For better or worse, Jim Harbaugh marches to his own drummer
Wilton Speight was speaking after Michigan’s first spring practice in March when he let the world in on the philosophy that shapes every aspect of the Wolverines football program, from the replaceable starting quarterback to the superstar CEO.
“I think any time you’re on a football team, basketball team, you can’t get complacent,” the UM quarterback told the assembled reporters. “You can’t get comfortable. Coach has told that to me, he said it to [offensive lineman] Mason [Cole] — essentially that no job is ever safe. His job isn’t safe; if we don’t win games, there’s going to be a coach waiting to be the next Michigan head coach. So that’s just the mindset you have to have.”
If that sounds hyperbolic, that’s because it probably is. Sure, Speight could be challenged for his starting job if he slips up after a stellar 2016. But no one in Ann Arbor has come even close to calling for Jim Harbaugh’s head, not after a 20–6 two-year start on the heels of a pair of previous regimes that combined to go just 46–42 across a seven-year span.
Still — and forgive us for not using a “breaking” tag here — Harbaugh operates in a different realm. What other coach can set the sports world off with a tweet? Or force the NCAA to adopt new offseason legislation? Or appear in a Planters peanuts commercial?
He is different, and that means everything he does will draw extra attention. Even the bad stuff.
And yes, despite Harbaugh’s making such quick work of what at the outset appeared to be a massive rebuilding job in 2015, there has been some bad stuff.
Even if, in a nutshell, that bad stuff can essentially be boiled down to just one game. The Game.
Michigan didn’t just blow a 10-point second-half lead at rival Ohio State last season, losing a 30–27 double-overtime classic that kept it from the Big Ten title game and sent Harbaugh into a postgame tirade against the officials.
No, Harbaugh became just the second Wolverines coach to lose his first two games against the Buckeyes, joining Rich Rodriguez, who went three-and-out with the Maize and Blue. He then had to watch Penn State win the league title and Ohio State make the College Football Playoff, while his Michigan team went on to lose to Florida State in the Orange Bowl to end the season on a two-game losing streak.
And then, well, something funny happened. The glimmer, if you will, began to dim ever so slightly, at least nationally. Michigan enters the 2017 season down 18 starters, and if a team that experienced couldn’t break through in the league, when would be a reasonable time to expect it to turn that final corner?
All of a sudden, when Harbaugh found himself in a public spat with SEC Network host Paul Finebaum — otherwise par for the offseason course — the public sentiment, unofficially, was hardly on the coach’s side. Instead, out came the jokes about the Harbaugh hype, about how he’s actually only finished in third place in his own division in each of his two years at Michigan, and how about we reel in expectations just a bit from now on?
Fair? Let’s just say Harbaugh is aware of any opportunity squandered, which only makes him that much more excited for what’s on the horizon.
Take this, from an unusually candid interview on a February podcast with Tim Kawakami of the (San Jose) Mercury News:
“This past season is as close to being perfect as any team I’ve ever been on without being perfect, as we lost two games by one point and then we lost a third game, a championship game in overtime, by three points,” Harbaugh began. “But good, glad we lost them. And maybe that’ll make us better, that’ll be the thing that pushes us and motivates us to do a better job as coaches and our players. We lost three out of our last four games — good.
“That has really heated the waters here in our winter conditioning and it will for spring practice as well, that we didn’t win a national championship, we came up short and actually lost three out of our last four games and we actually got to get a lot better. So it’s been competitive around here and our young players are responding and they’re focused on making the team better and that makes me very, very excited.”
To take that awareness level to a different arena, consider the old case of Erik Swenson, the Downers Grove South (Ill.) class of 2016 offensive lineman who became something of a public poster child for the murky world of recruiting when Harbaugh’s staff rescinded his scholarship offer just a few weeks before Signing Day — after Swenson had been committed for more than two years.
One year later, when the Chicago Tribune spoke to all involved parties for a postmortem, the world got a glimpse of a darn-near remorseful Harbaugh.
“Bottom line, you make a very good point,” Harbaugh told the Tribune. “It was not the way they understood it, they knew it. I have fingerprints on it. I have to do a better job.
“I don’t want to put people in that position ... did they know, did they not know? We’re striving to be perfect — telling the truth and communicating so people don’t misunderstand.”
For all the theatrics of a Florida or overseas trip for practice, there is no mistaking Harbaugh’s coaching acumen. The trainwreck that the San Francisco 49ers have become in his wake is proof enough, but consider: His first 10-win season at Michigan came on the heels of 2014 and ’15 recruiting classes that ranked 31st and 51st, respectively, according to Rivals. His 2016 team ranked sixth among Power-5 programs in scoring (40.3 ppg), a feat all the more remarkable when you remember that much of that same cast of characters on offense — 11 players, in fact — was shut out by Notre Dame in 2014 in then-Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s second game. (VanGorder was fired less than three full years into the job after his units allowed 27.5 points per game over his 30-game tenure.)
Yet Harbaugh, somewhat miraculously, doesn’t even have a conference title at the FBS level to show for his work. He does, however, have back-to-back fourth-ranked recruiting classes, which will be shepherded through his patented enthusiasm-unknown-to-mankind.
“I didn’t know exactly what it would be, but I’m just having a blast,” Harbaugh said on Kawakami’s podcast of returning to college coaching. “It’s been so much fun coaching these young guys. For example, we’re getting ready for spring break now and we’re going to have a really young team, even younger than normal. But the focus on making the team, making the team better and as a coach putting the team in a position to be good for the 2017 season — (we’ve) got a wonderful great group of guys we’re coaching with and they do a tremendous job. Just wonderful, wonderful coaches and young players to be around.”
Harbaugh has turned the page on the frenetic finish to last year, but he won’t be shy to remind his green outfit that the best is yet to come. And his message has undoubtedly permeated the roster.
“I don’t think it’d be any different if we went 15–0 and won the national championship,” Speight told reporters of Michigan’s focus, “because one, you should never have that mindset of: ‘Oh, we went 15–0 last year and we were perfect last year, we can chill this offseason and it can happen again.’ That never happens in football, basketball, business, anything that you do in life.
“But secondly, there’s so many young guys that whether we were 15–0 or 1–10 or 1–11, the new guys are going to step in and it’s all fresh to them, it’s all new. There’s no: ‘Oh, well last year we did this.’ It’s: ‘OK, we’ve got to do our own thing now.’”
Written by Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Big Ten Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.