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What Jim Harbaugh has to do to keep his job

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So it’s going to be forever, or it’s going to go down in flames.

Ohio State State v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

When Jim Harbaugh was announced as the next head football coach at the University of Michigan (or the next J. Ira And Nicki Harris Family Head Football Coach, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing), there was a prominent Messiah complex among the fan base surrounding his arrival.

This is the guy; this is our guy; as Brady Hoke’s tenure came to a close, the announcement of Harbaugh was viewed as Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run of home run hires. Hope had been restored to a program with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.

Until Nov. 24, 2018, things were great in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh had secured 10 wins in three of his first four seasons and had now twice entered the last week of the regular season ranked inside the top four in the country.

Fifteen crossing routes and 62 points later, everything changed. Harbaugh was now 0-4 against the Buckeyes and Michigan had collapsed in the most watched regular season game of 2018.

2019 saw a carryover lethargy and 2020 saw the wheels completely fall off in the strangest sports year of a lifetime. With a restructured and extended contract, Harbaugh enters his seventh year more tolerated than praised.

Question marks persist across the staff and roster, and coupled with wide-spread mediocre expectations, nothing over the top is required for Harbaugh to keep his job into 2022. While his seat’s temperature remains closer to Frost than Saban, the status of his job security is impossible to exactly quantify.

Does 6-6, losing to Michigan State, and beating Ohio State improve his situation? What about 10-2, but losing both rivalry games?

You can burn calories working out every angle of this thought experiment.

While I’ll dive into my thoughts on what on-the-field success is required for Harbaugh’s retention, the first improvement must come off the field.

Culture Rehabilitation

Over the course of the last two seasons, something intrinsically has gone awry within the Michigan football program. This deflation was a culmination of several precipitating factors that eventually broke the dam.

Following Michigan’s worst statistical home loss in 85 years last season, I wrote:

“This program needs a dire culture change and that is not going to come from shuffling coordinators or an extra hour of padded practice a week. This begins and ends with the 8 million dollar man.”

Now, the 4 million dollar man (plus incentives), Harbaugh has injected some youth into his coaching staff with six new hires, including new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.

Even further, Harbaugh has publicly prioritized the importance of the Ohio State game. The importance is well known by anyone with a pulse, but the public affirmation of what it means to him and this program speaks to a heightened mindset regarding The Game.

All signs are pointing to an improved, restored and reignited culture within the program. But of course the culture is great now, it’s fall camp, no games have been played. How will the resolve of this team’s culture look after consecutive three-and-outs on the road at Wisconsin?

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

We will only know how effective Harbaugh’s efforts have been in moments of adversity this season. And, albeit small, it would go a long way to see Harbaugh “MF” an official and chuck a headset again.

While it begins with culture, plenty of ‘good culture’ head coaches have been fired due to lack of results on the field. There is a reason why a Google search of “Nicest head football coaches’’ is suggested to be replaced by “Best head football coaches.”

The cultural restoration must result in winning; winning fixes everything, but not all wins are created equal.

Tiers of Winning

First Tier Wins

As it stands before the first game of the season, Michigan should be strongly favored in six of their 12 games: Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Rutgers, Nebraska, Northwestern and Maryland.

For the first five years of Harbaugh’s tenure, save for 2016 at Iowa, Michigan always handled business against lesser opponents. Some have been ugly (Army, 2019), some have been hard fought (Northwestern, 2018), and some only rival a Da Baby concert in terms of public embarrassment (Rutgers, 2016).

But winning was the common thread throughout.

In a vacuum, a win or loss in any of these games does not move the needle much one way or another. But these games are not in a vacuum, they are in a season. A win builds momentum and keeps postseason aspirations alive. A loss is an interruption and rattles the confidence in and surrounding the program.

Of these six games, Harbaugh must win five. One loss from this bunch justifies the existence of a trap game; two losses, with inevitable future losses looming, would a imply an irreparable disconnect between players and coaches.

Second Tier Wins

2020 saw several of Harbaugh’s “traditions” broken.

Specifically, Indiana had not beaten the Wolverines since the Reagan administration and from 2016-19, Michigan had traded victories with Wisconsin and Penn State, with the home team always coming out on top.

Tom Allen is probably still celebrating, Michigan represented Penn State’s lone victory of last season, and Wisconsin dished out the aforementioned historical beating in the Big House.

These three games represent challenging, yet winnable revenge games for the Wolverines that could swing the program’s pendulum.

2021 represents an opportunity to start new traditions with these familiar foes as well as a chance to reignite a dormant Rose Bowl rivalry with the Washington Huskies.

It is unreasonable to expect a perfect run through these four games, but a floor of 2-2 should be the expected.

Third Tier Wins

“Do you know what nemesis means?”

Rivalry games matter more at every level, but there is a certain competitive vitriol that permeates at the college level. Wolverines hate Spartans and Buckeyes, and they hate Wolverines. It’s why we get up early on Saturday’s.

Harbaugh is currently 0-5 against the Buckeyes and 3-3 against the Spartans; 3-8 in the two games that matter the most is the darkest cloud looming over Ann Arbor.

In 2021, Harbaugh must find a way to win one of these two games and be competitive in both. Given Ohio State is still seemingly in Super Saiyan Blue form, Michigan State becomes a must-win.

There is no room for even the most contextual excuse. No ‘trouble with the snap;’ no ‘monsoon air raid;’ no ‘well it was a pandemic.’

Winning is the only acceptable outcome against Michigan State.

Regarding the Buckeyes…As defeatist as it is to say, “Just compete with Ohio State,” given the state of the two programs the last three years, it is the reality, and would signify progress (I hate it here).

While the hire feels more like a gap shot double than a home run, the book isn’t closed yet. Can Harbaugh right the ship and keep his job? Could I have just written “8-4 and beat Sparty?”

Yeah, but I’m not in to the whole brevity thing.