In one of his first forays at Yahoo, Pete Thamel wrote an excellent column on Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh. It echoed the same general premise I’ve repeated until blue in the face these past two-plus years: eventually the dynamic head coach’s shtick will grow irritating if the on-field results stay stagnant or get worse.
The key word there is eventually because it ain’t happening any time soon.
Big things are once again expected from the Wolverines as a result of chronic blindness to potential problems and a culture of enthusiasm unknown to man. Last year’s 10-3 season was greatly aided by an easy schedule and this fall’s squad must replace 17 of 22 starters, 11 of which went to the NFL. There are serious question marks at important positions like quarterback and warranted apprehension regarding the offensive line.
But the main focus, as is so often the case, isn’t about the players on the field or Michigan’s actual potential. It’s about Harbaugh and what he’ll do in year three. Will he take the next step and lead his alma mater to its first conference championship since 2004? Will he replicate the success division rivals Ohio State and Penn State found in the third year of their current coaches’ tenures?
These are important questions, but not the most important one. That would be: does it even matter? Is there anything Harbaugh could do this year that would move public perception in a negative direction?
I’m not talking nationally, but rather among the dyed-in-the-wool maize and blue fans who are champing at the bit to erect a statue to his accomplishments even if it’s premature. My answer, taking into account reasonable future events, is no. An 8-4 year wouldn’t do it nor would a 7-5. A 6-6 disaster might cause consternation, but dammit if the passion for year four wouldn’t prove to be just as feverish.
And you know what? Take all the critical things I’ve said about Harbaugh in the past, collect them up in one place and glance them over before I say this: Michigan fans would be absolutely correct to trust Harbaugh to move the project to the next level no matter what happens this year. Expectations for the Wolverines are too high and it’s based, in part, on the cult of personality with the headset.
It’s possible to believe Michigan was the most overrated team in the country last year and also believe that Harbaugh should be commended for leading them to a 10-win season. It’s possible to believe that he’s been given a godlike status in Ann Arbor without truly earning it while also believing he’s come within inches of actually earning it.
That’s why it’s laughable to see, in a few recent articles, the comparison between Harbaugh’s first two years at Michigan and Brady Hoke’s. On paper they look somewhat similar.
Harbaugh: 20-6, 13-4 in Big Ten. Zero wins against Ohio State.
Hoke: 19-7, 12-4 in Big Ten. One win against Ohio State.
These, of course, don’t tell the whole — or even half — the story. In fact, Harbaugh is so beloved, in part, because he is not Hoke. Hoke was a passive, headset-less bystander to history who didn’t inspire confidence. Harbaugh is the exact opposite and a closer look at his six losses reveals a man on the cusp of delivering immediately and ahead of schedule.
He lost his first game at Michigan in 2015 on the road to a stout Utah team. His second loss came via an act of God against Michigan State before Ohio State came in and humbled 110,000 fans.
Last year a game-winning field goal at Kinnick by Iowa capped an ugly, low-scoring stinker. A trip to Columbus ended up in a controversial loss, followed by a close game against a talented Florida State in the state of Florida.
Five of those six came by a combined 16 points. Granted, there’s no trophy for almost but it’s intellectually dishonest to not put some weight into the reality Harbaugh is a few bounces here and a different spot there away from a 22-4 record. It’s not totally unreasonable to think his team could have breezed into the College Football Playoff in Year 2.
The real red herring in this side-by-side analysis is the Ohio State element. As noted above, Michigan fought their fiercest rivals into overtime, on the road, last season. That victory Hoke earned came as heavy underdogs, at home, against a 6-5 team with an interim coach in Luke Fickell. It was also a squeaker as Michigan played down to Ohio State’s level.
Hoke followed up that victory by going 12-13 before getting fired. Something tells me the same fate will not befall Harbaugh.
Look, the Michigan Man in the emperor’s seat is a polarizing figure capable of drawing strong powerful and negative opinions. The complexity of his rebuild and the Magic Eye-like quality of his resume to this point don’t yield easy answers.
Eventually he must win. He must get the long-tormenting monkey from Ohio off his — and the program’s — back. But it doesn’t have to be this year. It may not have to be 2018. Through his results and through gaining the public’s trust, he’s earned a slack-filled leash.
It’s tough for an outsider to understand but the usual rules don’t apply here. The Michigan fanbase will suffer a great deal more than most think in order to finally climb the mountain. It will take a larger mountain of evidence proving Harbaugh isn’t the most reliable sherpa for their current mindset to change.
Through two years, there’s not much convincing evidence they’re headed up the wrong path or with the wrong guy.