CHICAGO – We are living in the Golden Age of Harbaugh Infallibility, an era devoid of media skepticism, lauded through self-promotion and defined by the inevitability of Michigan football domination. Jim Harbaugh can say whatever he wants, wear whatever he wants and act however he’d like with complete impunity, feeding his relentless attention addiction one tweet at a time.
That, of course, is not the reality surrounding Michigan football heading into 2017. Just the feel. The reality is that Michigan projects for a third consecutive third-place finish in the Big Ten East, Harbaugh’s third consecutive loss to Ohio State and another season spent futilely chasing what Michigan feels is its rightful place atop the Big Ten. The reality of the Michigan program is that the Wolverines have lost three of their past four games, need to replace 17 starters and lost a program-record 11 picks to the NFL draft.
Harbaugh can hang out with Judge Judy, sleep at a recruit’s house and call out opposing programs and athletic directors for NCAA misdeeds. He can attend WWE events, coach first base for the Tigers and take his team on an overseas field trip to Rome. We know all that. We’ve seen him tweet about it, heard about it on his YouTube channel and been subjected to breathless 24-hour coverage of his every move.
Now it’s time for some actual wins to go viral, as 2017 is the year where Harbaugh’s biggest challenge will be Michigan’s on-field production matching its coach’s off-field profile. Here’s a reasonable standard that Harbaugh is unlikely to live up to in year three – that of Penn State’s James Franklin and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Franklin won the Big Ten last season in his third year in State College, an impressive feat considering he took over a program decimated by NCAA sanctions. Ohio State won a national title in Meyer’s third season there, and Meyer also took over a program weighed down by NCAA sanctions.
So what’s in store for Harbaugh in year three? In speaking about the maturation of his young roster, he offered a solid synopsis of what to look for in the program: “It happens on the football field, in the most honest manner possible. The truth must be told when you step out on the football field. You can no longer bullcrap or e-mail somebody. You’ve got to go out there and actually prove it.”
The prediction here is that the truth will be that Harbaugh settles for third in the Big Ten East again, and his off-field shenanigans are viewed more as annoying and distracting than quirky and endearing. Heading into the season, Michigan projects as the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, as Wisconsin returns more talent and has a much more favorable schedule. It’s hard to imagine Michigan unseating league favorite Ohio State with so much unproven talent. Meyer considers this as talented of a team as he’s had at Ohio State, which is saying something.
And it’s harder to believe that a Michigan team with 17 new starters will end up better than a Penn State team that returns 16 of them. (Yes, Michigan bombed the Lions last year. But if that game kicked off in Soldier Field next week, the hunch is Penn State and Saquon Barkley would be a touchdown favorite).
Harbaugh was asked pointedly by Yahoo Sports if all his attention-seeking efforts left him exposed for criticism with a young team. Let’s just say he didn’t exactly strap on his “iron jock strap,” to borrow his most creative media day phrase, to answer. In fact, he ducked the question with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.
“Pretty much everything right now is irrelevant except football practice on Monday,” he said. “I don’t feel like social media right now is irrelevant or any of the other things you’ve come up with. Just the expectations of a great day of practice on July 31st, that’s really what we’re shooting for.”
This is not a dismissal of Harbaugh as a coach by any means. His resuscitation of Stanford’s program was one of this generation’s most stunning turnarounds. He led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl and the organization cratered into a black hole of misery after his departure. The purpose of this column is to serve as a reminder that the data points from his two previous stops show that there’s a shelf-life for the schtick. No member of Stanford’s athletic department would trade David Shaw for Harbaugh straight up, as Shaw continued Harbaugh’s winning momentum without any of the day-to-day headaches. And Harbaugh’s tenure with the 49ers ended so badly that they sacrificed the immediate future of the organization to get rid of Harbaugh. This isn’t to give the incompetent leadership and ownership in San Francisco a pass, but rather to point out that no team in recent NFL history has gone through greater lengths to undermine their coach.
Right now, Harbaugh has been great at Michigan. He’s 20-6 overall and 13-4 in league play. But Brady Hoke was 19-7 and 12-4 after two years and has one more win over Ohio State than Harbaugh. There’s little doubt Harbaugh’s coaching record and upside are greater than Hoke’s, but there’s also a reality few have focused on – the narrative will change quick on Harbaugh if he endures a rebuilding season.
Michigan could be in a completely different place right now if they’d won in Columbus last year, a double-overtime loss that featured multiple critical coaching blunders. The most direct among them was Harbaugh getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a sideline temper tantrum that set up an Ohio State touchdown. When asked about that penalty at Big Ten media day, Harbaugh ducked again. “I think the biggest one for me is, you know, throwing the ball off of our goal line and not getting that blitz picked up,” he said, bringing up the day’s biggest strategic blunder against Ohio State, which led to a game-changing interception. “I kicked myself for making that call.”
There’s no reason to think Michigan will disappear from the top 25 this year. Harbaugh has recruited well, with players like sophomore defensive lineman Rashan Gary, freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and sophomore linebacker Khaleke Hudson poised to break out. As Harbaugh noted: “Young and untalented….bad. Young and talented, good.”
As Harbaugh enters year three at Michigan, his act continued by showing up at media day wearing a Michigan hat and Jumpman sweater. His coaching colleagues wore suits and sport coats. It was another stunt for attention, which will thankfully be diverted to the field when Michigan opens against Florida in Texas. That’s the start of Harbaugh’s tricky equation of keeping the on-field results matching the off-field bravado. There’s no ducking the caliber of teams Harbaugh needs to leapfrog in the Big Ten, and the truth of Michigan’s reality will soon unfold in the most honest manner possible.
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