I love the Wolverines. For 35 years I’ve devoted as much time and treasure to that love as I have anything else on this earth, short of God and family. Come to think of it, since my relationship with the Wolverines predates both my relationship with my Savior and my wife and kids, Michigan actually ranks number one all-time in my affection.
However, there’s a difference between being a customer and a cultist. Even though I’m a fan, I just can’t abide false premises, tribalism, and self-delusion, I don’t believe it’s my job to serve the interests of my favorite team. I believe it’s their job to serve our interests. These games are for the fans. We’re not always right, but we’re always the priority. For without us those stadiums aren’t full. There aren’t as many available scholarships. Those coaching salaries aren’t as extravagant. Those television rights fees aren’t even there. Try making all this money with just players’ families, coaches’ spouses, administrative family members, and those in close relationship to the university and you couldn’t. You’d be the Ivy League.
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Likewise, Michigan and every other program is here for us, we’re not here for them.
If you’re going to ask us to pay $100 bucks for a damned hoodie with your logo on it, then you’ve forfeited the right to be offended at honest opinions. This isn’t really amateurism, but big business. Therefore, the rest of this column will evaluate the multi-million-dollar enterprise known as Michigan football, and it’s seven-figure employees, accordingly. You don’t have to agree with that approach, but then you should probably stop reading now.
For the rest of you spending the GDP of a third world country on your fandom and expecting a commiserate ROI, this will be broken down into several areas I believe need to be addressed. I’ll warn you right now, this is going to be long.
Jim is Les, More or Less
In 2007, Les Miles was the hottest coach in the country. The former Michigan assistant had brought Oklahoma State back to respectability, and was on the cusp of leading LSU to the national title. He was the fan’s and most of the former players’ choice to replace Lloyd Carr. The stories of why that desire was never consummated are now the stuff of message board legend. But there’s no need to wonder now what would’ve happened had Miles come home, for we now know.
It would’ve pretty much become what Michigan football is now.
A quirky and highly-successful yet painfully stubborn head coach who wants to win, yes, but wants to win a certain way even more. So when he can physically bully opponents he does with, as Harbaugh likes to say, “character and cruelty.” However, when faced with an opponent that can punch back, there’s no counter. Only repeated heads caving into immovable walls repeatedly.
When you can recruit like LSU and Michigan can, you can win a lot of games this way. But in this era of multi-faceted college football, when you have to be able to win 14-10 one week and 38-34 the next, you’re not going to win a lot of championships. And that’s pretty much Jim Harbaugh. Everywhere he goes he wins a lot of games. He also doesn’t win a lot of championships.
The dumb memes comparing his record to Brady Hoke and the like are vapid trolling. No one could rationally argue this program isn’t light years ahead of where it was when Harbaugh took over. There’s nothing wrong with being Marty Schottenheimer, Andy Reid, or Lloyd Carr for that matter. Those coaches provided their fan-bases a lot of fun on gamedays. They just weren’t elite coaches.
Oh, I know Carr won 5 Big Ten titles, but he really only won two if you assess his tenure by today’s standard of no shared titles. I certainly think it’s possible Harbaugh could still win two Big Ten titles here, and even a national title, if he hangs around here for 13 years like Carr did.
Most of Carr’s time here consisted of 9-10 win seasons. Only twice in 13 years did Carr go into the finale against Ohio State in the national title race. Ten of his 13 seasons finished with three losses or more, and he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame.
We’re fortunate to have Jim, and if the worst problem I have as a fan is averaging 9.5 wins a season, then that’s a first world problem I can live with. However, as long as Urban Meyer is around the dream Harbaugh is going to usher in some era of dominance, let alone competitive balance, is clearly not happening. Best to adult here and just accept that. Meyer is simply superior to Harbaugh, who is superior to 80% of the coaches in college football. Similar to how Andy Reid is similar to 80% of the coaches in the NFL, but he’s not Bill Belicheck.
That’s why Harbaugh is now the only coach in Michigan history to be 0-4 against Ohio State. The Buckeyes have the superior coach. That wasn’t as painful of a realization in the Carr era, before brutal social media and the playoff essentially meant you’re among the chosen four or a failure. So 10 wins in year four of the Harbaugh era isn’t as satisfying as it was when Carr did that in his fourth season back in 1998.
Looking at Harbaugh’s coaching record, seasons like this being the norm is far more likely if we’re not going to modernize. Since Jim’s idea of modernization is essentially adding even more tight ends who either can’t catch or block, you can pretty much go get all the message board posts from 2001, substitute the name Carr for Harbaugh, and just cut and paste.
Who Are We?
We have one national title in 71 years. In the last 25 years, we (2) have fewer undisputed Big Ten titles than Wisconsin (3). We haven’t finished in the top 5 in the 21st century. Illinois has been to the Rose Bowl more recently than us.
Remove the name “Michigan” and tell me if you believe those are the trappings of an elite program? That’s what I thought.
I love Bo Schembechler, but when he retired I was a junior in high school. I’m now 45 years old. With three kids, the oldest a high school senior. Bo passed away five months before my son was born. He’s going to be 12 in February.
There’s a difference between nostalgia and tradition. The latter inspires you to hold the line even when times are tough, because you’ve been successful before. Bo talks about that in his book. You build on tradition.
Nostalgia, though, is paralyzing, creating hangers-on and fantasies about yesteryears that probably weren’t quite as good as you thought they were. You rest on nostalgia.
Bo was also famously stubborn, but he also evolved. The coach who was “Little Woody” in 1969 left behind a multiple offense that either Michael Taylor or Elvis Grbac could quarterback 20 years later. His first three-time All-American was a wide receiver. He developed Michigan’s first #1 pick at quarterback (Harbaugh), and then recruited the guy who rewrote the passing record book (Grbac) as well as future Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard.
Bo built on the tradition of Yost and Crisler, but he wasn’t paralyzed by it. We need to give ourselves permission to move on. Better yet, maybe Harbaugh does.
Urban Meyer’s program looks nothing like Woody’s. Nick Saban’s program looks nothing like Bear Bryant’s. Pete Carroll’s USC looked nothing like John McKay’s. Make of that what you will.
Gimmicky and Overrated
We live in a time when certain moments/personas can go viral and become a meme, thus elevating them to a status their substance doesn’t justify. This perfectly defines defensive coordinator Don Brown.
Instead of asking “why hasn’t he won the Broyles Award yet” we should be asking “is he the most overrated defensive coordinator in college football?” Well, let’s look at all the games Michigan has lost in his three seasons here:
11/24/18: Michigan surrenders most points ever in a regulation game (62).
9/1/18: Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Winbush, who was benched later in the season, has career-high 86 QBR.
1/1/18: Defense blows 19-3 lead with 5:42 left in third quarter.
11/25/17: Defense blows fourth quarter lead and surrenders 17 unanswered points to Ohio State’s redshirt freshman backup quarterback.
11/18/17: Defense surrenders 17 unanswered points in a 24-10 loss to Wisconsin.
10/21/17: Penn State gets 506 yards of offense, its most ever against Michigan.
10/7/17: Michigan State gets two long scoring drives in first half before torrential downpour makes game basically unplayable.
1/1/17: Defense can’t hold late lead versus Florida State, and Seminoles get longest passing TD in school history while jumping out to 17-3 first half lead.
11/26/17: Defense gives up 13-play drive to Ohio State that sends game to overtime, and then fails to stop Ohio State from reaching the end zone on both of its overtime possessions.
11/19/17: Defense fails to stop Iowa from driving for the winning field goal on the final possession.
Take away that 2016 loss to Iowa, when the Hawkeyes had great field position on that final drive, and in every game Brown’s defense was either shredded and/or failed to make clutch plays when called upon.
His scheme does a great job dominating undermanned teams without the skill talent to make Michigan pay in space. However, against teams that do, the results speak for themselves. He’s the defensive Rich Rodriguez. Whereas RichRod’s offense crushed anemic defenses in the Big East, Brown’s defense lockjaws the plodding second tier of the Big Ten. Yes, we dominated Nebraska and Penn State’s explosive offenses, when their quarterbacks weren’t healthy. Sparty’s offense is a train-wreck. Wisconsin panicked and stopped giving the ball to Jonathan Taylor.
Brown’s scheme is a gimmick. While his old school persona is charming, he plays a video game style of defense that doesn’t work in the real world. Everything Gerry DiNardo at the Big Ten Network said was right. Again, the results speak for themselves. I mean, what gumshoe fan in the stands didn’t know Ohio State would attack us with crossing routes right away? Well, apparently it was a shock to Brown.
If we had all these same results, and they came from a personality that wasn’t as flamboyant as Brown’s, what would we be saying?
It’s a Brand, not a Rivalry
Michigan-Ohio State is not a rivalry to anyone under the age of 35. It’s simply not a competitive series, and the Wolverines haven’t beaten an Ohio State team with something to play for in 15 years. Prospects signing LOIs next month have seen Purdue beat Michigan more than Michigan defeat Ohio State in their lifetimes. Who in the world calls that a rivalry on the merits?
To everyone else, it’s a brand and an overblown one at that. It’s like the DCU compared to the MCU. While Superman and Batman are superior brands, few believe they’re better movies than Ant-Man.
It’s probably impossible not to overrate or over-criticize Michigan. We have one of the largest living alumni bodies in the world, as well as one of the largest fanbases in the sport. By nature everything we’d do would therefore cause an overreaction. Not to mention the temptation to provoke that overreaction in this click-bait = cash media climate.
Thus, whether its folks saying Harbaugh sucks for clicks, or Michigan fans blowing his capabilities out of proportion out of nostalgia, the result is the same. Michigan is both overrated and underrated at the same time. Harbaugh has been better than his trolls claim, not as great as Michigan fans had hoped.
For Michigan to win championships again, one of two things will have to happen:
Urban Meyer retires.
Michigan must modernize its offense while playing a realistic defense.
Until one of those two things occur, this is a 9-10 win program under Harbaugh. Very good, yes, but not elite.
That’s why tiny Northwestern will play in the Big Ten Championship Game before we do. They don’t have to go through Urban Meyer every year. We do.