks in the first four rounds.

OSU hasn't diminished much, if at all, since then, but Michigan hasn't made the Buckeyes diminish, either.

It's fair to note that when Bo Schembechler arrived for his first season at Michigan in 1969, Woody Hayes was coming off a national championship in 1968 and returned a roster  -- for that era -- every bit as talent-laden as Meyer's OSU roster of 2015.

Schembechler's Wolverines staged an epic upset of Ohio State in 1969 and he would go on to an 11-9-1 record against the Buckeyes.'

Schembechler didn't just compete against OSU in November, he competed inside Ohio's borders for the top recruits in the state throughout his tenure.

Many of his best players came from Ohio, and that strategy also served his two assistant coaches -- Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr -- who succeeded him.

Both Michigan's Heisman Trophy winners in the last 30 years -- Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson -- are Ohio natives.

Of course, recruiting has changed since then. Even Ohio State doesn't recruit Ohio like it once did, so Harbaugh didn't have to follow the Schembechler Plan if he had a better plan.

Michigan's problem is, he hasn't.

If you've watched Harbaugh's four losses to Ohio State since taking over at Michigan, he foreshadowed the reason for those defeats in that little joke he made upon his introduction.

"A lesser athlete," he said then, "would have gone down."

And that is, indeed, how Michigan has gone down to the Buckeyes in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

  • Ezekiel Elliott carried 30 times for 215 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-13 win in 2015.
  • Malik Hooker's interception return for a touchdown and Curtis Samuel's 15-yard sprint for an overtime game-winning TD made the difference in 2016.
  • Dwayne Haskins came off the bench to lead three straight scoring drives and erase a 20-14 deficit in OSU's 31-20 win two years ago.
  • Haskins threw six touchdown passes, two to Paris Campbell, who joined with his fellow wide receivers to embarrass Michigan's defensive backs with repeated crossing routes and extended runs after catch in a 62-39 drubbing of the Wolverines last year in Columbus.

Michigan has indeed had the lesser athletes compared to Ohio State, whose first- and second-team All-Big Ten selections on offense outnumber the Wolverines' honorees significantly over the last four years.

Harbaugh has no hope of getting on equal footing with OSU until he can recruit and develop quarterbacks, running backs and receivers to offset the Buckeyes' excellence at those positions.

The man who played quarterback at an All-American level as a Wolverine senior in 1987, the man who recruited and developed Andrew Luck at Stanford, Harbaugh has whiffed badly on recruiting a transformative quarterback at Michigan and been forced to make do with transfers Jake Rudock and Shea Patterson.

Ohio State has had first-team quarterbacks in J.T. Barrett and Haskins, and surely have that spot locked down again this season with Justin Fields.

Harbaugh has had one all-Big Ten running back in four years. Ohio State has had two, and will have another this year in J.K. Dobbins.

Harbaugh has had two all-Big Ten wide receivers, as has OSU.

And Harbaugh has had seven offensive linemen make first- or second-team all-conference, three less than the Buckeyes, who will match or exceed the Wolverines' total this year with a unit that has been dominant up front all season.

It's not that Michigan doesn't have athletes.

It just doesn't have as many, or as many who are as good, as Ohio State's athletes.

That's been the case, and is likely to be the case again on Saturday.

And if so, Harbaugh will establish a place in Michigan history that neither he nor those who hailed his arrival ever imagined.

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