Heading into year three of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan, it still seems sort of bizarre that the program has (and will have, for the foreseeable future) high national expectations. Then again, by a coach’s third year, he should have his own, functional administrative infrastructure firmly in place, with a player development apparatus and a hand picked roster not lagging far behind. At any given time this season, there will probably be a majority of the current regime’s recruits on the field for the first time. And Jim Harbaugh... well, he’s pretty good at finding good recruits.
We know this year won’t be make or break for Harbaugh, but Year 3 was something of a death-knell for the previous two administrations in Ann Arbor - and it vaulted the two before that into the highest echelon of the sport. So it seems like an excuse as good as any (and we are still in the off-season, after all) to take a look back to what Michigan’s history is with third seasons of a head coach.
For the first twelve years of its existence, Michigan football had no coach. Mr. No Coach went 22-11-1, which shows that the absence of anything is, in fact, more successful than Michigan State.
The first coach who lasted three seasons was Gustave Ferbert, who went 8-2 in 1899. That was followed by Fielding Yost, who went 11-0 in each of his first two years and took a step back, to 11-0-1, in Year 3 (they were also co-national champions and had eleven shutouts). Here’s a quick run-through of the coaches who came after that:
Harry Kipke: 46-26-4 in nine seasons, 8-1-1 in his third season (8 opponents held scoreless that year)
Fritz Crisler: 71-16-3 in ten seasons, 7-1 in his third season (#3 AP ranking)
Bennie Oosterbaan: 63-33-4 in eleven seasons, 6-3-1 in his third season (Rose Bowl win)
Bump Elliott: 51-42-2 in ten seasons, 6-3 in his third season
Bo Schembechler: 194-48-5 in 21 seasons, 11-1 in his third season (undefeated until the Rose Bowl)
Gary Moeller: 44-13-3 in 5 seasons, 9-0-3 in his third season (Rose Bowl win)
Lloyd Carr: 122-40 in 13 seasons, 12-0 in his third season (National championship, Rose Bowl win)
Despite some unfortunate lapses since then, Michigan isn’t that far removed from significant preseason expectations and excitement. The last time Michigan fans awaited a football season this breathlessly and confidently was probably the tail end of the Lloyd years, when his teams played in three Rose Bowls in a span of four years.
But Michigan has a long history of striking gold in a coach’s third season.
The closest analogue for this year’s expectations in recent memory is probably the build up to the 1997 season, Lloyd Carr’s third year as head coach. The team was coming off back to back four-loss seasons for the first time in sixty years, but it had still finished both those years in the top twenty of the AP Poll and had a good core of young talent coming back.
Of course, the worry at the time was that Lloyd may have not been able to build and maintain an elite program, given the fact that he was a solid defensive coordinator with only high school head coaching experience before he was thrust into the most important position in Michigan sports. In the September 3rd, 1997 issue of The Michigan Daily, Barry Sollenberger explained that “the Wolverines are seeing the number four (the number of losses they had in ‘95 and ‘96) in their sleep these days. And it’s giving them nightmares.”
But Michigan was building up for something, and broke through for a historic campaign to most everyone’s surprise. They managed it without a 1,000-yard rusher or a 500-yard receiver, both of which are possible this year with a four-deep of talent at running back and a glut of young receivers. But the engine that made their success possible was the defense, which allowed no fourth quarter points (or second-half touchdowns) in the first 8 games of the year.
And similarly to this year, Penn State and Ohio State were coming off top-ten finishes in the AP Poll and were mostly favored over the Wolverines. Michigan, meanwhile, was respected in the polls but suffered some losses in Carr’s first two years.
Not many fans expected the defensive supernova that was Charles Woodson to lead them all the way to a national championship, but the pieces fell perfectly in place.
Of course, then, there’s the father himself: Bo Schembechler. Bo’s second year saw the team finish 9-1 and reside in the top ten in both the Coach’s and AP Poll. They were famously left out of the postseason, though, due to the Big Ten’s hilariously dumb rule that the conference would only compete in the Rose Bowl; thus, they started the 1971 season (Bo’s third year) in the top five with legitimate national championship hopes.
As the Daily said ahead of the ‘71 opener against Northwestern, “though [Bo’s] first two years have made him an integral part of Wolverine football history, his reign has not yet settled down into a continuous dynasty.” A sentiment that seems as appropriate now as it did then.
Ahead of Bo’s third year, people thought that it could be the season that Michigan put it all together and made a run at a national title. (Ahead of Harbaugh’s, it seems more people recognize that those days are ahead, but not quite here yet.) Still, Bo is the only coach in the last 60+ years to walk into his third year in Ann Arbor with the kind of anticipation that surrounds this 2017 squad.
Of course, we should also mention the more recent history - the 7-6 season by RichRod in 2010 and the 7-6 Hoke campaign in 2013. By RichRod’s third year his continued tenure was more surprising than any of the team’s failures on the field; by Brady’s third year it was clear that the program was once again teetering on the precipice of continued mediocrity.
Even with a majority of his own players, Rodriguez couldn’t get the team to where everyone was hoping it could be, and add to that the fact that Dave Brandon handled the season the way I imagine a lot of the B Roll footage of “The Apprentice” looks and sounds, it’s not too surprising that the Mitten’s least favorite West Virginian was run out of town after an embarrassing bowl performance that has convinced every struggling program since that Dan Mullen could possibly be the answer for anything.
Despite his strange, idiot-savant-like recruiting skills, Brady Hoke’s third year at Michigan didn’t wind up any better than Rodriguez’s. The team was on a clear downward slope, having won the Sugar Bowl in 2011 and having ended up 8-5 with a narrow loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl in 2012 before the unfortunate lapse into soul crushing ordinariness during the 2013 season, which ended with an embarrassing blowout loss at the hands of Kansas State.
Predictions for the 2013 season were, in large part, flighty and insecure. We had seen Brady win the Sugar Bowl, but we had also seen how he tried to handle having the Quicksilver of the MCU (Michigan Cinematic Universe) on his team - about as well as the real MCU handled its Quicksilver, coincidentally - so it was hard to get too amped up about the team’s prospects (and certainly nobody was discussing a championship or the Rose Bowl at the time). The wheels ended up falling off in those disappointing seasons of 2013 and 2014.
So, what will it be this year? Will Michigan win a national title, or at least make the Rose Bowl? Both of those would be extraordinary successes, and yet I don’t think anybody in the confines of AA would put it past Harbaugh to engineer something like that.
Or, will it be another 10-3 campaign, with Ohio State and Penn State keeping their clutch on the division? Call me bullish that Michigan surprises a lot of people this year, and that we ride the wave all the way through to January. Destination unknown.