Up until this season, Michigan hadn’t started Big Ten play 1-3 since 2014, Brady Hoke’s final year in Ann Arbor. Maybe, like his predecessor, Jim Harbaugh won’t recover from that stumbly start, and he’ll be politely dismissed this December. Maybe his fate was already sealed, after years of losing to Ohio State and turning in unimpressive bowl showings. Maybe he’ll get an additional year, and maybe that’ll also prove fruitless.
But let’s assume that the Harbaugh Era has already hit its peak, and the finale is just a question of timing. With that, let’s look back and ask: When did you know Jim Harbaugh wasn’t going to be the savior Michigan desperately wants him to be?
The 2015 Michigan State Game, by Brian Floyd
I know it’s weird to pick a moment in the first year here, but Michigan losing to Michigan State via having Trouble With The Snap was the moment newborn enthusiasm crashed head-on into a painful reality. It is the Jurassic Park rumbling water glass moment of Harbaugh’s, a time when most things seemed fine – until maybe they weren’t.
Michigan was cruising by that point in the season, coming off three straight shutouts, and the Wolverines looked like they’d have a free run at Ohio State* if they could just get by their other rival. College Gameday even came to Ann Arbor to watch it all go down. And then...
I should note that my part of this story is colored by how I saw Trouble With The Snap happen. I happened to walk into a Michigan bar a few plays before the end of the game, where I found jubilation, people taking shots of milk (for Harbaugh), and people chanting for their new head coach. And then, stunned silence fell as the snap hit the ground and Michigan State ran it back to win with no time left.
There wasn’t anger, really, just complete confusion as Michigan fans tried to process what just happened, and how things came crashing down. I should also note that the silence was broken by a lone Michigan State fan yelling “SCOREBOARD, BITCHES” and dancing in the middle of the bar, and that Michigan fans just backed up and gave her room to twerk. It was all very polite and confusing.
But all of this now feels like a warning, a harbinger of Harbaugh doom that shows up at the most inopportune times. It felt like finding out where his ceiling would be right away, during his first season, from the most reliable possible oracle: a dancing, cussing Michigan State fan.
*They lost the Ohio State game, too. Beat Florida in the bowl game to finish 10-3, though.
The 2018 Outback Bowl, by Holly Anderson
I honestly can’t say there was one definite moment when I knew it wouldn’t work for Harbaugh at Michigan. Even now, I kind of want to write 2020 off as some kind of aberration. The recruiting is still there; Harbaugh’s still as much of a Michigan Man as anyone could make in a lab, and no one is going to remember a thing that’s going to happen this season anyway. It just seems like a lot of trouble to get rid of someone who on paper is so suited for the job, and who, in leaving, will make so much work for everyone left in Ann Arbor.
BUT. If we’re all shopping for a moment where the mask slipped a bit too far, too far even for those of us convinced Harbaugh still might work out as Michigan’s savior, take the 2018 Outback Bowl. Michigan took a 19-3 lead in the third quarter of the game. Then, the Wolverines spat up five turnovers, threw a potential game-winning TD strrrrrraight into the arms of a South Carolina defender in the endzone, and let Jake Bentley chip away at their lead until the Gamecocks left with a 26-19 victory.
That might not, in itself, have been so bad if the South Carolina team in question left with momentum it flipped into real success the following season. Will Muschamp certainly thought that was going to be the case, saying after the game, “All the arrows are pointing up for us. We’re going to have those trophies.” South Carolina opened the 2019 season by losing to North Carolina, and finished it at 4-8.
It’s not when Michigan lost to Ohio State that made Harbaugh look more mortal than he should, is what I’m saying. It’s when he lost to teams going absolutely nowhere.
The 2018 Ohio State Game, by Ryan Nanni
Michigan started the 2018 season losing to Notre Dame by a touchdown. It was one of those losses where you can find a handful of small decisions and bad outcomes, flip a few, and see a pretty easy path to a Wolverines win. Michigan punted twice inside Irish territory, settled for a field goal at the Notre Dame 10-yard line, threw a pick at midfield, and got stopped on fourth down three times.
Tacked onto consistent underperformance in 2017 and a disappointing end to 2016, this loss put Jim Harbaugh at 9-9 over his last 18 games. That sure felt like a pattern, and not a particularly promising one.
But then the Wolverines did something unexpected: They won a shitload of football games. #15 Wisconsin? Easily dispatched by 25 points. #24 Michigan State, on the road? A 21-7 Michigan victory, with the Spartans failing to crack 100 yards of offense. #14 Penn State? Demolished in a 42-7 final. Harbaugh’s team entered Ohio State week 10-1 and proud shareholders of a fourth-place spot in the Playoff rankings.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, looked potentially vulnerable. Sitting at 10-1 as well, Ohio State had already lost to Purdue by 29, and their wins over Penn State, Nebraska, and Maryland were all decided by less than a touchdown. If Michigan was going to end their losing streak against The Unkempt Ruffians from Columbus, this sure felt like the year to do it.
And the Buckeyes won 62-39. The Wolverines settled for field goals early, only converted one third down after the first quarter, and allowed Dwayne Haskins to throw five touchdowns in just 30 attempts. Ten weeks of momentum and progress and hope just like that evaporated.
That was the chance. The chance to play for a conference title (Ohio State beat 8-4 Northwestern easily), to take hold of a Playoff berth, to change the narrative, maybe permanently. 62 points later, the national reaction wasn’t lamenting Harbaugh’s failure to seize that chance. It was self-criticizing for being foolish enough to believe in his version of Michigan football in the first place.
No Game At All, by Steven Godfrey
Michigan’s output to date this season seems fine to me, because I put next to no worth in 2020 football results. Every football thing they’ve done to this point is roughly what I expected. As long as Harbaugh’s been in Ann Arbor, they’ve been so aggressively, purposefully on-brand as MICHIGAN that from the outside it all looks the same. Doing it The Michigan Way is about making the people already in the club happy, not impressing anyone outside it.
I think a lot of folks have forgotten how much of a coup Michigan fans told us it was for them to land former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh to coach Michigan. I have always assumed Harbaugh wasn’t going to redefine the brand so much as it was going to end up defining him.
It did. When Harbaugh whined, in a John U. Bacon book of all damn places (again, so ruthlessly on-brand it makes you a little dizzy) that “It’s hard to beat the cheaters,” I knew Harbuagh would inevitably wear out his welcome. Because the sad, hilarious truth is that Michigan is suffering the torture of being fed itself, and it tastes bad.
The cheaters haven’t stopped winning during Harbaugh’s time in the industry, because Michigan’s interpretation of “cheating” is conflated with everyone else’s standard operating procedure. Michigan wants the success Jim Harbaugh can’t provide them, because Jim Harbaugh is a Michigan Man.