Texts were sent and voicemails were left. They pinged the phones of former Michigan football players who starred in recent seasons and others who made their mark during a more glorious time, when the Wolverines won conference championships and were in contention for national titles. The players were asked to assess the state of their alma mater’s football program in Year 6 of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as coach.
Minutes passed. Then hours. Then days.
The bulk of the messages went unreturned, leaving the kind of awkward silence that lingers when a touchy subject is raised.
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As Michigan approaches the 2020 season, the tradition-rich program confronts an uncomfortable reality that it has stagnated under the leadership of a man who was expected to restore the Wolverines as a top-tier program.
Since Harbaugh arrived with considerable fanfare in December 2014, Michigan has never competed for the Big Ten title in Indianapolis. It has lost every meeting with rival Ohio State, gone 1-4 in bowl games, won two of its 14 matchups against AP top-10teams and hasn’t finished a season higher than 10th in either poll.
Under Harbaugh’s direction, the Wolverines have won 72% of their games but have failed to achieve the kind of breakthrough that would place them among the sport’s best programs.
“It hasn’t been the result of scandal or probation or any of that stuff, which makes it even harder to understand,” said Glen Mason, the former Minnesota coach who is an analyst for the Big Ten Network. “But maybe Michigan isn’t the same Michigan we all came to know.”
When Harbaugh was hired in the final days of 2014, the excitement was palpable. The Ann Arbor community rejoiced when the former star quarterback returned to lead his college team, welcoming back a favored son like a conquering hero. In the shadow of the disappointing Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke regimes, college football’s most prominent figures expressed optimism about the program’s prospects in the coming years with Harbaugh at the helm. Lloyd Carr, the school’s last great coach, gave his endorsement. One of Michigan’s rivals from a bygone era, Jim Tressel, predicted Harbaugh would even the rivalry with the Buckeyes that turned lopsided near the beginning of the new millennium. But Harbaugh aimed to tamp down the hype.
“I make no guarantees,” he said.
Then, Michigan won 10 games his first season — surprising some of his most ardent believers who never could have predicted success would come so soon. The next year, the Wolverines took another leap forward, entering the preliminary rankings of the College Football Playoff and coming within a whisker of defeating Ohio State in overtime before reaching their first New Year’s Six bowl since 2011.
In the words of Harbaugh, Michigan was ascending.
And then, just like that, it wasn’t. In retrospect, the close loss to Ohio State on Nov. 26, 2016 — remembered for a controversial spot of the football — was a turning point. The Wolverines never have been as close to realizing their dreams since that day, retreating from a position of strength to one that is slightly weaker and less impressive. In the last three seasons, Michigan hasn’t placed higher than 14 in the final rankings while stumbling repeatedly in consequential games that have taken the Wolverines out of the running for anything meaningful.
As time has passed, the missed opportunity in Columbus four years ago looms larger. It all but stanched the momentum Harbaugh had accrued until that point and may have impeded his efforts to turn Michigan into a perennial power again.
“Who’s to know that, if that’s the big answer?” said former Michigan tight end Jake Butt, who was on the field that fateful day. “Who knows what would have happened? But winning those moments — they do matter.”
Timing, after all, is everything — especially in the high-stakes world of college football. Of the last five coaches who have led their teams to national championships, only one — Clemson’s Dabo Swinney — did so later than the fourth full year of his tenure. Nick Saban won it all in his third season at Alabama. Urban Meyer claimed the sport's top prize in Year 2 at Florida and Year 3 at Ohio State.
Swinney, the outlier, gradually built an average program into a juggernaut with a core of excellent assistants that stayed beside him as the Tigers rose to the top. At Michigan, Harbaugh’s staff has experienced remarkable turnover while cycling through 24 on-field coaches. The changes have reverberated both on and off the field, where Michigan has yet to establish a clear identity. Philosophically, the Wolverines have moved away from a pro-style, ground-and-pound offense to the speed-in-space system it currently employs under coordinator Josh Gattis.
On the recruiting trail, their approach has been all over the map. The Wolverines made a push into the South at the outset of Harbaugh’s tenure, then shifted their focus to New Jersey and now have zeroed in on New England as a source for talent. Among the portfolio of prospects they've gathered in the last cycle and the current one, they have attracted one player from Ohio — a state that once supplied Michigan’s stars of yesteryear, including Heisman Trophy winners Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard.
All the while, the program has weathered a stream of defections. Since the advent of the NCAA transfer portal in October 2018, Michigan has watched 38 members of the team exit the program, including 11 scholarship players in the last 12 months. Consequently, the Wolverines have fallen to No. 18 in 247Sports’ team-talent composite — by far the lowest ranking during Harbaugh’s tenure.
It’s the latest indication that Michigan is continuing its descent from that peak moment in November 2016, when the Wolverines appeared on the cusp of greatness.
“It just hasn’t quite played out the way I — and I’m sure Michigan fans — envisioned,” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. “Are they close? Yeah. Is it frustrating? Obviously. Do they want to beat Ohio State? Yes. Do they want to get into the playoff? Absolutely. But I still think he’s building a program. I still think he’s got to get a quarterback play up to par to be able to really go to that next level.”
So far that hasn’t happened — much to the consternation of outsiders who believed Harbaugh would always have a star behind center after they watched him mold Andrew Luck in college and Colin Kaepernick in the pros. Instead, he has trotted out holdovers from the Hoke era and transfers from elsewhere to lead his offenses with mixed results. Jake Rudock exceeded expectations, Wilton Speight was adequate, John O’Korn struggled and Shea Patterson disappointed with a string of erratic performances. The player development at a position Harbaugh once manned and coached has never quite materialized — stunting the growth of a program that used to churn out pro-style passers, not to mention productive running backs and receivers.
“You used to be able to say, ‘Michigan has it all,’ ” Mason said.
While 31 of the Wolverines’ top contributors have been drafted during Harbaugh’s tenure, no offensive skill players have been selected higher than the third round.
It’s an alarming development considering the Buckeyes had a quarterback, two running backs and three wide receivers chosen in Rounds 1 and 2 during that same period.
Speaking of Michigan’s dearth of high-value talent at those key positions, Herbstreit said, “They’ve had a few here and there, but I think that’s an area that I know that they need to continue to grow and continue to try to raise the bar. I know that’s (Harbaugh’s) responsibility, ultimately, but man, I’m just, I guess I’m a fan.”
For those who watched Harbaugh resuscitate a downtrodden Stanford program and bring the San Francisco 49ers to the brink of a Super Bowl title, it’s hard to reconcile his lustrous past with the reality of the program he oversees. It’s why fans, experts, former coaches and players are hesitant to give up on Harbaugh, who is in the penultimate year of his contract that pays him the fourth-largest salary in college football.
Sure, critics will claim Harbaugh hasn’t met expectations and the $7.5 million he's scheduled to earn this year isn’t merited based on the results he has delivered.
But Mason is quick to counter with his own argument.
“If he can’t get it done,” Mason said, “who’s going to?”
Or as Herbstreit echoed, “If Jim Harbaugh can’t win at Michigan, who can?
Butt, who now plays for the Denver Broncos, wonders as well. He remains loyal to his former coach and appreciative of the work Harbaugh did to elevate the Wolverines far above the station they resided before his arrival. But at the same time, he’s bewildered by where Michigan stands at this point during Harbaugh’s regime — up against a big, blue wall separating the Wolverines from their biggest goals.
“I am surprised, to be honest, because I believe in Coach Harbaugh and what he’s doing,” he said. “And you just think that, hey, eventually the dam is going to break.”
If and when that happens, there will be a thunderous roar out of Ann Arbor.
People will rally in support of Harbaugh, claiming they always knew he’d get it done.
They’ll celebrate the conquering hero as much as when he arrived.
But for now, there is an uncomfortable silence enveloping the program that is a tacit acknowledgement the Harbaugh era hasn’t been as glorious as many assumed it would be when it first began.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football and the uncomfortable truth of Jim Harbaugh's tenure