Suppose a college football program lost a 70-year old position coach to a promotion as a coordinator at another school. Would it be headline news?
Then suppose a top 15 college football program lost a 70-year old position coach to a promotion as a coordinator at a top 5 school. Would it be headline news?
Next suppose that same 70-year old position coach at a top 15 school left for a promotion at a top 5 school, which just so happens to be the big rival. Would it be headline news?
Sorta, but most of the rest of the college football world wouldn’t care, especially when it’s the same day as the national championship game.
Finally, suppose all of the above facts are still true, but now it’s Jim Harbaugh and this fits a narrative of him being the next Les Miles. As in a ridiculously stubborn coach with an antiquated approach to college football that will never allow him to beat that rival school. A narrative said coach has sadly reinforced with his own actions, unfortunately for his school’s fans. In Miles’ case it was Alabama, for Jim Harbaugh it’s of course Ohio State. Would it be headline news?
As we like to say in my line of work, that bait ain’t gonna click itself!
Which is why Greg Mattison, who will be 70-years old before the 2019 college football season concludes, bolting as Michigan’s defensive line coach to become Ohio State’s newest defensive coordinator is the perfect story for the spirit of the age. For it literally checks the box of every narrative currently being cast as “news.”
- Another jimmy kick for Jim Harbaugh’s brand? Check.
- Another Michigan loss to Ohio State? Check.
- Sellable evidence the rats are leaving the sinking ship? Check.
Heck, this story is such a cornucopia of clicks for today’s era when memes are mistaken for news, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jay Bilas chime in from the college basketball world on why it’s more evidence the players should be free to come and go when they want if the coaches can. Which I largely agree with, by the way, but that’s not the point.
We live in an era when facts are stubborn things, not because they’re true but because they so often get in the way.
I have worked full-time in media for 20 years now. I started out as a newspaper reporter, and then became a talk radio host. So I’ve done both fact-gathering and commentating. There used to be a difference, or at least a line, between the two. There no longer is for the most part.
In today’s world we’re so often not newscasting but narrative-casting. And that narrative must be advanced and reinforced for as long as it generates the response from our consumers we’re looking for. With limited exceptions, the American people seek affirmation more than information—and that’s just the ones still paying attention.
Now, as for the Mattison story, there are facts to counter each of the aforementioned narrative-castings. For example:
- If Harbaugh’s brand is so tarnished, why is he so coveted by the NFL? The highest, most competitive, and least patient level of the sport? Why did Michigan just sign one of the top recruiting classes in the country?
- If Michigan had a better record against Ohio State in recent memory, and the new Buckeyes coach decided to hire Mattison away with the promise of a promotion, what would be the narrative then? Because Ohio State just hired away a Michigan coach that's lost eight of his last nine against them. Typically that wouldn't be seen as a boost. If we had all the same facts about the hire itself, but the game(s) were a different result, we’d obviously need a new narrative. Furthermore, Mattison’s defensive line just got shredded by Ohio State in their last matchup. Applying no pressure whatsoever on Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, while giving up almost 5 yards per rush. Of course, these facts are likely to be ignored because they don’t fit the preferred narrative.They’re still true, but it’s that whole if a tree falls in the forest thing.
- I guarantee within five minutes after this announcement, defensive line coaches began prospecting Michigan’s potential interests in their resumes. Since 2011, the Wolverines have finished worse than 16th nationally in total defense only once despite having three different defensive coordinators during that time. So this will be a coveted job. The annual coaches’ convention is this week, and I’m guessing Harbaugh could easily have a long and illustrative line of those eager to replace Mattison if he wanted.
But none of this matters because of our current media-consumer culture. It is what it is. Complaining about this is like complaining about the heat in Arizona. You mean you didn’t know it was hot when you moved there?
This media-consumer culture gave Harbaugh a huge boost when he first arrived in Ann Arbor. Building up Harbaugh and his exploits into mythic proportions, which definitely helped get the attention of elite recruits when he didn’t have on-field results to sell. But if you live by the narrative, you die by the narrative. And the narrative is a fickle taskmaster. It will stretch and stretch and stretch in your favor, until you lose its favor. Then that snap-back is a son of a gun.
This is where Harbaugh lives now. It’s almost all his own fault.
He took those recruits the buzz produced by those favorable narratives helped him land, and won exactly nothing with them. Sure, Michigan has the seventh-best record in college football the last four years. But the devil is definitely in the details: 1-9 against AP top 10 teams, winless against Ohio State, no division titles, no conference titles, three straight bowl losses, etc.
Harbaugh has won 73% of his games at Michigan, which is pretty good but it’s not special like we were promised/expected. I think there are several Big Ten coaches (Mark Dantonio, Pat Fitzgerald, Kirk Ferentz, Paul Chryst, Jeff Brohm, and Scott Frost) that also could win 73% of their games at Michigan in a four-year period, given all the advantages that come with this job. We’re not the winningest school of all-time for nothing. We may not be the football factory Ohio State is, but 80% of the teams in this sport would still trade places with us in a heart-beat.
The only way out now for Harbaugh is through. He has to win big, and very soon, or he will be overwhelmed by the narrative, and have to seriously consider whether the window has closed for him to reach his ultimate goals at Michigan.
Atlanta is a central hub and easy to fly to, and the fact Michigan fans had little interest in attending that New Year's Six Peach Bowl is but a sign of things to come if something significant is not accomplished in 2019.