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Jim Harbaugh and Michigan Proved Everyone Wrong Once Again

For years, Harbaugh’s Wolverines fell short of lofty preseason expectations. In 2021, they did the opposite—and are chasing a national championship as a result. What changed? And what does it tell us about the state of college football?

AP/Ringer illustration

2021 was the year that the last few people who believed in Jim Harbaugh at Michigan finally gave up. In 2015, the former Pro Bowl quarterback and NFL Coach of the Year ditched the pros with hopes of leading the Wolverines to greatness. He seemed like the perfect person for the job: Not only had Harbaugh once been a first-team All–Big Ten QB at Michigan, but he also loved doing things like ordering whole milk at restaurants and saying that people shouldn’t eat chickens because they’re a “nervous bird.” This sort of 1890s-ass behavior hearkened back to an era when Michigan was a college football juggernaut, and presumably was the key to unlocking the once-powerful program Ohio State had left in the dust.

After Michigan went 10-3 in Harbaugh’s debut campaign at the helm, expectations for the Wolverines soared. They entered the 2016 season ranked seventh in the AP poll, but lost The Game to Ohio State and failed to appear in the Big Ten championship. They entered the 2017 season ranked 11th in the AP poll, but lost The Game to Ohio State and failed to appear in the Big Ten championship. They entered the 2018 season ranked 14th in the AP poll, but lost The Game to Ohio State and failed to appear in the Big Ten championship. And they entered the 2019 season ranked seventh in the AP poll, but lost The Game to Ohio State and failed to appear in the Big Ten championship. In 2020, the Wolverines opened the year ranked 18th in the AP poll; they went 2-4 and failed to appear in the Big Ten championship, but avoided a ninth straight loss to Ohio State when The Game was called off because of COVID.

By 2021, the college football world had cured itself of its Harbaugh delusion. He hadn’t even won a division title, let alone a conference or national title. The Wolverines entered this season unranked in the AP poll, with ESPN giving them a 0.7 percent chance of winning the Big Ten and a 0.0 percent chance of reaching the College Football Playoff. (Michigan’s players have been hyping each other up by saying analysts gave them a “2 percent” chance to win the Big Ten; they’re actually overselling how much outsiders believed in them.) This was the year people grew tired of expecting greatness from Michigan only to get the same old failure.

And then Michigan went out and did the damn thing.

The Wolverines had the season they’d been dreaming of for decades. After starting the year 10-1, they throttled Ohio State in The Game, with running back Hassan Haskins rushing for 169 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-27 win—the program’s first over the Buckeyes since 2011. Michigan routed Iowa 42-3 in the Big Ten championship, bringing home the school’s first conference title since 2004. And now the Wolverines are in the College Football Playoff, and will face Georgia in Friday’s Orange Bowl. It’s a great underdog story—with the most incredible part being that Harbaugh and Michigan managed to be an underdog at all.

Prior to Michigan, Jim Harbaugh had succeeded everywhere he went in his coaching career, and developed a reputation for creating a winning culture seemingly overnight. His first head-coaching job came at the University of San Diego, where he inherited a program that had never won a conference title and captured league championships in both his second and third years. Then Harbaugh left for Stanford, and turned the Cardinal from a team that had finished 1-11 the season before he arrived into a group that went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl in the 2010 campaign. Then Harbaugh took over the San Francisco 49ers, who went 6-10 before he showed up. They went 13-3 in his debut season; a year later, they made the Super Bowl.

The through line of Harbaugh’s coaching career has been his ability to identify quality quarterbacks and get the most out of them. This started during his NFL playing career, when he worked in the offseason as a volunteer assistant for his father, Jack Harbaugh, at Western Kentucky. That’s where, in 1994, he recruited Willie Taggart, who broke the FCS career record for quarterback rushing yards and later also became a coach. In 2002, Harbaugh spent a season as quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders. That same year, Rich Gannon turned in a career performance, earning first-team All-Pro honors by throwing for 4,689 yards, the seventh most in league history at the time. At San Diego, Harbaugh had Josh Johnson, who passed for 43 touchdowns compared to one interception and has since compiled an NFL career that’s still going; at Stanford, Harbaugh had Andrew Luck, who twice finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up before going on to become the top pick in the 2012 NFL draft. And with the 49ers, Harbaugh cultivated a game-changing offense with Colin Kaepernick that came 5 yards away from winning it all.

When Harbaugh showed up at Michigan, the thought was that these trends would continue. But that didn’t happen. He still hasn’t had a top-tier quarterback for the Wolverines. None have been named first- or second-team All–Big Ten. Players like Wilton Speight, John O’Korn, and Joe Milton have come and gone. The only Michigan quarterback of the Harbaugh era to make the NFL was Jake Rudock, who threw five passes for the Detroit Lions, one of which was intercepted. Even Shea Patterson, a transfer from Ole Miss who was once a five-star prospect and the top-rated QB recruit in his class, failed to break the mold in Ann Arbor.

And Harbaugh certainly did not have an early breakthrough. Michigan retained Harbaugh after six straight years of failing to achieve his goals. Given the recent history involved, it seemed strange that the school would keep Harbaugh around. After all, Michigan had fired former coaches Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke at the first signs of failure, axing both within four years of their hirings. It seemed equally strange that Harbaugh would choose to stay. He lasted four years or fewer at each of his prior three stops. But both parties seemed content to let this situation stagnate in perpetuity.

Harbaugh even toned down the antics that had defined his early Michigan tenure: no more slumber parties, no more trips to Rome, no more on-stage appearances at Lil Dicky concerts. Those tactics were acceptable when they felt necessary to help Michigan land elite recruits and contend for national championships, but, well, Michigan hadn’t been landing elite recruits or contending for national championships, so why bother? In January 2021, Michigan offered Harbaugh a contract extension with a big pay cut—and he took it. Both parties, it seemed, were settling.

But that’s what is so amazing about Michigan in 2021. It finally broke its stretch of sadness and disappointment six years into Harbaugh’s tenure without the elite quarterback play that has characterized Harbaugh’s career successes. This Wolverines offense is powered by the run game. The team has scored 39 rushing touchdowns, the most of anyone in the FBS besides the service academies that rely on the triple-option. Michigan has nearly as many rushing yards (2,910) as passing yards (2,965), and its offensive line just received the Joe Moore Award presented to the best unit in the country. Cade McNamara, the starting quarterback, is third-team All–Big Ten—that’s right, Harbaugh finally achieved his Michigan breakthrough without even having one of the two best quarterbacks in his own conference.

What really made Michigan shine in 2021 was the defense. It ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense (16.1 opposing points per game) and 12th in total defense (316.7 opposing yards per game). Star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson has been so good that he came in second in Heisman voting; the last defensive player to finish that high was Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o in 2012. Just look at what Hutchinson did to Ohio State:

In sports, we often try to spin failure as virtuous: Those weren’t losing seasons, they were rebuilding years. This success wasn’t sudden, it had been slowly developing over time. But Michigan’s turnaround doesn’t fit cleanly into that narrative. It’s not like the Wolverines have been making strides on the recruiting trail; they were eighth in 247Sports’ 2019 team recruiting rankings, and then 10th in 2020, and then 13th in 2021. Haskins, the star running back, was hardly recruited by anybody—assistant coach Jay Harbaugh reportedly found him scrolling through videos on a recruiting website. Hutchinson likely chose Michigan less because of Harbaugh than because his dad was once an All-American at Michigan. And there isn’t much continuity between the 2021 Big Ten champion Wolverines and the 2020 team that went 2-4: Michigan headed into this season ranked 83rd in returning starters and 57th in returning production. McNamara backed up Joe Milton at quarterback in 2020; standout edge rusher David Ojabo barely played at all before breaking out in 2021.

Michigan’s 2021 season seems almost impossible in the modern football world, where coaches at big-time schools are typically fired after three or four seasons of underwhelming results. That was the case for Rodriguez and Hoke, and schools have spent more than $500 million firing coaches over the past 10 years. Harbaugh was a wanderer, and Michigan had been restless with his predecessors. The program’s decision to stick with him seemed like an indication it had accepted mediocrity. Instead, it helped it get to where it wanted to go all along.

Finding takeaways from this Michigan resurgence is hard. There wasn’t a steady stream of evidence the Wolverines were going to be good until they were; they kept losing to Ohio State until they suddenly kicked the Buckeyes’ ass. Maybe Harbaugh’s arc is a lesson in patience for a sport that lacks it. Or maybe it’s an escape act that nobody else can pull off.

Michigan will play Georgia in the Orange Bowl on Friday, and the Wolverines aren’t expected to win. Most sportsbooks list them as 7.5-point underdogs. ESPN’s football percentage index gives them a mere 33.5 percent chance to advance to the national championship. But that’s a whole lot better than 0.7 percent—and Harbaugh and Michigan seem to be at their best just as soon as everybody counts them out.