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Jim Harbaugh: Always Good, Rarely Great

Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines were the victims of an upset at the hands of Michigan State yesterday. The Spartans matched #13-ranked Michigan blow for blow, but made just a few more big plays to come out on top, 27-24. This was an important season for Jim Harbaugh’s job security. Saturday’s loss at home only amplifies those calling for Harbaugh to be replaced in Ann Arbor.

Here’s the thing about Michigan, though; they’re a very good team. It’s nice having a very good team, especially after the disastrous Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez eras. You can make the case that Wolverine fans should be satisfied with good-not-great, for as much as they might hate to admit it, Michigan has not been a top-flight program since the 90s.

That won’t save Jim Harbaugh, though.

No, the only thing that will save Jim Harbaugh is if he’s able to turn the Wolverines into a great team, a National Championship contender. Beating Ohio State would help. The problem is that greatness just hasn’t been in Harbaugh’s bag, not as a player, and not as a coach.

Playing Career, 1987-2001

Focus On Sport, Getty Images

Jim Harbaugh had a nice NFL career. He led two different franchises to the playoffs in Chicago and Indy, and made a Pro Bowl in ’95 after leading the league in QB rating, INT%, and 4th quarter comebacks. He played 15 years in the league, threw for 129 TDs, ran for 18 more, and won two playoff games in three total trips to the playoffs.

Pretty good. Certainly not great.

His NFL tenure was preceded by his stint in Ann Arbor, where he was a three-year starter for the Wolverines. Harbaugh also had a nice career for Michigan. He finished 3rd in Heisman voting in ’86, a season in which the Wolverines finished 8th in the AP poll, although he was even better in ’85, when they finished 2nd after a 10-1-1 season and a Fiesta Bowl victory. Those teams were anchored by their running game and defense, to be fair, but Harbaugh certainly did what he had to do.

Jim Harbaugh was objectively a good player. No one would confuse him for a great one, though.

College Coaching Career (2004-2010)

Harbaugh’s first head coaching stint came in the FCS in 2004, for the San Diego Toreros. I can give some credit here; Harbaugh was GREAT in Division 1-AA. He won the Pioneer Football League Championship in two of his three seasons in San Diego, finishing with an overall record of 29-6 (15-1 in-conference). This propelled him to the Stanford job.

Harbaugh made Stanford a thing. The Cardinal won one game the year before he took over. One. They steadily improved over his first three seasons, then took an enormous leap in 2010 on the backs of Andrew Luck and an improved defense. They finished 12-1, won the Orange Bowl, and ended up 4th in the AP and Coaches poll.

Is Harbaugh a great coach relative to Stanford? You can at least argue that. In the grand scheme of things though, a 29-21 record with one bowl victory isn’t exactly superlative. Still, his time at Stanford led to him making the leap to the NFL.

NFL Coaching Career (2011-2014)

Carl Edmondson, USA TODAY Sports

Harbaugh was an immediate success in San Francisco. The 49ers hadn’t had a winning season since 2002 when he arrived, yet they went 13-3 and made it to the NFC Championship game in 2011. They reached the Super Bowl the following season, where they lost to John Harbaugh and the Ravens. The Niners were once again excellent in 2013, going 12-4 and making it to the NFC Championship game for the third year in a row.

2014 was not a good season for Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers. They went 8-8, missing the playoffs for the first time since he took over in 2011. More importantly though, there seemed to be some sort of rift between Harbaugh and upper management. This proved to be unrepairable, and after four years as an NFL head coach, Harbaugh was ran out of the job.

Could Harbaugh have been great in the pros? It’s just speculation at this point. Unless you have a Jimmie Johnson-like four-year run in which you win two Super Bowls, like Johnson did for the Cowboys, you can hardly be considered a great NFL coach. Harbaugh almost got there a few times, but ultimately fell short. He soon returned to his alma mater.

College Coaching Career (2015-)

The Wolverines immediately improved when Jim Harbaugh took over, as is his wont. They won 10 games, finished 12th in the AP poll, and demolished Florida in the Citrus Bowl. They had similar success in 2016, winning another 10 games and making it to the Orange Bowl, where they lost to Florida State. The Wolverines finished 10th in the AP poll that season, which was the first time Michigan had finished in the top ten in a decade. Michigan looked to be right on the edge of competing for a National Championship.

Alas, 2017 was not good for the Wolverines, as they finished the season unranked at 8-5. They won 10 games again in 2018, but Michigan fans had seen this trick before. A 9-4 2019 season hardly silenced the critics who claim Harbaugh has hit his ceiling in Ann Arbor. They now sit at 1-1, coming off arguably the worst loss since Harbaugh arrived.

Not great.

What Now?

USA TODAY Sports

Who knows how long Harbaugh’s leash is in Michigan. This is not a bad team; they will compete at a high level for the rest of the season. That isn’t enough anymore, though.

Harbaugh’s nomadic career has been filled with the same few storylines. His teams experience immediate improvement. They fall just short of the ultimate goal. Then he embarks on his next journey. Save for his San Diego stint, this has been the Jim Harbaugh experience.

Perhaps he could get over the hump if he stayed in one place for longer than a handful of years, but that’s not in his DNA. It seems like Michigan could be a place he finally decides to stick around in, but unfortunately, that might not be an option pretty soon. C’est la vie.

Jim Harbaugh is really good at coaching football. He was also good at playing football. But for one reason or another, he’s rarely been great when it comes to football. He will probably try again with a new team once his time with the Wolverines has run out, but as the saying goes…

The more things change, the more they stay the same.