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The Fading Novelty of Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh came to Michigan as a coaching star with a history of success at every level. Entering the fourth year of his tenure, he’s yet to replicate those results in Ann Arbor. Is this the season he breaks through?

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tim Tebow is America’s most famous baseball player, and Jim Harbaugh is America’s most famous college football coach.

In his three years at Michigan, Harbaugh has made all sorts of headlines: for drinking milk like beer; for wooing a kicker by sleeping at his house; for babysitting a recruit’s younger brother; for baking a recruit a birthday cake; for speaking at the high school commencement of a top recruit; for going to high school classes with recruits; for singing the national anthem at a Lil Dicky concert; for borrowing a chain from Migos; for gifting the Pope a pair of Jordans; for coming out in support of Darth Vader; for drilling the main character on Detroiters in the back of the head with a football; for arguing that Judge Judy should be appointed to the Supreme Court; for announcing a presidential bid with Wale as his veep; for getting way too into pregame routines with his quarterbacks; for running up the score on Rutgers; for using a play I described as “the Wolverine Centipede”; for taking his team paintballing in Italy; for forcing his children to run drills to prepare for trick-or-treating; for using a rare off day to hold the first-down chain at a high school football game; for working out in khakis; for swimming in khakis; for being incredibly pasty in khakis. All of these are, on some level, Mad Libs. (“All right, we need an activity, and then a type of uncomfortable pants.”) Most recently, Harbaugh made headlines for reportedly telling a player that eating chicken is bad for one’s health, because chickens are “nervous birds” whose weak demeanor will infect the human body when consumed. Jim prefers cows—hence his belief that milk and steak are “natural steroids”—even though cows seem pretty nervous, too. Why doesn’t Jim eat lion?

At first, this behavior was easy enough to explain. Winning in college football is something like 75 percent about recruiting and 25 percent about everything else. Harbaugh’s antics primarily served to ingratiate himself with recruits or draw attention, which also ingratiates a coach with recruits.

After all, Harbaugh could initially do no wrong. He is Michigan’s prodigal son, and returned to his alma mater before the 2015 season as a football star turned coaching star with a history of resounding success at every level. He had come to lead the Wolverines back to relevance, and nobody questioned him. Yet after three seasons in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh’s Michigan tenure has been the least impressive of his four head-coaching stints. What happens if the program savior continues to be eccentric and average?

Before accepting the Wolverines job, Harbaugh had excelled at every step of his very public career. As a college quarterback at Michigan in the 1980s, he was named Big Ten Player of the Year and led the Wolverines to the Rose Bowl. He was a 1987 first-round NFL draft pick, and went on to earn a Pro Bowl nod and stick in the league for 14 seasons. In January 1995, he came a few inches away from leading the Colts to a Super Bowl.

He achieved greater success as a coach. In his first head-coaching job, at FCS-level San Diego, Harbaugh led the Toreros to a 15-1 record in conference play, two consecutive 11-1 seasons, and a pair of Pioneer League titles. Stanford went 1-11 the season before Harbaugh took over the Cardinal in 2007; they went 12-1 during Harbaugh’s final year on the job in 2010. Harbaugh then made three straight NFC championship games in his first three years as an NFL coach, taking the 49ers to an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII.

At each of these stops, Harbaugh’s strength was coaching quarterbacks. In San Diego he coached Josh Johnson, who was named a finalist for the 2007 Walter Payton Award—the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy—and became the first Toreros quarterback to reach the NFL. At Stanford, Harbaugh coached Andrew Luck, who was the runner-up for the actual Heisman in 2010 and 2011, got drafted no. 1 overall in 2012, and now appears in stock brokerage ads in between injuries. Harbaugh coached Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers, and Kap emerged as one of the most dynamic playmakers in recent memory. Now, he donates a lot of money to charity while being called the antichrist by about 40 percent of the country.

Ohio State v Michigan
Jim Harbaugh
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

When Michigan fans started convincing themselves that Harbaugh would leave the NFL and come to their school in 2014, I thought they were being ridiculous. For starters, NFL coaches rarely leave the pros for college unless they’re forced out, since NFL coaches typically get paid more and don’t have to worry about NCAA violations or recruiting. And Harbaugh was not only an NFL coach, he was a great one. He seemingly had a long future of pro quarterback development ahead of him. Plus, college football fans can be wildly self-important when it comes to believing famous coaches dream of coming to their school. (See: Tennessee fans convincing themselves that a man at a local barbecue restaurant last November was Jon Gruden, in town to interview for the gig. It was just a guy with weird hair, and Gruden opted to coach the Raiders.) No fan base in college football is more self-important than Michigan’s, which firmly believes in the wholesome, athletic, and intellectual superiority of its victors valiant.

Michigan fans needed to believe in something, because for the first time in program history the Wolverines football team had fallen on hard times. Michigan didn’t post a losing record between 1967 and 2007; it had three in seven years under Rich Rodriguez, whose spread offense never took, and Brady Hoke, whose strategy of appearing wildly overmatched at every juncture also didn’t.

As it turns out, though, Harbaugh really did want to come to Michigan. It was the place that his dad coached, and the place he went to school. He’s a Michigan Man, through and through, right down to his 1890s-era beliefs about which meats are of superior moral stock. And in such dire times, Michigan was willing to give Harbaugh everything he could possibly want. That appealed to Harbaugh, who had squabbled with upper management in San Francisco. He took the job and became Ann Arbor’s coach-king.

Only since then Harbaugh hasn’t been able to readily mold a superstar quarterback like he did earlier in his career. In 2015, the Wolverines started Iowa transfer Jake Rudock. Rudock was notably better than he had been at Iowa—and it stood to reason that Harbaugh’s coaching was behind that improvement. In 2016, Wilton Speight took over and was fine, although not the program-defining star one might have expected considering Harbaugh’s reputation. But last season Speight went down with a season-ending back injury, and the Wolverines’ backups were not just average, but actively bad. John O’Korn, a transfer from Houston, threw two touchdown passes and six interceptions; Brandon Peters, a four-star recruit signed by Harbaugh, completed just 52.8 percent of his passes at a clip of 6.2 yards per attempt. Speight opted to transfer to UCLA, where he will be coached by Chip Kelly, a fresher ex-49ers coach with a history of offensive genius.

Without his usual star quarterback, Harbaugh’s teams haven’t truly been contenders. The Wolverines went 10-3 in his debut season—a stunning, feel-good boost after the Hoke era. They followed it up with another 10-3 season. Pretty good! But Michigan regressed to 8-5 last year, and still hasn’t broken through. It has yet to defeat Ohio State—kind of a big deal—and is 1-2 against Michigan State. One of those losses ended like this. Harbaugh’s Wolverines haven’t finished better than third in the Big Ten East Division.

Now Michigan has Shea Patterson, a transfer from Ole Miss and the top quarterback recruit in the class of 2015. Patterson, ostensibly, is the block of raw quarterbacking talent Harbaugh has been waiting to sculpt.

The pieces are all there for Harbaugh. He has his quarterback, and all of the players he recruited at sleepovers and birthday parties. He has the faith and support of Michigan Men, and presumably the blessing of the Pope. (Oddly, the Pope has not been photographed wearing the Jordans.) He has the right facilities, the right shoe deal, and the right contract. He has convinced the school to go along with nearly every recruiting gimmick he has thought up, and has generally landed the recruits he’s pursued. Michigan signed top-10 recruiting classes in 2016 and 2017, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. And of course, this is his beloved Michigan. To quote Harbaugh: Nobody’s got it better.

And yet, Michigan is being picked fourth in the Big Ten East this fall, behind Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State. It makes sense: Ohio State has never lost more than two games in a season under head coach Urban Meyer, while Harbaugh’s Wolverines have never lost fewer than three games. Michigan State has been winning 10 games a year since before Harbaugh took over (with the exception of a 3-9 blip in 2016); Penn State, meanwhile, has played in back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games.

There are plenty of reasons Michigan should still be happy with Harbaugh as the school’s forever coach. The first is a look at recent history: His two immediate predecessors proved that you can bottom out at Michigan, while Harbaugh is merely failing to compete for championships. The second is a look around the rest of the league: The coaches at Ohio State, Maryland, and Michigan State are linked to problems that are magnitudes worse; by comparison, Harbaugh’s quirky gags not producing the desired on-field results feels quaint.

However, this will be Harbaugh’s fourth season as head coach of the Wolverines. If he’s their coach in 2019, it will be his first time coaching a team at any level for a fifth season—at each of his first three stints, he was successful enough during his first few years to leave for bigger and better things. Everywhere he has gone, he has capitalized on the novelty of his hire and his immediate success. At Michigan that success has waned, and the novelty has worn. This was supposed to be Harbaugh’s forever job, but it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

This is the year for Harbaugh to prove there’s a method to his madness. Because if not, he’s just a weirdo getting paid extravagantly to produce mediocrity for a program used to excellence.