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The never-ending polarization of Jim Harbaugh and Michigan Football

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

Michigan v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

To be loved and hated at the same time. Feared yet disrespected. Praised and dismissed. The Michigan football paradox during the Jim Harbaugh era.

“I’ve already been asked today, ‘Do you think people are sleeping on you coach?’”, Harbaugh said at Big Ten Media Days in July 2019. “When you say everybody’s hyping the team up and somebody else is saying everybody is sleeping on it, those are two very different sides of the spectrum.”

This time of year brings both sides of the spectrum providing hot takes about Michigan. Here are a few examples.

  • Michigan quarterback Dylan McCaffrey could be a dark-horse Heisman candidate, says CBS Sports Tom Fornelli
  • Perennial Harbaugh-hater Paul Finebaum unsurprisingly called Harbaugh the most overrated coach in college football, saying he “can’t get it done”.
  • Michigan has the second best odds to win the Big Ten Championship, per NBC Sports.
  • Barrett Sallee listed Harbaugh as a coach feeling pressure, saying “if the Wolverines fail to beat the Buckeyes and make the CFP again this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a “mutual breakup,” particularly if there’s an intriguing NFL job.”

Using the hot take examples from above, we’d have to infer Michigan has a Heisman caliber quarterback, a really good chance of winning the Big Ten, with the most overrated coach that can’t get it done who could very well leave the program for the NFL next season. There’s no way all of that can be true at the same time.

To be deemed as overrated by some means the overrated coach must be doing something right along the way. Harbaugh has gone 47-18 in five seasons as Michigan’s coach, with nine of those losses being by a touchdown or less. What’s separated Michigan from getting to that next level of Big Ten Championships and College Football Playoff appearances is Ohio State. Winless against Ohio State in five attempts isn’t where Harbaugh wants the program, but he isn’t lacking self awareness and denying the roadblock. “We’ve got to beat Ohio State,” Harbaugh said in May. “Nothing makes us angrier than that, or me. That’s what we’re working toward every day. We’ve beaten everybody else but we haven’t beaten them.

“That’s what we have to do. Beat them, win a championship, get ourselves into the playoff, win a national championship.”

The fact of the matter is Harbaugh’s always feeling pressure, he’s putting the pressure on himself. All-consuming is the job and all the responsibilities that come along with it. During Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan, there were moments late into the 2016 and 2019 seasons where he was one of the favorites to be coach of the year. Then they lost to Ohio State both seasons and the off-season focus turns into ‘Will Michigan ever beat Ohio State?’ and ‘Jim Harbaugh is overrated’.

As Jim Weber said, “how many times does Jim Harbaugh have to be called overrated to therefore be properly rated?” And as Pat Caputo said in 2016, “Jim Harbaugh is a living, breathing Beatles’ song. He is here, there and everywhere. But criticism of Harbaugh is misguided. He is innovative and creative, the master of taking advantage of current times, all while retaining the traditional old-school values on the field he learned under legendary coaches like Bo Schembechler and Mike Ditka as a player.”

Part of what makes Harbaugh polarizing is his willingness to challenge the status quo of college football. Harbaugh has provided in-depth plans that could pave the way for NFL Draft eligibility reform, transfer rule changes, and an expanded College Football Playoff. He’s ran satellite camps across that country, which frustrated Kirby Smart and Nick Saban, to which Harbaugh replied “in my America, you’re allowed to cross state borders. That’s the America I know.” Whether one agrees with Harbaugh’s proposals or not, he’s one of the only coaches trying to implement new ideas and create a discussion, while most of his contemporaries resist change.

Harbaugh could care less about any misconceptions directed toward him, he doesn’t have the time to care about what Mr. Finebaum says or to bask in praise thrown his way. “I don’t really get that much into peeling the layers of the onion back and delving into those things,” Harbaugh said in May. “What people think about what your true inner ‘motional thoughts are. Just trying to be as creative and productive as we can be in these times.”

Jack McGuire broke down the cycle of stale Michigan takes perfectly:

  • Michigan ends season in disappointment
  • People call Jim Harbaugh overrated
  • Report leaks that ________ (insert NFL team here) are going to make run at Harbaugh
  • Harbaugh stays at Michigan
  • Michigan start next season hot

All Harbaugh and Michigan can do is not take much stock in what outsiders say about them in good times and bad and forge on in hopes of having their best season in years. “Here are the facts: Michigan is better with Jim Harbaugh,” FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt said in November. “College football is better when Michigan is relevant, which they certainly are at this point. He is a really good head football coach.” Overrated, underrated, somewhere in between, Michigan is definitely relevant in June of 2020 and will continue to be as long as Harbaugh is the coach.