The contract status of Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh remains in limbo with a deal that only goes through the 2021 season, and each additional setback raises more questions about his future. But instead of talking about it, Harbaugh wants his actions to show about how he feels about his interest in sticking around.
“I don’t really have anything to really say to that, because I don’t have an interest in listening to that kind of stuff,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “I think you know me by now, I always like letting the action speak for what you have to say. I’ve always thought this; (let) your actions speak so loudly that they can’t even hear what you’re saying. I’ll let the actions speak as they have in the past.
“I’ve been here five and a half, six years, and experienced that no matter what I say, the next day, something else is said or the next year the same thing comes up. No matter what I tell you, tomorrow something else will be written by someone else. So I’m going to let my actions speak loudly, hopefully. Knowing me, my actions have been consistent.”
Now, it’s worth mentioning that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed as if both sides were headed toward a deal before the shutdown of college sports and the economy crippled athletic departments across the country.
“There’s bigger fish to fry for our athletic director, or our administration, me as a coach,” Harbaugh said in July. “It hasn’t been on the top of the priority list. I would expect something, that there would be an announcement at some time.”
“It was kind of right there (in) February, where it was being discussed, and then the pandemic hit.”
The insinuation here, by putting context clues together, is that Harbaugh has shown a desire to be at Michigan for a very long time, presumably until he is no longer able to coach. He has proven this by being visible in the community and being an advocate for his players publicly. He wears his love for the university on his sleeve. That is admirable and he should be commended for that. That’s a pretty big box checked off for whoever coaches this football program. And it does seem that the interest has remained mutual between he and athletic director Warde Manuel.
To this point, it remains unclear about if that has changed or not behind closed doors.
This job and the expectations that come along with it are so much more than just being the quasi-mayor of Ann Arbor. What Michigan football currently is reflects upon the actions he has taken at the helm. So if actions — not words — are what we are to judge him by, let’s do it.
This program, both players and coaches, have had lapses in decision-making and execution in some of its most critical moments:
- A fumbled punt at the end of the MSU game in 2015
- A more unified effort to redecorate the Kinnick Stadium locker room than playing winning football at Iowa in 2016
- Folding like a lawn chair in the fourth quarter in the 2016 game at Ohio State before a controversial spot went against them in overtime
- Everything about the 2017 MSU game
- 62-39 at Ohio State in 2018
- 35-14 at Wisconsin, a slow start and dropped touchdown pass at Penn State, wilting in the second half against Ohio State and Alabama in 2019
- Everything about the last two weeks of this current season in losses to MSU (at home as a three-touchdown favorite) and Indiana (24-game winning streak snapped)
These are what will wind up being the most notable chapters of a story that might just be heading toward the third act of Harbaugh’s time at Michigan.
Michigan’s attitude toward how it chooses to operate was never more apparent than in the loss to Michigan State. Anyone who has ever coached or been a part of putting togethera game plan would tell you that the effort was a masterclass in not taking your opponent seriously and a failure to adjust on the fly. The Wolverines coaching staff called the game as they wanted it to be, not how it was. They felt they were the superior team and that MSU would crack because they aren’t as talented, just like what happened the season before. When clocks hit zero and the dust cleared, you were left with a shell-shocked locker room.
Last week’s game at Indiana was arguably even more eye-opening. Forget the fact that Michigan held a 24-game winning streak in the series for a moment. A loss was bound to happen at some point, but it was alarming to see it happen by what appeared to be a talent discrepancy, or at least an elevated level of poise and passion, on both sides of the ball.
In the sixth year of a seven-year relationship with Harbaugh, Michigan is 1-2 for the first time since the 2008 season. How did we get to a point where the Wolverines over the last 18 games have compiled a record of 10-8?
The truth of the matter is that it has been building to this for a few years now.
On the offense, Michigan has essentially had five people with their hands on the wheel since Harbaugh was hired. His influence has always been felt, but Tim Drevno, Jedd Fisch, Pep Hamilton and now Josh Gattis have been steering the ship over the last six seasons. This is the first time that the Wolverines returned their entire offensive coaching staff from the previous season, which is no doubt a positive. Outside of the hires of an over-qualified Jim McElwain to coach the wide receivers and Ed Warinner helming the offensive line in 2018, home runs have been hard to come by on that side of the ball.
Harbaugh came to Michigan as a “quarterback whisperer” for his work with Josh Johnson at San Diego, Andrew Luck at Stanford, and Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick with the San Francisco 49ers (more on them a bit later). Outside of half a season of Jake Rudock, 75 percent of a season of Wilton Speight and flashes here and there of Shea Patterson, there has not been a whole lot of pixie dust on that position group. Also, none of those players were recruited out of high school by Harbaugh. Joe Milton, who has been a work in progress this season so far, was the first Harbaugh-recruited quarterback to start a season opener.
Once again, it’s year six.
Talent developing from recruiting rankings to realizing NFL potential has been a major problem on offense, as well. The Wolverines have put out only a single first-rounder — center Cesar Ruiz in 2020 — on that side of the ball since Harbaugh arrived. Only one quarterback — Rudock in the sixth round in 2016 — has been drafted.
The full offensive output is as follows:
- Three third-rounders (OL Graham Glasgow in 2016, WR Amara Darboh in 2017, OL Mason Cole in 2018)
- Two fourth-rounders (WR Jehu Chesson in 2017, OL Ben Bredeson in 2020)
- Two fifth-rounders (TE Jake Butt in 2017, TE Zach Gentry in 2018)
- Four sixth-rounders (QB Jake Rudock in 2016, OLs Michael Onwenu and Jon Runyan Jr. in 2020, WR Donovan Peoples-Jones in 2020)
One quarterback. Five pass catchers. No running backs.
Hard to win that way.
That’s a lot of words about a unit that might not be the team’s biggest problem in the present makeup of this program. Where we turn our attention next — the defense — is the area that represents the current tailspin that Michigan finds itself in. It feels like you can chalk a lot of errors the offense makes to a pressure to have to go out and be perfect.
Don Brown’s defense has shown that it can bully some of the overmatched teams in this conference, but time after time it has been exposed against some of the better offenses it matches up against. Even in the games where the defense settles down, the good teams always seem to find a way to jump out to an early lead — often times multiple scores — against them.
I’ll let those who are better than I am at breaking down the film go into the nuts and bolts of why Brown’s defense is flawed, but there are a few critical issues on this side of the ball that stick out the most.
First and foremost is the poise and preparedness that we see from the unit. In today’s game, good offense is going to beat good defense; people should have resigned themselves to this a few seasons ago, at least. Good football teams are going to get points scored on them, which leaves little margin for error for self-inflicted wounds. You know, like jumping offsides on fourth down, dropping interceptions, grabbing wide receivers in coverage and getting fooled by hard counts six times in one game.
If Brown is has a doctorate in anything, that’s where it is.
“I don’t have time for skepticism,” Brown said last offseason amid questions about his defense’s performances. “I don’t have any time for that to affect anything that happens in our room. Do I evaluate? Have we adjusted schematically? Yes, but let’s not make any bones about it.
“Here’s the big thing: Have your beliefs. Have your convictions. That’s what fuels you. If people don’t like that, then somebody else will be doing my job and I’ll be back in Cape Cod. But for three years, we built our reputation here on aggression. One thing I can tell you is we’re more prepared, versatility-wise in coverage. But the aggressive nature will never change.”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being aggressive on defense, but aggression does not have to lack discipline. You can have it both ways. The best ones have that.
Brown has been given carte blanche to run the defense and bring in the players that he sees fit. But the further we get from his hiring in 2016, the less Michigan has had playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. A few seasons ago, you could name two or three players at every position group that might factor into the two-deep and be a strong contributor. That depth just is not there right now.
The two biggest position groups of concern — defensive tackle and cornerback — have had some extremely diminishing returns on the recruiting trail the last few cycles. When this defense was at its best, it had an explosive penetrator in the middle like a Maurice Hurst. Since Hurst left, the Wolverines have not even come close to matching that production there. Carlo Kemp is okay. Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith are coming along. However, those two promising young guys were recruited primarily by Chris Partridge, who is no longer here. In fact, the Wolverines have not landed a defensive tackle commit that was not recruited by Partridge or Greg Mattison since the latter left for Ohio State.
Things are even more bleak at cornerback — albeit bolstered by the loss of Ambry Thomas via opt-out — in terms of guys currently seeing the field. Vincent Gray, despite all of his struggles, appears to be the unquestioned No. 1 corner on the team. He was the No. 700 recruit in the country and 63rd-ranked corner coming out of high school in 2018. Gemon Green, who starts opposite him, was the No. 382 player (No. 35 corner) in that same recruiting class. Behind those two guys on the depth chart is Jalen Perry (No. 23 corner in 2019) and DJ Turner (No. 40 in 2019). There’s no disrespect here intended to the players, but it’s hard to keep up with blue chip talent at wide receiver on other teams when these are the caliber of prospects cycling through your program. Certainly not a school that has the aspirations that Michigan does.
One can make the argument that Brown probably should have been dismissed after the 2018 OSU game in Columbus, but if you want to call that a blip on the radar, so be it. There was evidence to support it wasn’t, but that was such a historic beatdown that the hope was it would not rear its ugly head again.
Then in 2019, Wisconsin and Penn State happened. And then OSU went out and nearly dropped 60 on them again.
There are people in Michigan circles who will tell you that despite interest from Ole Miss, Partridge would have hopped on a plane right back to Ann Arbor to chat about the defensive coordinator position if it came open. His fingerprints are all over Michigan still in that some of its standout players on that side of the ball were primarily recruited by him. The opportunity was there to get younger and do something different on defense — much like with Gattis the year before on the other side — and slide another strong up-and-comer over to the safeties spot in Devin Bush Sr.
It did not come to be. Partridge left for Ole Miss to co-coordinate a defense with DJ Durkin (Brown’s predecessor) and Bush joined him in a support staff role similar to what he was doing at Michigan.
Brown stayed and Bob Shoop, a former defensive coordinator in his own right, was hired to coach the safeties. As of this posting, he is not currently coaching in an on-field capacity at Michigan.
Is everything that has been mentioned in here directly on Harbaugh’s shoulders? Some would argue yes, others no. With that said, there is a through-line to all of this.
This program has not recruited and developed enough talent at the critical positions on the roster on both sides of the football. This program is not poised and often cannot get out of its own way. The program looks confused and unsure of what it is or where it is going. Like a twisted game of whack-a-mole, one issue that pops up is quickly replaced by something differently.
That is on Harbaugh.
Harbaugh is 48-20 at Michigan, which at a lot of other programs might be a respectable run. On the surface that looks like something you can sell, but let’s judge by actions, shall we? That’s why we’re here after all.
In six seasons on the job, Harbaugh’s Michigan is 3-3 against an MSU program that has gotten worse every season since 2015. They are 0-5 against Ohio State and look to be headed for another drubbing this season. They are 0-2 in games that would have sent them to Indianapolis to play for a Big Ten Championship. They are 1-4 in bowl games and have not won one since blowing out Florida at the tail-end of 2015.
In no way, shape or form is this acceptable without a confirmation from the powers that be — a la Manuel and other key decision makers — that this type of production from the athletic department’s flagship program should be allowed to pass.
There is a hubris about this program that it seems to double down on every time it is faced with adversity in the form of an embarrassing loss. That greatness is assured simply by putting on a winged helmet because of the ghosts that occupy Schembechler Hall. The defenders will say that the task is taller than ever to put together a winning product due to the widening gap between the elites and the rest of the college football landscape. There are those who will ask who can do better than Harbaugh at Michigan if he cannot get it turned around?
And you know what? When there’s only one team truly standing in your path like the Buckeyes have, I’m willing to sit down and listen to that argument. But a crutch of the Harbaugh era is that his teams have always won the games they were supposed to. The expectation at Michigan is that you beat the Michigan States and Indianas of the world.
Again I ask, when you stop doing that, what exactly is the point of this anymore?
This is a poorly coached, undisciplined football team that seems like it is having trouble coming to grips with that. There are so many small-detail things they fail to execute at a basic level. That is entirely on the man at the top of the pyramid.
Pandemic or not, there is nothing normal about Harbaugh’s contract situation and the conundrum that this program finds itself in. Coaches that are assured a future in their current position do not go this long without inking a new deal because of the uncertainty it creates on the recruiting trail and in other circles.
Harbaugh is not going to be fired after this season. If I were a betting man, I would say that there might be some kind of bridge extension that on paper keeps him locked up for a few more seasons, but would be fairly easy to get out of with the caveat of changes needing to be made on the defensive staff. Holding on to Brown and rearranging the deck chairs on defense might go as well for Harbaugh as it did for Mark Dantonio and his offensive staff at Michigan State.
Harbaugh wants to be judged by his actions, where his love for his alma mater is palpable and commendable. He is a good man with a big maize and blue heart that is worn on his sleeve. But his actions also include a half decade-plus of steering things to where they are today. And at this point, it is starting to become clear that the peak may have passed and things are going backwards without a gargantuan momentum swing in the other direction.
If the message does not change (it likely won’t) and the “innate greatness” of his program is not rediscovered, an overhaul will — and should — come sooner rather than later.