(Ann Arbor, Mi.) – The University of Michigan returned to their roots in December 2014 when Jim Harbaugh was named the new head football coach, replacing Brady Hoke. Harbaugh had the perfect resume, played for Schembechler, Big Ten Player of the Year in 1986, successful college coach at two programs and took the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Coach Harbaugh is entering his fifth year and the results have been mixed, he has won 65% of his games, which is a slight improvement over Hoke’s four-year record, but the Wolverines haven’t reached the heights that were expected to this point.
Against the teams that matter most, Michigan State, Ohio State, Notre Dame and the SEC, his record is an underwhelming 4-9, against everyone else, he is 30-5. While it is important to win th3 games you are supposed to, against the Indiana’s, Rutgers and Purdue’s of the world, at Michigan, the expectation is more than that. In his four years, the highest ranked team his Michigan team has beaten was the #8 Wisconsin Badgers in 2016.
A quick review of the program reveals:
1-The gap between Michigan and Ohio State has reached epic levels. Ohio State has won 14 of the last 15 between the two and their last clash turned into embarrassment as the Wolverines lost 62-39. The only other time a Wolverine defense gave up more than 60 points was against Illinois in 2010 with the help of three overtimes. Top that off with the fact that two Michigan defensive coaches from last year did the unthinkable and joined Ryan Day’s staff at Ohio State. Perhaps Urban Meyer’s departure as the Buckeye’s head coach will give Harbaugh and his staff a chance to close some ground.
2-In-state has been a challenge. Based on recruiting service ratings over the past four recruiting classes, Michigan’s average national ranking is 18th while Michigan State’s average is 27th. However, the two have split the four meetings in Harbaugh’s tenure. After last year’s game, a hard-fought Michigan victory, Wolverine linebacker Chase Winovich made his “little brother” reference about the Spartans. Little brother Michigan State has been holding up their end of the rivalry just fine.
3-The recruiting has not been exactly what the Michigan faithful expected. Coach Harbaugh has been on the cutting edge since his arrival, he has spoken at top-ranked recruits graduation ceremonies, spent the night at recruits’ houses and climbing trees during in-home visits. All got attention with the media, but he has not consistently put the Wolverines in the top-5. Talent can make a good coach a great coach, they need to improve in a hurry. (Their 2019 class just completed did make the Top-10).
4-Failure to identify and develop a top-tier quarterback. Ironically, this is Coach Harbaugh’s greatest gift, he has done it at every stop along his coaching journey. As the quarterback’s coach in Oakland, he coached Rich Gannon to an MVP in 2002 and with the San Diego Toreros he mentored Josh Johnson who made it to the NFL. Next was Stanford with Andrew Luck who became a Number 1 overall draft pick and his final stop was San Francisco where he made Colin Kaepernick a name brand.
But in his four years at Michigan, there has been no such magic. In his first two seasons, hold-over quarterbacks from the Hoke regime led the offense, Jake Rudock and Wilton Speight. The next two years featured quarterbacks who transferred in, John O’Korn from Houston and Shea Patterson from Mississippi. While those have given yeoman’s work, it is not Harbaugh level.
There seemed to be a perfect fit in the 2019 class, Dwan Mathis from Belleville, Michigan, a pro-style quarterback that would be ideal for Harbaugh’s offensive scheme. Mathis originally committed to Michigan State and then did the unthinkable and pledged to Ohio State. But when signing day came, Ohio State picked up a top transfer (Justin Fields from Georgia) and Mathis changed his mind again and signed with Georgia. It hurts most when someone talented and close to your campus makes three choices and not once was it Michigan. Patterson will have a solid 2019 season, but there will be a void left that only a home-grown five-star could provide.
While Coach Harbaugh’s seat is not red-hot, it is plenty toasty. Losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State next year could be accelerate the process. It is always awkward when a school has to let go a home-grown legend like Harbaugh, but if things don’t improve fast, they may not have an alternative.
I have covered local, college and professional sports for 12 Local and Regional Newspapers over the past four years. A lifelong Georgia Bulldog fan (I attended my first game in 1978 when I saw the Dawgs beat Baylor), I love to find the compelling story lines that make the game so great.