As Wisconsin’s 35-14 thrashing of Michigan played out on Saturday afternoon, it was a portrait of two disparate football programs. The Badgers mauled Michigan by being defiantly and distinctly themselves, hammering the Wolverines for 359 yards on the ground and pushing them around in the trenches on both sides.
As Wisconsin orchestrated a clinic in identity, Michigan remains lost in the football wilderness under Jim Harbaugh, good enough to beat directional patsies but consistently face-planting when the talent is comparable. Harbaugh is 0-7 as an underdog as Michigan’s coach, with this loss trumping the hopeless and hapless nature of the blowout defeat at Ohio State to close the regular season last year.
While Wisconsin pitched a shutout well into the third quarter and Jonathan Taylor marched for 203 yards, Michigan emerged from the loss as the most compelling program in college football – the big-game trainwreck we can’t stop watching.
The Wolverines have no juice, no identity and, increasingly, no hope. Harbaugh has won nearly 73 percent of his games in Ann Arbor (40-15), but they enter the throes of the conference season as a clear-cut second-tier team in the Big Ten. “This whole program is at a crossroads,” analyst Joel Klatt said on the Fox broadcast.
Harbaugh’s tenure is amid its fifth year as a $7.5 million dollar tease. There are no wins over Ohio State, three straight bowl losses and, still, zero signature victories. Michigan’s last three games against Power Five opponents have resulted in combined losses of 138-68, on average losing 46-23 to Ohio State, Florida and Wisconsin. They also outlasted Army in double-overtime, 24-21, in a game where Army manhandled the Wolverines physically in the trenches.
The tenor of those losses, combined with the flailing of Michigan’s offense, has raised a question once thought unthinkable: Should Michigan move on from Harbaugh? This wouldn’t be as difficult to do as many would think, as Harbaugh’s contract runs out in 2021. It’s rare for a Power Five head coach, especially one with a winning record, to have their contract that close to expiring.
That lifetime contract Michigan was rumored to want to give Harbaugh feels more like a lifetime sentence these days. For years, Harbaugh had all the leverage on Michigan, as Warde Manuel said as recently as May that he wants Harbaugh to retire as Michigan’s head coach. But the more realistic eventuality is Michigan considering paying the nearly $11 million to part ways with Harbaugh, which isn’t untenable considering Big Ten revenues.
Harbaugh’s issues at Michigan, somewhat surprisingly, keep coming back to the same themes – a dysfunctional offensive staff, lack of identity and no ability to identify or develop the quarterback position. This, combined with staying tethered to Shea Patterson far too long – both today against Wisconsin and this season – has forced Michigan’s offense to appear to operate while wearing cement shoes.
Instead of begging Harbaugh to stick around for life, Manuel should have done more to question or guide Harbaugh on his coaching hires. Harbaugh has operated with impunity as the operation around him has underachieved and underwhelmed. And the biggest question Manuel needs to ask: Why did the Wolverines look so lifeless, uninspired and listless on Saturday?
Harbaugh’s most recent glaring negligence came with hiring the inexperienced Josh Gattis from Alabama in the offseason to both run the offense and overhaul the program’s pro-style DNA. The early results are a distinct failure, as Michigan managed just 14 points in regulation against Army and 14 against Wisconsin. By the time the Wolverines scored against Wisconsin, they trailed 35-0.
“As a whole group we don’t have an identity yet,” tight end Nick Eubanks said after the game. “It’s up to us to find our identity even though we have a game coming up Saturday. We gotta find it quick.”
Gattis’ early struggles should be pinned squarely on Harbaugh. The offseason coronation of Gattis as a great hire included these delicious details in a story in The Athletic – “There was no interview. No face-to-face meeting. No get-up-on-the-board-and-show-me-how-you-run-this session. Not even a tell-me-about-your-offensive-philosophy discussion.”
Harbaugh basically put the future of the program on a 20-minute phone conversation, which is a bit like getting engaged after the first drink on a first date. And he did it knowing that Nick Saban had an opportunity to promote Gattis to the same job and declined. That’s impulsive and reckless even by Harbaugh’s standards, and was begging for more skepticism from an athletic director and administration who’d already seen a pattern of bad hires and dysfunctional offenses.
The only thing more bizarre about Harbaugh making a decision this important in this manner was bragging about it.
When asked directly after the game if he had any concerns about Gattis as a play caller, Harbaugh said: “Uhhhhh no.”
Harbaugh’s other defining failure has been under-performance of the quarterback position. Considering his success with Andrew Luck at Stanford and Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, this has been the most puzzling. For Patterson, who finished 14-of-32 passing with two touchdowns and an interception, Saturday’s performance re-affirmed that his career has been based much more on recruiting hype than actual performance.
Steered across the country by his Little League dad, Patterson has hopscotched for the next shiny opportunity without much actual accomplishment to accompany it. Ole Miss hired his brother to get Patterson as a five-star recruit, but the staff there wasn’t broken up to see him bail to Michigan. To date, the most significant moment of Patterson’s career has been Tom Mars getting him immediately eligible for the Wolverines. Since then, his tenure has been a lot like Harbaugh’s, a lot of hype and little tangible results.
Harbaugh didn’t do the research on the front end to see the warning signs on Patterson. And he’s taken far too long to realize on the back end that Shea Patterson isn’t a championship-level quarterback. If you can’t keep the Ole Miss starting job, you probably aren’t going to win the Big Ten. But more indicting of Harbaugh has been the inability to recruit and develop anyone more competent.
The last two seasons for Harbaugh and Patterson have been parallel runs of failure – twin turtles when the lights gets bright and formidable opposition appears.
For Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, the pattern of big-game failures has evolved into an expectation. It’s become predictable that Harbaugh’s program will flop on the big stage with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.
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