Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has reportedly signed a five-year extension, a move that was met with applause in all the wrong places.
Ohio State trolled the move on its social media account with the meme du jour of running back Trey Sermon. And why not? Nothing has changed. Harbaugh was hired on Dec. 29, 2014. Ohio State beat Oregon for the first CFP championship two weeks later. Six seasons later, the Buckeyes are playing for another national title and Harbaugh — who is 0-5 in “The Game” — is still trying to close that gap.
Harbaugh’s hire was met with over-the-top hype, but he has yet to meet those expectations. The turning point was a 30-27 double-overtime loss to Ohio State on Nov. 26, 2016, a game defined by “The Spot.” The Wolverines have never really been close after that.
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With Harbaugh staying on board, there’s more than enough work to do in house before entertaining that conversation again.
Why did Michigan stick with Harbaugh?
Michigan finished 2-4 in 2020. The Wolverines had two players receive honorable mentions on the All-Big Ten team. Defensive coordinator Don Brown was fired after the defense allowed 34.5 points per game.
The bottom fell out, and that left Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, Harbaugh’s teammate in college, with a tough decision: Harbaugh reportedly was seeking opportunities as an NFL coach, which makes the decision to offer a low-ball extension even more awkward.
Is it justifiable? Harbaugh is 49-22. That .690 winning percentage ranks 13th among Power 5 schools in that stretch, but it’s still the fifth-best among Big Ten schools behind Ohio State (68-7), Wisconsin (56-19), Iowa (53-21) and Penn State (53-22).
Yes, Harbaugh has improved the program. Michigan finished 46-42 over a seven-year stretch through the tenures of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke from 2008-14. But the last six years under Harbaugh weren’t better than the last six seasons of the Lloyd Carr era, which produced a 56-20 record and a .737 winning percentage.
Michigan was desperate to move on from Carr after the upset loss to Appalachian State in 2007, but the program remains stuck in neutral. The Wolverines haven’t won a Big Ten championship since 2004.
Was there a better alternative?
If Harbaugh can’t do it, then who can? Michigan message boards have become fascinated with Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, and with good reason.
Campbell is 35-28 (.556) at Iowa State in the last five seasons; Michigan is 39-19 (.672) in that stretch. But the difference between Ames and Ann Arbor is striking.
Iowa State has a future NFL quarterback in Brock Purdy, an All-American running back in Breece Hall and a third-team All-American tight end in Charlie Kolar. When is the time the Wolverines could say that?
The Cyclones have two wins against Big 12 flagships Oklahoma and Texas the last five seasons, and Iowa State just won its first New Year’s Day 6 bowl. The Cyclones will be ranked in the top 10 in most preseason polls next year, and Campbell will continue to draw interest from major programs if that success continues.
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Where can Harbaugh improve now?
Three areas stick out as to why Michigan is slipping, and all of them are tied to that gap with Ohio State:
Harbaugh’s tenure opened with a barn-storming satellite camp tour and a lavish “Signing with the Stars” ceremony.
Meanwhile, Ryan Day has built on the gap Urban Meyer created through recruiting. Ohio State’s average recruiting class the last six cycles ranks at 4.8, with an average of four five-star recruits per class. Michigan ranks at an average of 11.6, with one five-star recruit per class.
Michigan needs to get back to recruiting in Ohio, too. After all, it’s the state that produced former Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard (1991) and Charles Woodson (1997). Harbaugh himself is from Ohio.
Consider that in the last six cycles, Michigan has landed just three top-10 recruits from the state of Ohio. The Buckeyes have 27 during that stretch, which is to be expected. But Notre Dame (four), Kentucky (four), Michigan State (three) and Cincinnati (three) have been just as good or better than the Wolverines in Ohio.
Harbaugh needs to recruit better, and Ohio should be an area of emphasis.
The quarterback development has never taken off — a surprise, given Harbaugh is a former NFL quarterback.
Through the last six seasons, Michigan’s leading passer has averaged 2,211 passing yards with 14.8 touchdowns and 6.8 interceptions per season. Even with the 2020 season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, those numbers simply aren’t enough when in a game predicated on offense.
Michigan will have Milton, Cade McNamara and five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy on the 2021 roster. McCarthy is the third highest-ranked recruit at quarterback for Michigan on 247Sports’s database behind Ryan Mallett (2007) and Chad Henne (2004).
Mallett, of course, transferred to Arkansas when Rodriguez was hired. Henne had a fantastic career at Michigan, albeit one that came with a 0-4 record against Ohio State. Is McCarthy the long-awaited savior at the position?
It’s not like Michigan isn’t producing NFL talent: The Wolverines have sent 31 players to the NFL Draft since 2016, but that includes just five first-round picks in Jabrill Peppers (2017), Taco Charlton (2017), Devin Bush (2019), Rashan Gary (2019) and Cesar Ruiz (2020).
The Buckeyes have 45 NFL Draft picks, and 15 first-round selections in the same stretch.
Look at the five-star recruits from both schools in 2016-17. Ohio State had Nick Bosa, Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Baron Browning, Shaun Wade and Wyatt Davis. All of those players except Browning were SN first-team All-Americans. Michigan has Gary, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Aubrey Solomon.
Woodson and Meyer addressed those issues on the “Big Noon Kickoff” earlier this season, and those points should be addressed:
That difference is showing up on the field now, and the Buckeyes have more five-star players on the way.
Can it be done?
Harbaugh needs to take a page from another rival to get the Wolverines back on track. Notre Dame nearly fired Kelly after the Irish finished 4-8 in 2016. That was Kelly’s seventh season.
Kelly, however, has led an impressive turnaround with a 43-8 record and two Playoff appearances since. The Irish have churned out All-America candidates on the offensive line, and the defense improved under defensive coordinator Clark Lea, now Vanderbilt’s head coach.
Michigan reportedly has targeted Ravens linebackers coach Mike Macdonald as its next defensive coordinator.
Michigan should be at least as good as Notre Dame, though it could be argued the Irish’s success would be viewed differently if they had to clear the Ohio State hurdle in the Big Ten every season.
Harbaugh still can be successful at Michigan. Harbaugh has a combined record of 9-10 against Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. The Wolverines have shown they can compete with those schools, but now Harbaugh must prove he can give Ohio State an honest run.
There’s no turning back on the extension now. Harbaugh must move forward, and fast.