Max Marcovitch: The Harbaugh Paradox

Sunday, August 25, 2019 - 3:42pm

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh enters his fifth year with perhaps his best chance yet to win the Big Ten.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh enters his fifth year with perhaps his best chance yet to win the Big Ten. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

I was at the doctor’s office the other day — stay with me here — and we started exchanging pleasantries. We got into school, what I was trying to do in a year (because no good conversation ends without some existential dread) and then Michigan football. It was then that he uttered a sentiment I’d heard dozens of times before.

This one’s make or break for Harbaugh, right?

I shrugged it off and told him Jim Harbaugh has this job for as long as he wants it. They could go 6-6, I said and believe, and Harbaugh would still man the sidelines next year.

The whole exchange, one that’s quite common outside the state of Michigan these days, is ironic because this Michigan team might be the most talented in over a decade. In Harbaugh’s four years, the Wolverines have the 10th best record in the FBS. Michigan has double-digit wins in three of the last four years; the last time that happened was before the turn of the century. The 2020 recruiting class is on its way to being Harbaugh’s fourth top-10 class in five years; Michigan hasn’t done that since the mid-2000s. By any veritable metric, this is the healthiest spot the program has been in since the mid-Lloyd Carr years.

And so, this disconnect fascinates me endlessly. Now that I’m back above the Mason-Dixon Line for the year, I’ve settled on two explanations.

The first, and most topical, is the warped perspective outsiders have of Jim Harbaugh as a person. This is, to be sure, at least partly his own doing. In the case of the James Hudson/Luke Fickell sh*tstorm, Harbaugh communicated a worthwhile message in maybe the most destructive possible way. Instead of plainly advocating for his desired one-time free transfer for all student-athletes (the most progressive, player-friendly proposal out there!), he insinuated Hudson lied about his depression. At best, he was vague. At worst, he was irresponsibly insensitive. In the instance of the quote he gave to John U. Bacon for his book — that “it’s hard to beat the cheaters” — the context is an off-hand remark about the underbelly of college football recruiting. But if you so choose, it’s not hard to construe the comment as a preach-y, holier-than-thou excuse for losing.  

As a result, there is a degree of schadenfreude from the Paul Finebaums of the world who seek blood. When that blood arrives in the form of another big loss, it leaves Harbaugh’s national public image tattered.

Which goes hand-in-hand with the second explanation: that one game, The Game, consumes so much national oxygen that it has come to envelope any underlying positives in the program.

It can only be written so many times that Harbaugh just has to beat Ohio State, and it’s written so many times because it’s true. It’s true in the pragmatic sense: Michigan likely cannot achieve any of its goals without doing so. It’s true in the symbolic sense: beating Ohio State is, on its own, one of those big goals — and a prerequisite for defining any year with “success”.

These conflation of factors then warp the national conversation into a muddled cesspool of takes that bely what really exists within Michigan’s program. I am of the belief that whether or not Harbaugh spouts some new headline and feeds that insatiable bloodthirst matters none, for what it’s worth. It’s hard for me to see how that correlates to his team’s preparation for the Buckeyes, and so, frankly, none of it is worth the time of day. 

But it is undoubtedly a reason my doctor, among others, expects Harbaugh’s head on a stake if this year doesn’t go according to plan, while those in and around the program understand that even if this is the plateau — between the 5th and 10th best program in the country — any possible alternative would likely be far worse, not better. This is the crux of the Harbaugh Paradox, as I have come to understand it.

That’s not to say there aren’t consequences if this isn’t the year he and Michigan dispatch Ohio State and/or win the Big Ten. Those consequences, for what it’s worth, are likely what brought Josh Gattis to town. That’s a credit to Harbaugh’s willing evolution. 

This really should be the year. The offense has an all-Big Ten caliber senior quarterback, three potential NFL receivers and four returning starting offensive linemen. The defense has an able crop of talent to reload with, if still with a few lingering questions. All the while, Ohio State should be in its most vulnerable spot since pre-Urban Meyer.

If it is the year, the rest of the college football world will come to understand his value, even if the distaste for him remains. But if this year follows the now-familiar path, that divergent perception of Harbaugh will only become more entrenched.

And I’ll be having that exact same conversation with my doctor a year from now.