The Harbaugh Era: Too Little for Too Much

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By Michael Aleksandrov – Summer Staff Writer

In 2015, Jim Harbaugh was brought to Michigan to be the program’s savior. In the seven years before his hire, Michigan had become a joke. The Rich – Rodriguez and Brady – Hoke eras, while under different names, had the same issues. Michigan routinely lost big games, was unsuccessful in bowls, and wasted top talent. Finally, an experienced and respected coach to turn things around. Harbaugh had great success in the NFL, helping the San Francisco 49ers make 3 consecutive NFC Championships and come within 3 points of a Super Bowl XLVIII title. He had also seen success with Stanford years prior with QB Andrew Luck. Harbaugh had won both the NCAA’s Woody Hayes Award for best college coach in 2010 and the NFL Coach of the Year Award in 2011. And, most importantly, Harbaugh, a former Wolverine QB, was a Michigan Man himself. Michigan Football even redesigned itself with new Jordan uniforms, becoming the first football program to be outfitted by the brand. Michigan was back, and the hype was real.


Five years have passed and the hype is over. We have seen what a Harbaugh-run program can do. The lack of success in the regular season and in bowls is astonishing. A big slogan at Michigan is “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions”. Under Harbaugh, it has been “Those Who Stay Will Play Florida”. Harbaugh might say Michigan is on the “cusp of greatness”, but we have heard that for years. There are three major issues I have with the Harbaugh Era: Ohio State, our inability to capitalize, and the team’s focus on transfer QB’s.

Ohio State

Source: Athlon Sports

In years past, ‘The Game’ was always exciting. No matter how wide the discrepancy was between the two teams, there was something to remember. There was intensity. Rankings went out the door. Recruiting classes didn’t matter. It was The Game, the most storied rivalry in history.  Harbaugh has gone 0-5 against Ohio State. Michigan’s offense is consistently shut down and it often looks like Ohio State knows our playbook better than we do. The Wolverine defense is outsmarted and overpowered to embarrassing levels. The past two years have seen final scores of 62-39 and 56-27. I would expect those numbers in a win over a bottom-tier team. How are those results from the biggest game of the year? 2018’s matchup saw Dwayne Haskins put on a clinic against the Wolverines. The QB threw for nearly 400 yards with 6 TDs. Haskins’ average yards per pass was 12.8- against Michigan’s #1 passing defense. Last year, RB JK Dobbins had more rushing yards (212) and total touchdowns (4) than Michigan. Ohio State is just on another level. Harbaugh knows this. He has no answer for it on or off the field.  In a post-game interview in 2019, an upset Harbaugh told a reporter, “I’ll answer your questions, not your insults.” Except, there was no insult. The reporter simply asked what Michigan lacked compared to Ohio State: talent, coaching, or preparation? It’s a reasonable question given Michigan let up 118 points in two games. And the reporter let him know this. Harbaugh took offense to this because deep down, he knew all three were true.  That reporter had just said the quiet part that everyone in Ann Arbor was thinking to themselves. 

Inability to Capitalize

Michigan hasn’t had a recruiting class outside of the top 20 since Harbaugh took over. Harbaugh’s system has produced many solid NFL players. Despite an obvious surplus of talent on his teams, Harbaugh has been unable to utilize it properly. Take the 2016 season for example. Michigan had arguably its best roster under Harbaugh. Eleven players from the team would go on to be drafted just in 2017. Michigan spent 8 weeks in the top 4 of the AP Poll. Then came three massive chokes. A Week 10 matchup saw a sputtering #3 Michigan offense lose to Iowa on a last-second field goal. After that, The Game.  Michigan and Ohio State traded blows. The game went into 2OT. A JT Barrett spot on 4th-and-1 was bad (#JTWasShort). The Maize Faithful were outraged. This call cost us the game! Well, not exactly. Michigan still could have won. The ball was spotted on the 16-yard line. The very next play, the team gave up a 16-yard TD run. On offense, Michigan could have also put the game away with a TD. The team settled for a field goal twice. The third choke came with a loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. We can even look at 2019’s Michigan squad. With Urban Meyer out at OSU, Michigan was favored to win the Big Ten. We  had a team filled with solid talent. Finally, the conference was ours. Until they were outclassed by Penn State, Wisconsin, and eventual Big Ten Champion Ohio State.

Focus on Transfer QB’s

Source: B/R

Jim Harbaugh loves transfer quarterbacks. He’s had one on his squad every year since he began at Michigan.  It was understandable in his first year with transfer Jake Rudock from Iowa. Harbaugh had to decide between the inconsistent Shane Morris and three underclassmen . On Michigan,  Rudock turned an otherwise forgettable college career into a season where he eclipsed 3,000 yards passing. Rudock led the conference in completion percentage. He was even drafted by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round in 2016. The rest of Harbaugh’s transfer experiments have been less than successful. The longest-tenured example of this is Shea Patterson. Patterson, a former five-star recruit, came to Michigan from Ole Miss in 2017. The QB had inconsistent accuracy and made questionable decisions. This was especially apparent when Michigan tried to run RPO. While the QB showed flashes of speed and his MLB-caliber arm strength, Patterson did not live up to the hype. NFL teams saw his flaws. Out of 367 players invited to the Combine, Patterson was the only one who went undrafted.

A lot of this was fixable with better coaching. Shea can be taught to improve his mechanics. He can be taught to make better reads. He was not. A large part of it was Patterson’s fault, but I feel coaching failed him. The reason the transfer QB phenomenon irritates me is the fact that Michigan has QB talent.  Every year, Harbaugh has snagged a four-star QB. Outside of Brandon Peters, these recruits have barely played a full game combined at Michigan.  Are these players he recruits genuinely only good enough for practice reps or garbage time in blowouts? Probably not. Does Michigan have the worst scouting department in the country? I doubt that. Are 24/7Sports and ESPN missing something? Not with their reputation. Or does Harbaugh too easily focus on certain players? I really think that is the case. I’m not saying I’m anti-transfer. Look at what Joe Burrow did at LSU. But, he had far better coaching and a better system behind him. He was obviously a much better player than Shea Patterson.A silver lining to Michigan’s shortcomings is that they have not fielded any transfer QBs this year. I am finally excited to see a McCaffrey-McNamara-Milton QB battle. 

With Harbaugh at the helm, Michigan has become a decent team. A team guaranteed to win at least eight games and make a bowl.  This comes with the caveat of losing to Ohio State or Penn State that year (often both). But if you take a step back, you realize that’s not what the Wolverines are supposed to be. We got those results with Rich Rod and Brady Hoke. It’s why Harbaugh was asked to step in. He was supposed to set records at the school. He did. No other Michigan coach in history has gone this long without beating Ohio State. Rich Rod was 0-3. Hoke at least beat “TTDS” once in his four years at the school. Michigan was supposed to return to being college’s superpower: A staple in the CFP, a hub for five-star recruits, and a weekly installment on national TV. Michigan has none of that. We only have one Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win. We were supposed to play Alabama in the final of the CFP, not in the VRBO Orange Bowl. The only game that gets real national attention is the OSU matchup. I don’t even want that televised on my local Fox station anymore.

Source: Detroit News

Part of the reason I’m so upset is the fact that Harbaugh is so high-paid. He is the third highest-paid coach in the NCAA. His $7.5 million salary ranks behind Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney.  Saban went 7-6 in his first year at Bama. He made up for that by making the school the most feared and accomplished program of the past decade. Even when Alabama had a “bad year” last season, they mopped the floor with a “comparable” Michigan team. At Clemson, Swinney has won more national championships than Harbaugh has won bowl games. To take it a step further, LSU HC Ed Orgeron only takes in $4 million. He helped Joe Burrow win the Heisman and took home the national championship for LSU this year. This problem does not stop at Harbaugh.  Not even Michigan’s three assistant coaches making a million or more dollars live up to the hype. Don Brown, the Wolverine defensive coordinator, is renowned for his “top defense”. This only applies to the first few weeks of the season against teams like Mid Tennessee State or Rutgers. Then, he falls apart against any team near the Top 25. It is ridiculous that the university continues to pay such exorbitant salaries for consistently lackluster results.

Had Harbaugh been any other coach, I suspect that he would have been immediately fired after this year. But, he will probably never be let go He’s the highest-profile coach the University has seen in years. Due to this, he alone brings the university tons of money. Season ticket sales spiked considerably after his hire. The school wants a “Michigan Man” and he fits the bill. Harbaugh might be giving us an awful gift, but at least it’s wrapped in maize and blue. This is not to say Harbaugh wasn’t the best option at the time of his signing. Going over a list of potential candidates in 2015 shows nothing but worse results than what Harbaugh has produced. I would try to say that Harbaugh has brought back a culture to Michigan, but it’s a facade. The team has more Jordans in Schembechler Hall than trophies from the past two decades. 

Don’t get me wrong. Harbaugh is a good coach. But, it doesn’t mean I trust him. Big changes need to be made.  This can start with sticking with a good QB and putting a system around him. I have been a huge fan of Joe Milton. Additionally, Harbaugh needs to gameplan better. In many big games, I see two huge mistakes . The first is Michigan repeatedly running the same play that their opponent stifles. They have no counter to this so the offense falls apart. The second is the fact that big teams always seem to have one play that we cannot stop-even when people watching at home know it’s coming. Another thing Harbaugh needs to do is hold his coordinators more responsible. Don Brown needs to go. I’m not really sure how I feel on OC Josh Gattis yet. However, having an offensive coordinator now is better than 2018’s “committee” of playcallers (which gave scary flashbacks of Brady Hoke on the sidelines without a headset, because apparently having a direct line of communication to your assistants is “overrated”) . Until these problems are fixed, Michigan will be stuck in a cycle until Harbaugh retires: hype early in the year, big game loss, bowl disappointment, and promises of next year being ours. 

The one thing Harbaugh has done is make me appreciate the other sports at Michigan. The tickets are cheaper and the teams often defy expectations. Michigan Basketball made the Final Four in 2018 as a three seed. The hockey program made the Frozen Four in 2018. Michigan Baseball had an incredible turnaround in one year and is now one of the top programs in the country. I love Michigan and just want to see us win again. Go Blue. 

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1 Comment

  1. The fact you say that Don Brown one of the greatest coaches to come out of New England should be let go totally makes this argument fallacious. The guy is one of the best defensive coach in the entirety of football. His reputation precedes him everywhere he goes. What you guys is problem is your inability to out-recruit Ohio State and you allow them to complete dominate on your own turf… if you cant recruit your own state, as well as the entire area you will not be Ohio state. They dominate recruiting the surrounding football rich States and it shows…

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