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‘If not Harbaugh, then who?’: Haunting hypothetical becoming reality for Michigan football

Wolverines sitting at low point of Jim Harbaugh era

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines walks on the field calling out to his team during warm ups before the game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on November 07, 2020 in Bloomington, Indiana.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines walks on the field calling out to his team during warm ups before the game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on November 07, 2020 in Bloomington, Indiana. (2020 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – “If Jim Harbaugh can’t save Michigan football, then who can?”

It’s the question that’s been bandied about by Michigan fans after losses for half a decade, but until now, it was always more of a theoretical conversation.

After back-to-back losses against Michigan State and Indiana, that haunting hypothetical question feels much closer to becoming reality.

And there’s a good chance fans won’t like the answer.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

When he got to Ann Arbor, Harbaugh was one of the most decorated football coaches alive. He did the impossible by turning Stanford into a Pac-12 powerhouse. Then he morphed the hapless San Francisco 49ers into an NFC Championship Game mainstay, nearly winning a Super Bowl.

For a school that’s always prided itself in hiring “Michigan men,” Harbaugh checked quite literally all the boxes. It was the perfect coaching hire.

By his second season, Harbaugh had Michigan an inch away from beating Ohio State, going to the Big Ten title game and likely making the College Football Playoff. Both his team and his recruiting classes were ranked among the best in the country.

A fan base that spent seven years as a punching bag for the likes of Toledo, Minnesota, Northwestern and even Maryland and Rutgers suddenly saw a program on the rise. The excitement in Ann Arbor was palpable.

Flash forward to Nov. 9, 2020, and all of that is gone. It’s been replaced by frustration and restlessness. For most of Harbaugh’s time in Ann Arbor, it felt like the only realistic way to break up Harbaugh and the Wolverines was when the right NFL job came calling. Now, a significant portion of the fan base is calling for change.

There are plenty of great football minds who would come to Michigan in a heartbeat. This is still a college football blue blood with a talented roster, elite facilities, top-notch recruiting tools and a deeply invested fan base.

But no coaching candidate will have the resume Harbaugh did when he took the job. What’s to say they won’t run into all the same challenges?

Head coach Jim Harbaugh waits to take the field to play the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 10-3.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh waits to take the field to play the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 10-3. (2019 Getty Images)

The elephant in the room is Ohio State. The Buckeyes are operating on a different level right now, and between recruiting and on-field results, the gap only seems to be widening.

Who could Michigan bring in to compete with that? If it doesn’t happen in the first couple of years, then we’ll be right back in this same spot, wondering if whoever it is could ever get Michigan over the hump.

When Rich Rod and Brady Hoke failed at Michigan, it always felt more like a bad fit. Harbaugh’s struggles are much more worrying, even though they haven’t come with any losing seasons. If Harbaugh is losing to Indiana in year six, it makes you wonder if that championship potential is still woven into the fabric of the Michigan football program.

All the underlying pieces seem to be in place, but Michigan is starting to feel just as far away as when Harbaugh took over. Is there someone who can tap into that potential? Revive the greatness that once defined Michigan?

“If not Harbaugh, then who?”


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