Despite a relatively unremarkable season, Michigan football and in particular, Jim Harbaugh, tends to get a larger share of national coverage than any other program. This year the coverage has had a largely negative slant, despite a modest 8-3 record to date. This is a team that is hitting their pre-season expectation almost exactly (this site projected 8.874 wins, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projected 8.9 wins, and the Bovada over/under was set at 9 wins), yet if you tuned into ESPN this week you’d think the program is in shambles. So, what’s really going on with Michigan football? Let’s take a look at the national sports media talking points, but with the intent of finding the truth rather than baiting for more readers/viewers with sensational proclamations.
- Expectations have not been met
This is both the most common and the most puzzling take I have found, especially as it pertains to this year. Michigan is going to end up, at worst, one game below expectations this season. So technically, yes, they very well could fall just short of their preseason expectations. However, they are far from the only team who will pay out on the ‘under’ this year. Among the Power 5 teams (65 in all, including Notre Dame), 4 are exactly on their over/under total with only one (Northwestern) expected to move above it, 9 are 0.5 below with only 5 projected to move ahead, another 6 (including Michigan) are one game below, and 22 are too far below to get above their mark this year. This puts Michigan at or just below the median for Power 5 teams. Hardly a headline-worthy disappointment.
|North Carolina State||ACC||7||4||7.5||-0.5|
Expanding the scope further to Harbaugh’s entire Michigan coaching career:
|Year||Over/Under||Regular Season Wins|
|2017||9||8 (chance for 1 more)|
Cumulatively, this puts Harbaugh’s regular seasons at worst a half game above expectations. In addition Michigan is 1-1 in the postseason under Harbaugh where the win was a blowout and the loss was by one point.
- Jim Harbaugh is going to leave for X team after this season
Every year since Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor (and even in the days before he was hired at Michigan) there have been rumors that he will be coaching at somewhere besides Michigan the following season. His name was connected with the Raiders, Bears, Jets, and Dolphins in 2014 before choosing Michigan, the Colts in 2015, the Rams in 2016, the Colts again in 2017, and even UCLA was mentioned this week. He hasn’t left yet, and now there are rumors of a lifetime contract with Michigan which could be an attempt to finally dampen these annual rumors that he is leaving.
- Harbaugh’s salary is too high
Harbaugh’s salary is often reported as being $9 million, which is not true. It is $7 million. I’m not sure why this matters enough to talk about, but for whatever reason it is a common talking point when Harbaugh’s name comes up. The $9 million comes from a 2016 life insurance policy which included two $2 million premium payments for the insurance in addition to the $5 million salary.
Coach salaries are misconstrued to be proportional to the number of wins a coach earns with the team, but that’s not really how they work. Their salary represents their market value, i.e. how much an entity is willing to pay them for their services. This is no different than any other profession. If a company wants to keep an employee that they deem valuable who is being pursued by a competitor, the current employer may offer a higher salary to ward off the competition and get their employee to stay. This does not mean that the employee will instantly perform better at their job. The higher salary is a reflection of the demand for their services; their perceived value.
- Harbaugh’s antics are all for show
Everything Harbaugh does is with a purpose. That purpose is most commonly recruiting exposure and improving the student-athlete experience for his players. Things like trips to Florida and Rome with the entire team for spring practices are a way to reward his players which were (at the time) within the NCAA rules. These experiences are being provided instead of under the table payments to players, which is a less out-in-the-open but much more accommodated reward system.
Stories of unusual recruiting tactics surface from time-to-time, whether it be climbing trees with a recruit or spending the night at their house, and these are met with enthusiasm by the recruits but with derision by opposing fans and media. But if it works and is within the rules, why should it stop?
There was even ridicule of his actions on the sidelines, as if he is the only coach to ever express emotion during a game. He has since dialed it back in 2017 after the introduction of a rule created to detract his outbursts. He was penalized once in 2016 before this rule existed, but has not been penalized since.
- “His best finish is 3rd in the division”
This one is technically true, but really needs some context as its aim is only to sound degrading. In 2015, Michigan finished ranked 12th in the final AP poll. Two teams in their division finished ranked 4th and 6th, respectively. In 2016, Michigan finished ranked 10th in the final AP poll. And again, two teams in the division finished ranked higher, this time 6th and 7th. The claim of finishing 3rd does not paint an accurate picture of the success, as 3rd out of 7 sounds much worse than 12th or 10th out of 128. This claim is intentionally misleading, and really only speaks to the strength of their division as no other division had 3 teams ranked as highly as the Big Ten East had in either 2015 or 2016.
- Michigan’s roster is full of 4 and 5-star players
Michigan typically has highly ranked recruiting classes. The classes which could make up the 2017 roster (2013 through 2017) were ranked as follows:
|Recruiting Class||Class Rank||# of commits|
This breakdown implies that the youth on the team and any players who stuck around for a 5th year would make up the most talented portion of the roster. However, attrition played a huge role in shaping this roster, nearly all of which occurred in recruiting classes assembled prior to Harbaugh’s arrival. Here’s a list of all the players from one of the five classes above who left the program early for reasons other than entering the NFL Draft, and their last year of competition with Michigan:
|Recruiting Class||Player||Star Rating||Position||Final year with program|
*Newsome injured his leg early in the 2016 season and has not yet returned.
Note that there are 6 offensive linemen who left the program earlier than expected; 5 of which would be 5th year seniors and Newsome who would be the starting left tackle. Offensive line also happens to be the most heavily criticized position on Michigan’s roster, and this illustrates why there is a problem. Some attrition is to be expected in football, but losing 6 would-be veteran players from the same position group would crater any roster.
Also note that 10 players from the 2013 class left the program after 3 or fewer years. Again, some attrition is to be expected, but losing over a third of a class well before their eligibility runs out will eventually take a toll.
- Harbaugh has never won a championship
This take is bizarre in two ways. First, it is very selective in what is deemed a championship, as Harbaugh led the University of San Diego to two conference championships (2005 & 2006) in his 3 years as their head coach, Stanford to an Orange Bowl championship in 2010, and the 49ers to an NFC championship in 2012. This implies that conference championships don’t count at the FCS level or in the NFL, but at the FBS level not only do they count but count for more than a postseason major bowl victory and final AP ranking of 4th. Secondly, it implies that a championship is the only criteria for a successful coach. He has been at Michigan for just under 3 seasons, and here is the list of teams with equal or higher winning percentages in that same time frame:
- He wears out his welcome
Harbaugh’s coaching trajectory has been as follows:
|Oakland Raiders||QB coach||2002-2003|
|San Diego Toreros (FCS)||Head coach||2004-2006|
|Stanford Cardinal||Head coach||2007-2010|
|San Francisco 49ers||Head coach||2011-2014|
|Michigan Wolverines||Head coach||2015-present|
Each move prior to landing at Michigan has been an obvious step-up, which tends to happen for coaches who perform well. The move from the 49ers to Michigan can be interpreted as a step down, but it cannot be interpreted as a demotion since he chose Michigan over numerous other NFL positions as shown in linked article earlier and it was not a firing but a mutual decision.
The national media has bungled their coverage on Harbaugh at Michigan since before he arrived in December 2014. They have gotten in wrong every year since. Why should anyone trust them to get it right today or going forward?
If you want the real story of what’s going on with Michigan football, the national media is not the place to go. Their job is to cover everything a little bit, it is inch-deep/mile-wide coverage. If you want in-depth coverage, you need to go to a local source, media that only covers this team. Or better yet, go straight to the source: Jim Harbaugh has a weekly podcast with his dad co-hosting. Amazon is chronicling the 2017 Michigan football season with a series set to air in January on Amazon Prime.
So, what’s left? Michigan is performing as closely to expectations as possible, Harbaugh is not leaving for the NFL, and Michigan’s program is actually in decent shape for the future with a young, talented roster. Pretty boring, right? But if this were the story that was being told, nobody would pay attention; nobody would care because it isn’t interesting.
If Michigan loses tomorrow, all of these points will be harped on again as if there is a serious problem to address. And if Michigan wins, they will be celebrated excessively and most of this will be forgotten. At least until their next loss.