If the College Football Playoff field was determined by the coaches with the most pronounced lightning-rod identities in the sport, Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban would play for the national title most years. Urban Meyer would regularly participate in the semifinals, but as things stand, Harbaugh and Saban attract more attention and national chatter than anyone else, and it’s not particularly close.
From satellite camps to oversigning to pace of play to anything else under the college football sun, Harbaugh and Saban tower over their peers as magnets for controversies real and imaginary. As a result, if either coach suffered a five- or six-loss season, the gloating from the rest of the United States would be loud enough to create a sonic boom.
Forget Columbus, Ohio; if Harbaugh lost six games this season, the rest of the country — not just Buckeye Nation — would dissolve into pools of giddy laughter, relishing the humiliation of a supremely combative, tough-talking, and relentlessly authentic coach whose passion for competition is rivaled only by his passion for wanting to shake things up.
The idea of a Harbaugh humiliation would cause the country to roar with approval. The volume and magnitude of the national response to a 7-6 Michigan season in 2016 would make it very easy to think — at least on an emotional level — that Michigan’s coach might not be all that safe. The good people of Ann Arbor might reconsider the credentials of their gridiron leader. More precisely, they might wonder why the substantial improvements of year one weren’t followed by continued growth and development in year two.
Let’s put the question on the table: If this season spins sideways for Michigan, is Jim Harbaugh in any sort of trouble heading into year three?
One can confidently step into the middle of that question and very simply say: No.
Understand this about the reality of Michigan football: The program has weathered several immensely draining and taxing years. Brady Hoke wasn’t a good coach after his first season in Ann Arbor, but beyond his struggles to win games, he didn’t even manage his players well. Remember Shane Morris in the Minnesota game during the 2014 season?
Hoke lost control of his situation on numerous levels. Had he done a better job of protecting his players, he might have created enough political capital to survive one more season — that’s hardly a guarantee or even a likelihood, but the outcry for a new coach wouldn’t have emerged as quickly. Harbaugh, as long as he doesn’t make a Shane Morris-level mistake, won’t lose political clout even if the 2016 season fails to meet its objectives.
Then absorb another point about the Wolverine football program: It is not a secret that Rich Rodriguez received no meaningful institutional support when he replaced Lloyd Carr several years ago. Rodriguez was given a fraction of the budget Hoke received in terms of hiring coordinators. Had RichRod been able to offer a competitive salary to available defensive coordinators, he would have been able to do much better than Greg Robinson. The course of Michigan football — and of the decade in the Big Ten — could have been quite different.
At any rate, Harbaugh has been able to hire elite assistant coaches. He’s received a generous budgetary allotment, and the people in power in Ann Arbor would not want to engage in a quick-trigger firing of a coach they fully support. Bailing on Harbaugh — the thought is hard to even put into print — would be an acknowledgment of failure on the part of Michigan administrators. They want their alumnus-turned-coach to have every last chance to succeed.
Finally — this point is not complicated — Harbaugh doesn’t yet have a quarterback. The rest of the roster is strong, but no one knows (not yet) that the Wolverines have the signal caller who can lead them to the Promised Land. If the 2016 season falls short of fans’ hopes because of the quarterback position, everyone will understand. Expectations will increase in 2017 — Harbaugh will need to find an answer before too long — but no one’s using the F-word, and rightly so.
Jim Harbaugh is as untouchable as you think he is — yes, even if the coming season is rougher than year one in Ann Arbor.