Why Michigan firing Jim Harbaugh would be idiotic
The Michigan Wolverines were flattened by the Wisconsin Badgers 35-14 on Saturday in Madison, and they were dominated so thoroughly that the biggest talking point in college football since then has been about Jim Harbaugh’s latest flop and whether he should be fired.
While Harbaugh has disappointed relative to the hype and expectations, firing him would be idiotic. I will explain why.
Harbaugh has underperformed so far
First, let’s get this out of the way: Harbaugh has underperformed at Michigan based on expectations and hype he helped generate. He is paid to win big games, to get Michigan into conference championship games, and to fight for College Football Playoff spots and national championships. He hasn’t achieved any of that yet. The Wolverines got smoked by Ohio State last year, rolled in their bowl game by Florida, squeaked past Army, and thrashed by Wisconsin. None of that looks good, and it has left Michigan fans feeling like the program is regressing, that Harbaugh has lost his touch, and like he should be fired. But that is all incorrect and the product of the cancel coaches culture we live in.
Harbaugh is an easy target and undeserved victim of the cancel coaches culture
We live in an instant-gratification culture where attention spans are minuscule and Twitter mobs run from one brand or person to boycott to the next. The “cancel culture” has very much been alive in sports in the form of coach firings. There is little patience for process, long-term development or continuity. There is little allowance for down years due to player graduation, draft departures, injuries, or other very real factors that affect programs — especially at the key positions. Overreactions to games and hyperbolic takes are reinforced in the social media world by more clicks, likes, and reactions than measured, reasonable, and rational commentary. Telling fans and administrators to hang in there because things will get better is overwhelmed by screaming hot takes from angry fans and media personalities. Therefore, it has become popular and trendy to call for Harbaugh’s job. Between his khakis, sometimes odd-ball personality and tantrums, he is an easy target, and people love to laugh at his failings. That’s what happens when you’re one of the big boys.
Save for the 2011 season under Brady Hoke, Michigan has been a JOKE since Lloyd Carr was fired. They had three losing seasons from 2008-2014 before Harbaugh took over after not having a previous losing season since 1967. Harbaugh INSTANTLY made them beyond respectable, going 10-3 with a bowl win over Florida and victories over three ranked opponents, including two by shutout. He had a five-win increase from the season before. The next year he began 9-0 and had Michigan in the thick of the national championship conversation. His defense ranked No. 2 in the country that year. Last year, his team lost to Notre Dame (an eventual CFP team) and was 10-1 once again until running into Ohio State. He hasn’t done well enough, but he has still done very well there; none of that should be ignored.
Harbaugh’s wins are being overlooked
Harbaugh’s last five games look bad and include three blowouts (overlooked: many of his best players sat out the bowl game). His 0-4 record against Ohio State is an eyesore. He hasn’t had much success on the road against top-10 teams or as an underdog. But guess what? I’ve got news for you: neither do most coaches! However, Harbaugh still has won plenty and beaten several ranked opponents during his time, yet these wins and strong marks are overlooked.
Some numbers that make Harbaugh look better:
40-15 (.727) overall record – Since 2015, higher winning percentage than CFP coaches Chris Petersen, Brian Kelly, Jimbo Fisher and Mark Dantonio
6-0 vs. teams ranked 14-25
21-2 vs. unranked Big Ten teams
13-2 vs. non-conference regular season
3-1 vs. Penn State
2-1 vs. Florida
No. 2 defense out of 128 teams in 2016 (points allowed per game)
Average of No. 9 defense in his four seasons and no worse than No. 16 defense in any of his seasons
Here are the stats that make him look bad, balanced out by some that still show what he HAS done well.
– 39-4 against everyone else (.907)
– 6-0 against teams ranked 14-25
– Outscored those teams 206-51
– Held opponents to 10 or fewer points 20 times in 45 games (36 percent of time)
He has not met expectations, but firing him would be idiotic https://t.co/GjF37ReJha
— Larry Brown (@LBSports) September 22, 2019
Harbaugh is like a kicker great inside 50 yards and struggling long range
Harbaugh so far has been like a kicker who is money on field goals from inside 50 yards (opponents ranked below No. 15 in the country), but struggles on kicks of 50 yards or greater (top 15 opponents). Field goals in the 40-49 range — especially 45-49 — are still very tough kicks, and not easy to make. Lots of kickers miss those. Kickers also miss closer ones and chip shots too (see: Ohio State’s losses to Iowa and Purdue). But Harbaugh is kicking like 91 percent on field goals from less than 50 yards. Not very many kickers have that high of a percentage. On kicks 50-plus, he’s missed a bunch and on some 55-60 yarders (top 10 opponents), he’s shanked them horribly.
Let’s keep things in context: making a 55-yard field goal is very difficult, even if you are paid to do it. That’s what you’re asking a coach to do every time you tell him to win a road game against a top-10 team.
Some of the losses that have people screaming Harbaugh can’t win the big game include: road games at No. 2 Ohio State (2016), at No. 2 Penn State (2017), at No. 5 Wisconsin (2017), at No. 10 Notre Dame (2018), at No. 10 Ohio State (2018). Two of those were at the No. 2 ranked team. Harbaugh needs to win these, but they’re still tough, and remember: when attempting 55 and 60-yard field goals (facing the very best teams), even the best coaches miss brutally sometimes (Ohio State was shutout by Clemson 31-0; Alabama was run by Clemson 44-16; Clemson lost to Bama 24-6). Even Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Dabo Swinney take big Ls sometimes. It’s part of the game.
Harbaugh’s biggest problem: One of the greatest coaches ever was his rival and got a 3-year head start
The two hardest jobs in college football since 2015 have been: Auburn and Michigan. Those are two of the most intense rivalries in all of college football. And from 2015-2018, the other schools in the rivalry have been coached by Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, two of the greatest coaches in college football history. For Gus Malzahn and Jim Harbaugh, their seasons are largely measured by how they stack up against one of the greatest coaches ever. Malzahn has been able to get over the hump twice in six tries and has been beaten badly in many of the other games, and has also been much worse than Harbaugh otherwise. Harbaugh went 0-4 against Meyer, with the notable game coming when they lost 30-27 in double overtime after a favorable spot.
What’s often overlooked is the little bad luck Harbaugh has had with the schedule. His two best teams (2016 and 2018) both had to go on the road to Ohio State, while he got the home games with his worse squads (2015 and 2017). Conversely, Malzahn’s two best teams at Auburn (2013 and 2017) both got Alabama at home those years.
Meyer also had a three-year head start on Harbaugh at building up a national championship program. That’s not an easy gap to overcome. Let Luke Fickell continue with that program and Harbaugh is likely winning a few of those rivalry games.
How many other coaches in college football were going to step into the Michigan situation and take down Meyer’s Buckeyes? Meyer is No. 3 all time in the history of college football in winning percentage behind Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy. Think about that. Harbaugh failed to deliver, but that’s a very tall order, one very few would have done better at.
Also, don’t be the person who says now that Urban Meyer is gone, Harbaugh should win immediately. Meyer is so good that it still might take a few years to overcome what he built up.
Meyer did such a great job building up the pipeline with talented recruits that Ryan Day will be stocked full of talent for the next few years. Not only that, but Meyer made Ohio State so desirable that Justin Fields transferred there and will give Ohio State a major quarterback advantage over their rivals through at least next year unless Harbaugh makes a move to counter it.
Harbaugh is still an excellent coach and to think otherwise is asinine
Even if Harbaugh has taken a few games on the chin lately, he’s still an excellent coach.
He has won everywhere he’s been: San Diego, Stanford, 49ers, and Michigan. In his latest three stops, he turned a team that was a loser before he got there into a winner almost instantly. He completely turned around the Stanford program, which was 1-11 before he got there. The 49ers hadn’t won a playoff game or had a winning since 2002, and he took them to the conference championship game in his first season (2011). That’s truly remarkable.
To those who say he can’t win big games: Harbaugh went 22-2 his final two seasons at USD, 12-1 his final year at Stanford (including an Orange Bowl win to end the season), and won playoff games against four NFL MVP quarterbacks, two of whom won Super Bowls: Drew Brees and Sean Payton’s Saints; Aaron Rodgers’ Packers; Matt Ryan’s Falcons; and Cam Newton’s Panthers.
At Michigan, he’s had his teams 10-1 until Ohio State twice in four years. His worst season has been 8-5 and came when Wilton Speight broke his back. His winning percentage has been better than a third of the coaches who have taken their teams to the College Football Playoff. The guy is winning and will break through if given more time.
And don’t buy any of the “short shelf-life” talk, either. Harbaugh only stayed at USD and Stanford briefly because he got promotions. Moving up after 3 or 4 years is a natural progression for the best college coaches whose careers are ascending. And he was wildly successful in four years in San Francisco and was pushed out by their idiotic front office.
Michigan should keep their faith in Harbaugh knowing he is a good coach with a proven history.
Things will get better for Michigan in time
Harbaugh has proven to have a very high floor so far at Michigan (worst season 8-5 after his quarterback got hurt). His ceiling has capped at 10-3, which isn’t good enough, but sometimes it takes just a few things going differently to break through. One stupid punter mistake in 2015 and they’re an 11-2 team. One foot different against Ohio State in 2016 and they’re 11-1, headed to the College Football Playoff, and the job status chatter is gone. Critics ignore or forget that’s how close Harbaugh was to living up to the expectations.
Harbaugh is already transitioning his offense to a new style and trying to embrace mobile quarterbacks. The team doesn’t look great this season — they didn’t look good against Middle Tennessee State, struggled against Army, and got walloped by Wisconsin. Quarterbacks Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey have been hurt. Maybe the team gets better this year, maybe they don’t and this is a down year. Either way, Michigan should stick by Harbaugh and let him work through this.
Harbaugh continues to recruit well. He will probably recruit even harder and look to transfers even more if the team struggles the rest of the year, so that he comes back even stronger next year. Plus, he has gone 40-15 without even having a star quarterback yet. Can you imagine how much he will dominate once he finally nails that position? He will get there and so will Michigan. They just need to give it time and let him work through this.
Programs need to stick with proven coaches
Programs should stick with coaches who have proven to be good. If Notre Dame fired Brian Kelly after his 4-8 season in 2016, they wouldn’t have gotten his 12-1 playoff team in 2018. Mark Dantonio went 3-9 the year after taking his team to the CFP and bounced back to go 10-3.
You don’t get rid of good coaches who have repeatedly demonstrated high levels of success just because they’re having one rough stretch, not unless you’re sure you’ve got a Lincoln Riley or Kirby Smart on your hands. And remember, for as good as Riley and Smart have been, Riley was handed a Porsche by Bob Stoops and just supercharged it. Georgia was 10-3 before Smart took over. Michigan was 5-7 before Harbaugh. It’s a heck of a lot easier to take over a program that’s already operating at a high level than to get a program to that point.
Firings may feel good but often have long-term consequences
When you decide to fire a coach, you better make sure you have a replacement who is definitely better, because otherwise you risk setting your program back. Rival coaches capitalize any time a coach is on the hot seat. The minute one is dumped, all the players in recruiting classes that coach had lined up are now up for grabs. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work to keep those players locked in. And when you’re competing to recruit the best players as Michigan is, you can kiss those top players goodbye because they’re so desired, they won’t have any trouble finding new offers.
Not only will a new coach have to install their systems the following year — and transition years are often rough — but the next two recruiting classes are often harmed. Because the recruiting classes aren’t as good, one bad year can become two, and then it’s even tougher to bring in top players because they see a program that is declining. The domino effect is significant. Just look at Tennessee to see an example of this.
In order to be a College Football Playoff team, you need the very best players. You only get those kinds of players with a program on the rise. Improvements can happen, but you better be sure you have a great coach lined up before firing an excellent one.
So while firing Harbaugh may make some with Michigan feel better in the moment, they better make sure they’re not setting the program back several years.
Who are they getting who’s better?
Harbaugh sits firmly in the second tier of best college football coaches. Saban, Dabo and Urban (not even currently coaching) are in a tier of their own.
Below them are Riley and Smart presently at the higher end, and guys like Chris Petersen, Brian Kelly, Jimbo Fisher, Mark Dantonio, and arguably Dan Mullen, Ed Orgeron, Tom Herman, and possibly James Franklin, David Shaw, and Paul Chryst. Riley, Smart, Shaw and Chryst are a little different because they never had to build up or revive a program, which needs to be taken into account.
So who would Michigan get who would be better than Harbaugh? Here are the names provided by SportsBetting.ag as candidates to coach Michigan next year:
Bronco Mendenhall +300
David Shaw +350
Kyle Whittingham +400
Dino Babers +500
Mike Gundy +700
Luke Fickell +800
Would any of those guys consistently do better than Harbaugh at Michigan from year to year? I say no way.
Harbaugh is one of top 15 college football coaches at worst, and he’s easily in the middle of the pack in the second tier and likely still a top-10 coach despite some of his struggles. Keep in mind this is all with Jake Rudock being the best quarterback he’s had. If Harbaugh finally hits on a quarterback, he’ll be right up there. Just look at what Joe Burrow has done for LSU — he’s taken them up a level; they had talent at every position every year but hadn’t had a good quarterback. That’s all that Harbaugh is missing, and it’s something he should be able to fix. He has everything else taken care of.
Michigan just shouldn’t do the irrational, foolish thing by pushing him out or firing him. They will just be getting rid of an excellent coach who will go elsewhere and win, because that’s all he’s ever done everywhere he’s been.