Jim Harbaugh and the uncomfortable fact of his Michigan soccer tenure


Texts had been despatched and voicemails had been left. They pinged the telephones of former Michigan soccer gamers who starred in current seasons and others who made their mark throughout a extra wonderful time, when the Wolverines gained convention championships and had been in competition for nationwide titles. The gamers had been requested to evaluate the state of their alma mater’s soccer program in Yr 6 of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as coach.

Minutes handed. Then hours. Then days.

The majority of the messages went unreturned, leaving the form of awkward silence that lingers when a sensitive topic is raised.

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As Michigan approaches the 2020 season, the tradition-rich program confronts an uncomfortable actuality that it has stagnated below the management of a person who was anticipated to revive the Wolverines as a top-tier program.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches from the sideline within the first quarter towards Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. on Sept. 1, 2018.

Since Harbaugh arrived with appreciable fanfare in December 2014, Michigan has by no means competed for the Massive Ten title in Indianapolis. It has misplaced each assembly with rival Ohio State, gone 1-4 in bowl video games, gained two of its 14 matchups towards AP top-10teams and hasn’t completed a season larger than tenth in both ballot.

Beneath Harbaugh’s route, the Wolverines have gained 72% of their video games however have failed to realize the form of breakthrough that may place them among the many sport’s finest applications.

“It hasn’t been the results of scandal or probation or any of that stuff, which makes it even more durable to know,” stated Glen Mason, the previous Minnesota coach who’s an analyst for the Massive Ten Community. “However perhaps Michigan isn’t the identical Michigan all of us got here to know.”



When Harbaugh was employed within the remaining days of 2014, the joy was palpable. The Ann Arbor neighborhood rejoiced when the previous star quarterback returned to steer his faculty workforce, welcoming again a well-liked son like a conquering hero. Within the shadow of the disappointing Wealthy Rodriguez and Brady Hoke regimes, faculty soccer’s most outstanding figures expressed optimism about this system’s prospects within the coming years with Harbaugh on the helm. Lloyd Carr, the college’s final nice coach, gave his endorsement. Certainly one of Michigan’s rivals from a bygone period, Jim Tressel, predicted Harbaugh would even the rivalry with the Buckeyes that turned lopsided close to the start of the brand new millennium. However Harbaugh aimed to tamp down the hype.

“I make no ensures,” he stated.

Jim Harbaugh answering questions as the brand new Michigan College head soccer coach throughout press convention on the Junge Middle in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, December 30, 2014.

Then, Michigan gained 10 video games his first season — stunning a few of his most ardent believers who by no means may have predicted success would come so  quickly. The following yr, the Wolverines took one other leap ahead, getting into the preliminary rankings of the Faculty Soccer Playoff and coming inside a whisker of defeating Ohio State in extra time earlier than reaching their first New Yr’s Six bowl since 2011.

Within the phrases of Harbaugh, Michigan was ascending.

After which, similar to that, it wasn’t. On reflection, the shut loss to Ohio State on Nov. 26, 2016 — remembered for a controversial spot of the soccer — was a turning level. The Wolverines by no means have been as near realizing their desires since that day, retreating from a place of energy to 1 that’s barely weaker and fewer spectacular. Within the final three seasons, Michigan hasn’t positioned larger than 14 within the remaining rankings whereas stumbling repeatedly in consequential video games which have taken the Wolverines out of the operating for something significant.

As time has handed, the missed alternative in Columbus 4 years in the past looms bigger. All of it however stanched the momentum Harbaugh had accrued till that time and should have impeded his efforts to show Michigan right into a perennial energy once more.

“Who’s to know that, if that’s the large reply?” stated former Michigan tight finish Jake Butt, who was on the sphere that fateful day. “Who is aware of what would have occurred? However successful these moments — they do matter.”

Timing, in any case, is every part — particularly within the high-stakes world of faculty soccer. Of the final 5 coaches who’ve led their groups to nationwide championships, just one — Clemson’s Dabo Swinney — did so later than the fourth full yr of his tenure. Nick Saban gained all of it in his third season at Alabama. City Meyer claimed the game’s high prize in Yr 2 at Florida and Yr 3 at Ohio State.

Swinney, the outlier, regularly constructed a mean program right into a juggernaut with a core of fantastic assistants that stayed beside him because the Tigers rose to the highest. At Michigan, Harbaugh’s employees has skilled exceptional turnover whereas biking by 24 on-field coaches. The modifications have reverberated each on and off the sphere, the place Michigan has but to ascertain a transparent id.  Philosophically, the Wolverines have moved away from a pro-style, ground-and-pound offense to the speed-in-space system it at the moment employs below coordinator Josh Gattis.

On the recruiting path, their method has been all around the map. The Wolverines made a push into the South on the outset of Harbaugh’s tenure, then shifted their focus to New Jersey and now have zeroed in on New England as a supply for expertise. Among the many portfolio of prospects they’ve gathered within the final cycle and the present one, they’ve attracted one participant from Ohio — a state that when provided Michigan’s stars of yesteryear, together with Heisman Trophy winners Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard.

All of the whereas, this system has weathered a stream of defections. For the reason that creation of the NCAA switch portal in October 2018, Michigan has watched 38 members of the workforce exit this system, together with 11 scholarship gamers within the final 12 months. Consequently, the Wolverines have fallen to No. 18 in 247Sports’ team-talent composite — by far the bottom rating throughout Harbaugh’s tenure.

It’s the most recent indication that Michigan is constant its descent from that peak second in November 2016, when the Wolverines appeared on the cusp of greatness.

“It simply hasn’t fairly performed out the best way I — and I’m certain Michigan followers — envisioned,” stated ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. “Are they shut? Yeah. Is it irritating? Clearly. Do they need to beat Ohio State? Sure. Do they need to get into the playoff? Completely. However I nonetheless suppose he’s constructing a program. I nonetheless suppose he’s bought to get a quarterback play as much as par to have the ability to actually go to that subsequent stage.”

Thus far that hasn’t occurred — a lot to the consternation of outsiders who believed Harbaugh would all the time have a star behind middle after they watched him mildew Andrew Luck in faculty and Colin Kaepernick within the professionals. As an alternative, he has trotted out holdovers from the Hoke period and transfers from elsewhere to steer his offenses with combined outcomes. Jake Rudock exceeded expectations, Wilton Speight was satisfactory, John O’Korn struggled and Shea Patterson upset with a string of erratic performances. The participant improvement at a place Harbaugh as soon as manned and coached has by no means fairly materialized — stunting the expansion of a program that used to churn out pro-style passers, to not point out productive operating backs and receivers.

“You used to have the ability to say, ‘Michigan has all of it,’ ” Mason stated.

Whereas 31 of the Wolverines’ high contributors have been drafted throughout Harbaugh’s tenure, no offensive talent gamers have been chosen larger than the third spherical.

It’s an alarming improvement contemplating the Buckeyes had a quarterback, two operating backs and three broad receivers chosen in Rounds 1 and a pair of throughout that very same interval.

Talking of Michigan’s dearth of high-value expertise at these key positions, Herbstreit stated, “They’ve had a couple of right here and there, however I feel that’s an space that I do know that they should proceed to develop and proceed to attempt to elevate the bar. I do know that’s (Harbaugh’s) duty, finally, however man, I’m simply, I suppose I’m a fan.”


For individuals who watched Harbaugh resuscitate a downtrodden Stanford program and produce the San Francisco 49ers to the brink of a Tremendous Bowl title, it’s arduous to reconcile his lustrous previous with the truth of this system he oversees. It’s why followers, specialists, former coaches and gamers are hesitant to surrender on Harbaugh, who’s within the penultimate yr of his contract that pays him the fourth-largest wage in faculty soccer.

Certain, critics will declare Harbaugh hasn’t met expectations and the $7.5 million he is scheduled to earn this yr isn’t merited primarily based on the outcomes he has delivered.

However Mason is fast to counter along with his personal argument.

“If he can’t get it finished,” Mason stated, “who’s going to?”

Or as Herbstreit echoed, “If Jim Harbaugh can’t win at Michigan, who can?

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh reacts as time winds down within the 62-39 loss to Ohio State at Ohio Stadium, Nov. 24, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio.

Butt, who now performs for the Denver Broncos, wonders as effectively. He stays loyal to his former coach and appreciative of the work Harbaugh did to raise the Wolverines far above the station they resided earlier than his arrival. However on the identical time, he’s bewildered by the place Michigan stands at this level throughout Harbaugh’s regime — up towards a giant, blue wall separating the Wolverines from their largest targets.

“I’m stunned, to be trustworthy, as a result of I consider in Coach Harbaugh and what he’s doing,” he stated. “And also you simply suppose that, hey, finally the dam goes to interrupt.”

If and when that occurs, there will likely be a thunderous roar out of Ann Arbor.

Folks will rally in assist of Harbaugh, claiming they all the time knew he’d get it finished.

They’ll rejoice the conquering hero as a lot as when he arrived.

However for now, there’s an uncomfortable silence enveloping this system that may be a tacit acknowledgement the Harbaugh period hasn’t been as wonderful as many assumed it might be when it first started.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Comply with him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Learn extra on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and join our Massive Ten publication

This text initially appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan soccer and the uncomfortable fact of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure



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