If form holds, Jim Harbaugh will not leave Michigan quietly. That much seems certain during these troubling times. Hey, that’s entertainment. The ultimate Michigan Man who rode into town with the promise of nobody having it better is darn close to hitting rock bottom at his alma mater.
The indicators are all there that this is Harbaugh’s last year with the Wolverines. The 1-3 start is the program’s worst since 1967, two years before Bo Schembechler arrived. There has been a disturbing and ongoing inability to develop quarterbacks. That deficiency played into only a fraction of a 28-0 halftime deficit Saturday night against Wisconsin, the largest in Michigan Stadium’s 93-year history.
Harbaugh has not landed a top 50 quarterback in his previous six recruiting classes. That’s 300 players. He has filled in mostly with transfers, including Shea Patterson, an import from Ole Miss who was the No. 1 quarterback in the 247Sports Composite for 2016. Joe Milton is Harbaugh’s first high-school recruit to start at the position. The job has been thrown open for competition after the Wisconsin loss.
Worse, it looked on Saturday like the Wolverines lost what coaches like to call their “compete level” against the Badgers. Asked the mood of the team Monday, Michigan cornerback Gemon Green said, “It’s kind of down right now.”
It will be on Harbaugh to get that mood back up five weeks into his sixth season at Michigan. Asked specifically if the buy in — that compete level — was still there for his players, the coach said, “Just like we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves, we’re not going to make any excuses either. This is, not stopping, not slowing down. Confidence really is faith, faith that you can find a way to get the job done.”
Michigan State is proving to be one of the worst teams in the Big Ten. The Spartans’ only win is over Michigan. Harbaugh is now 1-6 against the school’s two biggest rivals. (Winless against the Buckeyes.) His contract is among the six shortest in FBS, all of which expire January 2022. An extension — even impacted by COVID-19 — has not been forthcoming.
It’s always been complicated with Harbaugh. He remains the most successful coach at Michigan since Lloyd Carr. All the bluster was amusing. Some of it was warranted. Harbaugh had been to a Super Bowl. Beginning the season, only 10 coaches had a better winning percentage than Harbaugh at their current school (.723).
He has won 10 games three times at Michigan. But this season is trending toward the worst in his 13 years as a coach in college or the pros.
It’s complicated with Michigan, too. The Ohio State chase seems futile — at least at the moment. Michigan likes to think of itself as an equal, but consider this amazing stat: The Wolverines have won 12 games just once since 1905, the last national championship season in 1997. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes have won at least 12 games seven times — since 2012.
Maybe it’s a case of managing outsized expectations.
Then there is the thorny situation of a Michigan legend’s departure. The guess here is that Harbaugh will not allow himself to be fired. He will walk away to the NFL or there will be some sort of mutual agreement.
After that, if not Harbaugh, then who? The two best candidates might be Urban Meyer and Luke Fickell. Both are near impossibilities at Michigan given that Meyer coached at Ohio State. Fickell, currently Cincinnati’s coach and a native of Columbus, Ohio, played there and was later an assistant under Jim Tressel and Meyer.
Meyer forced a lot of programs — Michigan among them — to look in the mirror with this Fox pregame show breakdown of how losing programs get to be that way.
If not Meyer or Fickell, then pay attention to recently fired Texans coach Bill O’Brien and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. If Brian Kelly doesn’t retire at Notre Dame, there’s a limited list of places he may consider going in college.
But that’s speculation for a few weeks from now.
“I’m energized as a coach,” Harbaugh said removing his glasses Monday during his weekly Zoom availability. “… It’s in my eyes. I’m cheerful, excited to go coach the day. As I said before, never going to stop, never going to quit, never going to slow down. We’re just going to keep attacking and coaching guys. I don’t think I could live without that. That’s darn sure what I’m going to do.”
It’s OK to ask how fragile Michigan may be at the moment. It’s certainly has been outmanned at times.
“Just watching cut ups … there is always a defensive player not doing their assignment right,” Green said. “There’s always that one person that’s not doing their job.”
Twice a week, Clemson has a sports psychologist come in to take the mental temperature of the nation’s No. 4 team. The combination of COVID-19, isolation and virtual learning makes it a necessity.
“We’re creating an environment where it’s OK not be OK,” Tigers offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said of the counseling help.
Clemson isn’t unique. They aren’t the only ones navigating through new and challenging concerns. Losing only adds to the misery.
“It’s not a day-to-day thing, it’s an hour-to-hour thing,” said UCLA coach Chip Kelly, whose team is .500 for the first time in his three seasons. “Everything changes. You gotta have the ability to be agile and pivot depending on what the circumstances are. That’s our guiding light and our North Star. We’re not going to ask them to do anything that put them in harm’s way.”
It’s just weird to see Michigan this bad this far down the line with Harbaugh.
“This is really my first time having a losing record,” Green said. “Even growing up in pee wee, I didn’t have a losing record. I feel like I’m handling it well emotional-wise. What can [the coaches] do? They’re not out on the field with us.”