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Michigan Football: Debating the Pros and Cons of Coach Jim Harbaugh

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh

It’s no secret Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is one of the most polarizing figures in college football. Harbaugh enters his fourth season in Ann Arbor with a 28-11 overall record and an 18-8 mark in Big Ten play. While the Wolverines have clearly made progress over the last three years, last season’s 8-5 record has sparked plenty of debate on whether or not Harbaugh can lead Michigan to a Big Ten title. The 8-5 record was certainly a disappointment for the program, but Harbaugh has won at every job (San Diego, Stanford, 49ers and Michigan) at a high level.

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh

Is it a matter of time before Harbaugh wins a championship with the Wolverines? Or will Harbaugh’s program slide even more in the wrong direction after last season’s eight-win mark? 

Pro: Jim Harbaugh is the proverbial Michigan Man who is right where he belongs.

The early spring of 2018 was a great time to be a Michigan Wolverine. U-M reached the Final Four and Frozen Four on successive days -- the fourth time the school has pulled off that impressive double.

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This fall, it's the football team's turn to create some excitement -- and it's going to happen. The quick-to-criticize Michigan fan base should ease up on the grousing, because Jim Harbaugh's going to get it done. He may not reach the College Football Playoff, but he's going to have the Wolverines in a better spot than last year's 8-5 record, and he's definitely still the right man for the job in Ann Arbor. Calling for his ouster is shortsighted and just wrong. There is no other person on the college landscape better suited for leading the Wolverines. The man is Michigan. Period.

Harbaugh has changed the personality of what had become a stodgy, uber-traditional program -- even though Rich Rodriguez tried to turn it into Morgantown West for three years. It's one thing to wear winged helmets and quite another to have an institutional culture that resembled 1938, when Fritz Crisler introduced those helmets. Harbaugh can be strange and quixotic. His press conferences sometimes seem intentionally surreal, as if he is trying to confuse the media -- along with everybody else. And Harbaugh can seem extremely detached at times. The man's an odd duck. You can bet a year's supply of whole milk (none of that skim stuff) on that.

He's also a tremendous recruiter -- the close of the '18 cycle notwithstanding -- who has upgraded Michigan's talent level considerably. He understands the importance of a bloodthirsty defense enough that he hired Don Brown to run Michigan's and gave him full authority to turn loose a collection of athletic marauders. He knows the game.

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Most important, he knows Michigan.

Things are far from perfect in Ann Arbor. Michigan is in a death struggle with OSU, MSU and Penn State for primacy in the toughest division in college football. The Wolverines haven't won the Big Ten title since Lloyd Carr ran the program, and they enter 2018 with questions at offensive line and quarterback.

But Harbaugh remains great for the program because he thinks big at all times. His offense may be old school, but his ability to relate to young athletes and to create the kind of lionhearted expectations they love makes him a perfect 21st century coach.

Harbaugh's 2016 and '17 recruiting classes were outstanding, and last year's lineup featured plenty of young players with bright futures. This year's team could be the most athletic Michigan outfit in a long time. But there is work to do. Harbaugh must add some spread concepts to his offense, and he must find a way to beat the Spartans and Buckeyes, against whom he is 1-5.

Harbaugh will prevail. He is a true Michigan believer who wants to win as much for his alma mater as for his own edification. He loves the place. He doesn't just wear the Block M because it's a symbol of his employer. It's who he is and who he has always been. When his father, Jack, was a coach at Stanford, teenaged Jim stood on the sidelines with him before the Cal-Stanford game and heard the P.A. announcer say, "Welcome to the Big Game." Young Jim turned to his father and said, “Dad, we know where the real Big Game is being played today.” He was referring to Michigan-OSU. It was the big one for him then, and U-M remains the only school for him now. Michigan fans would do well to understand that when passion meets talent, good things happen. Harbaugh certainly has the passion. And he has proven he has the talent.

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Jim Harbaugh belongs in Ann Arbor.

To stay.

Con: Harbaugh is already on borrowed time, and his Big Ten foes can sense his increasing weakness. 

Otis Reese was sealed and delivered. One problem: He wasn't signed. Reese, a 6'4" linebacker/safety out of Leesburg, Ga., had committed to Michigan in June 2016, the summer after his sophomore year. One of Reese's former teammates, defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon, became a key cog in the Wolverines' Class of 2017. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh even held a satellite camp in tiny Leesburg (2016 population: 3,013). All the stars were seemingly aligned.

Except for one.

About midway through this past February's National Signing Day, Reese backpedaled all the way to Athens. Harbaugh's top linebacker target put on a Georgia cap, announcing that he was staying home. "We were informed today," Harbaugh told reporters. "I wouldn't say it caught us off guard. We understood it was a possibility."

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By the time the dust settled, 247Sports ranked Harbaugh's fourth recruiting haul at No. 21 nationally -- just ahead of Nebraska and coach Scott Frost, who'd only been on the job since December -- and third in the Big Ten behind the Buckeyes (No. 2) and Penn State (No. 5). It was the first time since 2011 that a Wolverines recruiting class didn't feature a single player from the 247Sports Composite top 100.

If you're going to poke the biggest bears in college football with a stick, you better darn well be ready to swing it. At the same juncture of Nick Saban's tenure at Alabama, the Crimson Tide were coming off a 14-0 campaign and a national title. At the same point in the Urban Meyer Era at Ohio State, the Buckeyes were coming off a 14-1 mark and a national title.

Harbaugh, meanwhile, comes off a Year 3 at Michigan that saw the Wolverines finish 8-5 -- a bizarre season that opened with a win over Jim McElwain and ended with a bowl loss to Will Muschamp. McElwain is now a member of Harbaugh's staff, a hiring that capped an equally bizarre winter in Ann Arbor.

The trouble with firing out of the gate armed with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind is that you risk hitting a wall at about 150 miles per hour. It's hard to tell if Harbaugh is desperate, burned out, angry, or some soul-killing combination of the three.

But this much is painfully clear: The gap -- in talent, trophies and gravitas -- between Michigan and Meyer's Buckeyes is no smaller than it was during Harbaugh's first season on the job. Since the winter of 2015, Ohio State has brought in the nation's Nos. 7, 4, 2 and 2 recruiting classes, according to the 247Sports Composite. While the Buckeyes' last four hauls averaged a 3.75 national ranking, the Wolverines' classes averaged an 18.0 rank. During that same stretch, Penn State's classes averaged a rank of 13.5, pouring more kerosene on the idea that the Nittany Lions have passed Michigan as Meyer's top East Division threat.

And 1-5 -- Harbaugh's record against Ohio State and Michigan State -- is the match. Strike it and watch the sparks fly.
We can argue, as locals do, about the Looney Tunes stuff that transpired in the Wolverines' two losses to the Spartans since 2015. But 1-2 is 1-2. We can rage, as Maize and Blue bloods fume, about The Spot in the 2016 Ohio State game. But 0-3 is 0-3.

We can qualify Harbaugh's 9-8 record over his last 17 games as the by-product of quarterback injuries. But the man who raised the games of Andrew Luck, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick has also failed to develop a signal caller of similar renown at his alma mater. Maybe Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson breaks the QB ceiling. Or maybe he just winds up breaking even more Ann Arbor hearts.

There isn't a Michigan man who doesn't want to see Harbaugh pull this wagon over the line. But even recruiting, the lifeblood of any program's future, is starting to sow seeds of doubt. Harbaugh wrangled only four top-200 recruits in his 2018 class. Michigan's previous two hauls had totaled 21 between them.

It's the same pattern of diminishing returns that dogged Rich Rodriguez, who didn't get a Year 4, and Brady Hoke, who didn't get a Year 5.

"In some ways, I think the honeymoon is over," 247Sports Midwest recruiting analyst Allen Trieu says of Harbaugh. "But that doesn't necessarily mean the name doesn't have meaning, though."

Only it doesn't mean as much as it used to. Early in the spring, a Michigan 2019 offensive line commit -- Trente Jones out of Loganville, Ga. -- announced on Twitter that he'd received an offer from Frost and Nebraska. There's blood in the water now, kids. And the rest of the Big Ten can smell it.