The question ‘Is Jim Harbaugh’ overrated can be rephrased into: Has Jim Harbaugh failed at Michigan so far? I think that unless you’re a Wolverine fan with delusional expectations, Harbaugh has more or less done as most people expected him to.
Harbaugh joined Michigan after four years in the NFL, coaching the San Francisco 49ers to a 29-21 record, including 3 conference championship games and a Super Bowl loss. Back to his suffering alma mater, just finishing another rough season with Brady Hoke. Harbaugh came in with his NFL pedigree (8-8 in his final season, but leaving due to the owners being impossible to work with, not the bad job he did) and the job he did at Stanford before, which included grooming Andrew Luck into a no. 1 overall draft pick and terrific quarterback until his injury problems began.
At Michigan, Harbaugh arrived at a program with a storied past, but with very little recent success. Not just on the national level, but in the Big Ten. They haven’t won a conference championship since 2004, and when Harbaugh arrived, were with just one against the Buckeyes since 2003.
So what has changed? Michigan has recruited a lot better, has looked impressive at times and has won a lot more games. But that’s it. Under Harbaugh, following the conclusion of this third regular season at the team and before the bowl game, they’ve won 28 games and lost 10, going 18-8 in conference play. Hoke was just 20-18 overall in his last three seasons, and just 12-12 in Big Ten play.
But Harbaugh hasn’t won the conference title. He hasn’t even taken the Wolverines to the championship game. In 2015, a stunning loss to Michigan State and getting bullied by Ohio State prevented a dream debut season. In 2016, another 10-win year, Michigan had an incredible defense and went into the final month with a 9-0 record. But then came the loss at Kinnick to Iowa, and then a double overtime loss to Ohio State. The Orange Bowl ended in another disappointment, losing 33-32 to Florida.
2017 wasn’t supposed to be great in my opinion. The quarterback position and the offense in general was always going to be an issue, and injuries made them worse. Michigan did kick off the season by beating Florida, but they lost every big game they had: at home against the Spartans, crushed by Penn State and then dominated in back to back weeks by Wisconsin and Ohio State. Only 8-4 (5-4 in the Big Ten), and a feeling that for the first time, Harbaugh didn’t make the most of what he had. Oh, and going 0-3 against the Buckeyes so far will make the grumblings about Harbaugh’s job sound louder.
There shouldn’t be any question – Harbaugh is a terrific coach, and better than anyone Michigan has had since Lloyd Carr. However, in the current Big Ten, he’ll have to nail his QB recruiting and development, because just winning without trophies, and especially continuously losing to Ohio State, will eventually lead to doubts regarding his work. At a major program, not winning championships or even coming close, at some point, comes at a cost.