Text messages were sent and voicemail messages were left. They rang the phones of former Michigan soccer players who played in recent seasons and others who made their mark in a more glorious time, when the Wolverines won the conference championships and were vying for them. national titles. The players were asked to assess the state of their alma mater’s football program during the sixth year of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as coach.
The minutes passed. Then hours. Then days.
Most of the messages were not returned, leaving the kind of awkward silence that persists when a sensitive topic is raised.
As Michigan nears the 2020 season, the lore-rich schedule faces an uncomfortable reality that it has stalled under the leadership of a man who had to restore the Wolverines as a top schedule.
Since Harbaugh arrived with a bang in December 2014, Michigan has never competed for the Big Ten title in Indianapolis. He’s lost all encounters with rival Ohio State, gone 1-4 in bowl games, won two of his 14 games against the AP’s top 10 teams, and hasn’t finished a season higher than 10th in the AP or Amway Coaches poll.
WINNERS, LOSERS:Week 7 includes Clemson, Alabama, Tennessee and Notre Dame
COLLEGE FOOTBALL TAKEAWAYS:No other reason to believe Georga-Alabama would end any different
Under Harbaugh’s leadership, the Wolverines have won 72% of their games but failed to achieve the kind of breakthrough that would place them among the best programs in the sport.
“It wasn’t the result of a scandal or probation or any of that stuff, which makes it even harder to figure out,” said Glen Mason, the former Minnesota coach who is analyst for the Big Ten Network. “But maybe Michigan isn’t the same Michigan we’ve all known.
When Harbaugh was hired in the dying days of 2014, the excitement was palpable. The Ann Arbor community rejoiced when the former star quarterback returned to lead his varsity team, once again welcoming a favorite son as a conquering hero. In the shadow of the disappointing regimes of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, some of college football’s most prominent figures have expressed optimism about the program’s prospects in the years to come with Harbaugh at the helm. Lloyd Carr, the school’s last great trainer, gave his endorsement. One of Michigan’s rivals from a bygone era, Jim Tressel, predicted that Harbaugh would even rival the Buckeyes that turned aside towards the start of the new millennium. But Harbaugh’s goal was to crack the hype.
“I don’t give any guarantees,” he said.
Then Michigan won 10 games in its debut season – surprising some of its most ardent believers who could never have predicted success would come so soon. The following year, the Wolverines took another leap forward, entering the college football playoff preliminary standings and closing in on Ohio State’s overtime victory before reaching their first Six Bowl of the New Year since 2011.
In Harbaugh’s words, Michigan was on the rise.
And then, just like that, it wasn’t. In retrospect, the narrow loss to Ohio State on November 26, 2016 – remembered for a controversial football spot – was a turning point. The Wolverines have never been so close to achieving their dreams since that day, moving from a position of strength to a position slightly weaker and less impressive. Over the past three seasons, Michigan haven’t finished more than 14 in the final standings while repeatedly stumbling in back-to-back games that have kept the Wolverines from running for anything meaningful.
Over time, the opportunity that Columbus missed four years ago is looming. This virtually halted the momentum Harbaugh had built up to this point and may have hampered his efforts to turn Michigan into an eternal powerhouse again.
“Who knows that, if that’s the big answer?” said former Michigan tight end Jake Butt, who was on the pitch that fateful day. “Who knows what would have happened? But earn those moments – they 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 – Dabo Swinney of Clemson – has done so later than the fourth full year in his tenure. Nick Saban won it all in his third season in Alabama. Urban Meyer won the sport’s top prize in sophomore year in Florida and third year in Ohio State.
Swinney, the outlier, gradually turned an average program into a juggernaut with a core of excellent assistants who stayed by his side as the Tigers rose to the top. In Michigan, Harbaugh’s staff have experienced remarkable turnover while going through 24 coaches on the court. The changes have reverberated both on and off the pitch, where Michigan has yet to establish a clear identity. Philosophically, the Wolverines have gone from a pro-style offense, both ground and pound, to the space speed system they currently employ under the guidance of coordinator Josh Gattis.
On the recruiting trail, their approach has been all over the map. The Wolverines made a push to the South early in Harbaugh’s tenure, then focused on New Jersey and now focused on New England as a source of talent. Among the portfolio of prospects they’ve amassed over the last and current rounds, they’ve attracted a player from Ohio – a state that once supplied the Michigan stars of yesteryear, including Heisman winners. Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard Trophy.
All the while, the program has weathered a flood of no-shows. Since the advent of the NCAA Transfer Portal in October 2018, Michigan has seen 38 team members leave the program, including 11 fellows in the past 12 months. As a result, the Wolverines fell to 18th in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite – by far the lowest ranking during Harbaugh’s tenure.
This is the latest indication that Michigan is continuing its descent from that climax in November 2016, when wolverines first appeared on the dawn of greatness.
“It didn’t quite turn out the way I had imagined – and I’m sure Michigan fans – ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said.“ Are they close? Yeah. this frustrating? Obviously. Does he want to beat Ohio State? Yes. Do they want to make the playoffs? Absolutely. But I still think he builds a schedule. I still think he has to get a game Quarterback up to the task so you can really take it to the next level.
So far, that hasn’t happened – much to the dismay of outsiders who thought Harbaugh would always have a star behind center after seeing him model Andrew Luck in college and Colin Kaepernick in the pros. Instead, he has mapped out remnants of 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 was disappointed with a series of erratic performances. The player’s development to a position that Harbaugh once inhabited and coached never really materialized – stunting the growth of a program that used to produce professional-style passer, not to mention running backs and receivers. productive.
“You used to say, ‘Michigan has it all,” Mason said.
While 31 of the Wolverines’ top contributors were drafted during Harbaugh’s tenure, no attacking player has been selected higher than Round Three.
That’s an alarming development considering the Buckeyes had a quarterback, two running backs and three wide receivers picked in innings 1 and 2 over the same span.
Speaking about the dearth of high-value talent in Michigan in these key positions, Herbstreit said, “They’ve had a few here and there, but I think it’s an area that I know they need to continue. to grow and keep trying to lift. the bar. I know it’s (Harbaugh’s) responsibility, ultimately, but man I’m just, guess I’m a fan.
For those who have watched Harbaugh resurrect an oppressed Stanford program and bring the San Francisco 49ers to the brink of a Super Bowl title, it’s hard to reconcile his glowing past with the reality of the program he oversees. That’s why fans, pundits, former coaches and players are reluctant to ditch Harbaugh, who is in the penultimate year of his contract that pays him the fourth highest salary in college football.
Of course, critics will argue that Harbaugh fell short of expectations and that the $ 7.5 million he is expected to earn this year is undeserved based on the results he delivered.
But Mason is quick to counter with his own argument.
“If he can’t do it,” Mason said, “who’s going to do it?”
Or as Herbstreit echoed, “If Jim Harbaugh can’t win in Michigan, who can?
Butt, who now plays for the Denver Broncos, also wonders. He remains loyal to his former trainer and appreciates the work Harbaugh did to elevate the Wolverines far above the station they resided in before he arrived. But at the same time, he’s bewildered by Michigan’s position at this point in Harbaugh’s regime – against a tall blue wall separating the Wolverines from their biggest goals.
“I’m surprised, to be honest, because I believe in Coach Harbaugh and what he does,” he said. “And you just think, hey, eventually the dam is going to break.”
If and when that happens, there will be a thunderous roar from Ann Arbor.
People will come together to support Harbaugh, saying they always knew he would get there.
They will celebrate the conquering hero as much as when he arrived.
But for now, there is an uncomfortable silence enveloping the program which is a tacit acknowledgment that the Harbaugh era was not as glorious as many thought it was when it began.