It's Time to Have a Discussion About Michigan and Jim Harbaugh

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterNovember 7, 2020

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is seen during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

In Jim Harbaugh's defense—and there won't be much of that in the sentences to follow—the expectations have always felt a bit unreasonable. The idea that he would transform Michigan into Alabama or Clemson or (gasp) Ohio State never felt quite right, no matter how much buzz his arrival generated or the hope Wolverines fans have felt in the years that followed.

That said, this is his sixth year. Not his second or third year, which would be the normal, though still semi-unreasonable, timeline in which we expect coaches to deliver results.

Year Six.

When he was hired in December 2014, he was billed as the savior of a fallen football giant, a giant he played for and seemingly grew up with.

The storyline was, in many ways, perfect. A good ol'-fashioned homegrown football resurrection. He was the perfect face of the revival, with his khakis and his quirks. It was a no-brainer hire, and it felt like success was a question of when, not if.

Along the way, there have been signs that this would work. That's largely why we're here, in 2020, still waiting. The Harbaugh era has not come without its moments and teases.

As you look across the country at other blue-blood programs still trying to find themselves—looking at you, Nebraska, Texas and Florida State—the overall results start to seem a little more palatable. Michigan has won 10 games three times on Harbaugh's watch. The program has recruited and developed far better since he arrived. That's undeniable.

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But let's be honest about where we stand today, in the heart of his sixth year. Michigan is now 1-2 in 2020 after losing to Indiana 38-21 on Saturday. The last time the Wolverines lost to the Hoosiers was 1987.

Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

In this latest dose of disappointment, the Michigan defense allowed 460 yards of offense. The team tallied 89 penalty yards. The two turnovers, both interceptions from Joe Milton, proved to have a massive impact on the result. It was ugly in every imaginable facet.

Indiana, of course, deserves credit for this. There's another story to be written about one of the biggest surprises in college football. Yet Harbaugh is the story.

A loss to a good football team, which Indiana appears to be, on the road shouldn't necessarily be a deathblow for the Harbaugh era. The loss to Michigan State the week prior was the match that lit the fire. (It's worth noting that the Spartans followed up their upset victory over the Wolverines with a 49-7 loss to Iowa.)

This loss is the one that really hurts. It's the latest in a long, concerning line of losses that have plagued Harbaugh since he arrived. He is 1-6 against Michigan State and Ohio State at home since he returned to Ann Arbor. He doesn't just lose. He loses spectacularly.

Against the Buckeyes, the most important opponent of any season, Harbaugh remains 0-5. These are the glaring warts on his resume, and they're still there. Harbaugh knows this. He grew up with this school. He knows the expectations of a head coach who makes more than $8 million per season.

Tony Ding/Associated Press

Perhaps the most jarring characteristic of the Harbaugh era, however, is how stagnant it feels. In fact, it feels like it has regressed. Two of Harbaugh's three 10-win seasons came in his first two years as head coach. Those foundational seasons—the teases—made one believe that something more was coming.

That he would find and develop his Andrew Luck. That he would recruit his own players and build a roster the way Nick Saban did at Alabama. That some positive early momentum would flourish into massive returns.

I am guilty of thinking this on multiple occasions. In fact, even after Michigan's opening win against Minnesota this season, I found myself falling back into that trap.

Harbaugh finally found his quarterback in Joe Milton. The play-calling is finally repaired. The defense will be stout as always. Maybe this is the year.

This is not the year. Neither were the years that came before it. Harbaugh has yet to make the Big Ten Championship Game, and that seems guaranteed not to change in 2020.

Once again, we find ourselves asking the same regurgitated question: When?

The problem, however, is that six years later, no longer is it the appropriate question to ask. When doesn't cut it anymore. When isn't now, so why should we care? Better yet, why should anyone expect anything different in Year Seven, if Harbaugh ultimately reaches makes it that far?

The decision-makers at Michigan have to ask themselves another question as they mull Harbaugh's future: Are the current results acceptable? Are these the kind of outcomes we can accept from a coach making $8 million a season?

At this point, the answer appears obvious. Unless Michigan is willing to stomach another year of mediocrity, another year of false hope and unmet expectations, the decision seems clear.

That's assuming things don't suddenly change. With games against Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State on the schedule, there is still time to resurrect this season. Not the program or the hopes of bringing a national title to Ann Arbor, but this year.

And those hopes and Harbaugh's future could come down to a single game—the season's final game—at Ohio State.

History says we know what next happens next. Recent results, highlighted by the latest defeat, only add to the certainty. And so, we're left again with that question: When?

Only this time, that question has nothing to do with the results on the field or the timeline for a national title, but the realization that it simply isn't working how anyone hoped six years later.

Sooner or later, something has to give.


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