Michigan is in the middle of the most unusual contract situation in college football, employing a coach it purportedly wants to keep for a long time but whose deal will expire after the 2021 season.
At some point between now and then, Michigan will either have to make another expensive and long-term commitment to Jim Harbaugh or cut bait and admit that he simply can’t get done there what once seemed inevitable.
The answer is starting to become clear: The Harbaugh era is doomed to mediocrity, frustration and unfulfilled promise, and both sides need to figure out how to engineer a graceful exit.
Michigan suffered perhaps the most dispiriting loss of the past six years Saturday, a 27-24 debacle in the Big House against a Michigan State team that lost to Rutgers in its season opener.
Beyond the obvious indignity of losing to a rebuilding program with a first-year coach, Harbaugh is now 0-5 against his school’s biggest rival, 3-3 against its in-state rival, hasn’t played for a Big Ten title and appears to be a galaxy away from contending for a national championship.
Jim Harbaugh watches Michigan lose to Michigan State, dropping his record to the in-state rival to 3-3. (Photo: Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports)
Pandemic or not, there are no more excuses. Harbaugh is in Year 6. It doesn’t take a decade to build a brand like Michigan into a contender. We know by now that’s not the track the Wolverines are on. They are what they are.
Which, from the university’s standpoint, may be perfectly fine. Plenty of programs would be thrilled with Harbaugh’s ability to consistently produce a team ranked between No. 10 and No. 20 every year, make a really nice bowl game now and then and stay out of trouble with the NCAA.
But that’s all Michigan is going to be under Harbaugh, and it’s stunning. But it’s true.
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When Michigan landed Harbaugh at the end of 2014 after it seemed like he might stay in the NFL, it felt like a game-changer for the Wolverines and the Big Ten.
Harbaugh had the coaching credibility of building Stanford into a power and leading the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl, the energy and ingenuity to shake up the recruiting scene and the adoration of a fan base that had long viewed him as the white whale who could reconnect Michigan to its glory days.
But none of that has really materialized. The recruiting has been good but not great, and certainly not on the same level as Ohio State. The coaching has been nothing special, with Michigan churning through three offensive coordinators and failing to recruit or develop an elite quarterback. And the deep belief that Harbaugh had some type of magic that would give him an edge in big games has turned to be a khaki-pantsed, transition-lensed mirage.
For too long, we’ve given Harbaugh the benefit of the doubt that he had it in him to lead Michigan to greatness. Even last week, when the Wolverines cruised to a 49-24 win over Minnesota, the narrative was that they’d finally found a quarterback in Joe Milton and an offensive system that would maximize his skills.
Instead, they come back the following week and punt on eight out of 12 possessions, fall behind by two scores with 5:11 left and fritter away almost the entire rest of the clock, needing a plodding 18 plays and 4:34 to score a touchdown. It was coaching malpractice.
Of course, that’s not really why Michigan lost. It lost for the same reason it has lost a lot of games under Harbaugh: They’re usually pretty good but never great.
Michigan brings in talent but generally doesn’t get the five-star players like Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia. Its five-year average in recruiting is 11th in the country according to 247 Sports rankings, which basically mirrors what the Wolverines are as a program, winning 9 or 10 games but never really threatening the best of the best.
Maybe that’s impossible at Michigan in this era. The state doesn’t produce enough talent to rely on for one Big Ten program, much less two. A book released last year by Michigan expert John U. Bacon about the Harbaugh era essentially made the case that college football at the highest level is a dirty business, the NCAA doesn’t really do anything to stop it and Michigan doesn’t play the game.
Mostly, that comes across like a bunch of excuse-making. Notre Dame holds itself to high standards, academically and otherwise, and found a way to play for a national championship and make a College Football Playoff appearance within the past decade. It’s hard, but it can be done. Harbaugh just hasn’t done it.
If Michigan and Harbaugh are happy with the continuous churn of 9-3 and a losing streak against Ohio State that currently stands at eight, they should get the deal done now to quiet any speculation about his future.
But we know both sides signed up for more — a lot more — when Harbaugh decided to come home. After Saturday, that potential has never seemed farther in the past.
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