Jim Harbaugh's spiral at Michigan continues with worst loss yet

Pete Thamel
·7 min read

They are begging for him to stay in Columbus. They are pleading for him to stick around in State College. They are worried in East Lansing about a contract that’s set to expire in 14 months. Heck, even Indiana is planning on upsizing at their expense.

Amid its sixth season, the Jim Harbaugh experience at Michigan has officially flipped. It began with carnival barker attention and overzealous amounts of Big Blue optimism. It teased within inches of national prominence on the infamous J.T. Barrett fourth-down play at Ohio State in 2016.

But after No. 13 Michigan’s 27-24 home loss to 24-point underdog Michigan State, the Harbaugh experience has spiraled into a predictable heap of uninspired mediocrity.

Michigan has failed its brand and history so resplendently that opposing fan bases are openly rooting for Harbaugh to get a lifetime contract. Don’t laugh, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said just last year he wants Harbaugh to “retire here.” Hail to the Underachievers, this is one topic the Big Ten can finally all agree on. Even Nebraska.

The latest Michigan flop under Harbaugh marks the low point of his unremarkable tenure at Michigan. Michigan State entered the game fresh off a brow beating from Rutgers, and instead of burying Mel Tucker’s recruiting juice locally, Harbaugh delivered a triple shot of adrenaline to his nascent tenure.

This is worse than Harbaugh’s 2-12 record against top-10 teams, 0-5 record against Ohio State and his four consecutive bowl losses. This is about getting beat by a decisively inferior roster, as Michigan State’s roster features a group brought in during the sputtering twilight of Mark Dantanio’s tenure.

This is exactly the type of loss that would make it insane for Michigan officials to extend Harbaugh at his pre-COVID salary of $8 million per year. And that’s why opposing fans are rooting so hard for Manuel to stand by Harbaugh, the grand diluter of a great football brand. This is Harbaugh’s third home loss to Michigan State, a statistic out of the Hoke/Rodriguez horror files.

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 31: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 31: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

It’s descended to the point where folks around the Big Ten are snickering at Harbaugh’s aloofness, gawking at the predicament Manuel has on his hands and texting each other popcorn GIFs at what will happen next. Michigan is now that program in a league that everyone is staring at, wondering what they’ll do next. Do they extend the status quo and continue the laugh track? Do they try again to lure a foil to Ohio State’s juggernaut?

There’s no easy answer who they’d bring in as an upgrade. Any morsel of 2020 hope mustered after an opening blowout of Minnesota was sledgehammered away. Michigan State delivered an upset that’s as improbable as any Spartan win in the more than a century this series has been played. But there was nothing fluky about it. Michigan State was better coached, more disciplined and kept pounding away at Michigan’s obvious weaknesses, the sign of a well-coached team.

While Michigan was costing itself points running a wildcat, MSU just kept picking on those hapless Michigan corners.

Michigan has slipped to the definition of unfounded arrogance — the Wolverines are the bluster without the results, the brand with the wrong ambassador and the familiar logo that’s making you forget why you recognized it in the first place. They are old money hanging around the country club because they always have, but as the years go on everyone else forgets why.

The issue here is that Harbaugh has failed the program with his inability to modernize it. He’s hired staff haphazardly. His recruiting department is devoid of strategy and the other Power Five recruiting departments are praying they don’t change. Forget beating Ohio State, they aren’t even competing with them for recruits.

Two games into Year 6, this is Michigan’s identity in the Harbaugh Era. It’s a disjointed offense, a defense that heads into the fetal position at key moments and, most clearly, the worst big-game coach in the sport. Annually and consistently, no one lets you down when the stakes are high more reliably than Harbaugh. But the problem that Saturday’s flop brings up is the issue of Michigan failing against a pedestrian opponent.

Michigan has no direction, no leadership and an identity tied only to its shortcomings. And they’ve yet to face a team in 2020 with superior talent. That’s when defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defenses annually turn from paper tigers into shredded paper, his schemes so predictably limited that you can already set the over-under for Ohio State at 55. (Won’t find a lot of action on the under.)

If Michigan State freshman Ricky White can catch eight balls for 196 yards, how many will Ohio State stars Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson grab? There’s nothing more certain than Brown’s aggressive man coverage getting torched each fall by high-end talent. Brown would be America’s worst chiropractor, as he’s either is incapable of adjustments or flatly refuses to execute them. Over and over, rinse and repeat with no signs of progress or hope for evolution. That’s on the head coach for enabling predictable failures.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

But this is also where the program’s scattershot recruiting comes in. Michigan’s corners looked like they belonged in the MAC on Saturday, and if your whole defense is predicated on lockdown corners, wouldn’t it be wise to have a better stable than the overmatched bunch that Michigan State mowed into infamy?

That takes head coach leadership, investment and vision. Perhaps Harbaugh’s biggest failure has been his inability to be engaged enough in Michigan’s recruiting to give it a chance to compete with Ohio State, Clemson or Alabama. Anyone who has followed recruiting closely could have seen the drop-off in Michigan’s overall talent.

We entered the season knowing that the opt-out of Ambry Thomas, Michigan’s best corner, left them vulnerable this year. It’s just that we didn’t think they’d be so vulnerable that they’d manage to make Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi, a middling Big Ten quarterback, look like an All-American.

For the first five years, Harbaugh’s teams had taken on a rhythm as reliable as the tides. They’d beat up on the Big Ten’s flotsam and jetsam and then bow down to the elite competition in the league.

Harbaugh isn’t a dummy. He’s won 72 percent of his games (48-19) there for a reason. But this loss is different. This is the worst loss of Harbaugh’s tenure because of how it exposes all its shortcoming in one resplendent mess.

And with Michigan likely an underdog at Indiana on Saturday – let that sink in – and staring at a potential 4-4 season, Michigan may finally deliver the high-end drama Harbaugh’s hire promised.

Will they keep them? Will they overpay for his results, enable his bizarreness and chuckle at his recruiting board? That’s Michigan’s national relevance these days.

Fingers are crossed in Columbus. They are thumbing rosaries in State College. And in Bloomington, they are shushing any criticism. After all, how many times does Indiana potentially get to be favored against Michigan?

They are cheering for an extension, and it would be on brand for Michigan to perpetuate Harbaugh’s unfounded arrogance. They are the only ones who fail to realize how sideways this Michigan era has gotten.

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