The answer to Harbaugh’s critics

by Nov 8, 20210 comments

That Jim Harbaugh hasn’t gotten Michigan over the hump is no newsflash. His struggles at his alma mater are well documented. They’re often based on three metrics: 2-and-13 against the top 10, including 0-and-6 on the road, and 2-and-9 away from Ann Arbor against ranked opponents. But what’s the real reason you hate him, or at least why you show him no mercy?

How come we seldom hear similar criticism directed at his counterparts? Is Harbaugh the only coach of whom this could be said? I held eight other notable coaches to the same light to see if such singular shade was justified. Only two of the eight coaches included in my research are outside the top 10 in salary: James Franklin (13th highest-paid, $5.4 million) and Paul Chryst (26th highest-paid, $4.3 million).

With the exception of Nick Saban, the highest paid in college football, and Ryan Day, who has yet to face a top 10 team on the road, every coach I looked at is failing in at least one of the three aforementioned data points. Even Dabo Swinney has a losing record against top 10 teams on the road. In an indictment on the ACC, he’s only had one opportunity since 2015, a 47-40 loss in South Bend last year. In his 13 years as Clemson’s head coach, he’s just 1-and-4 against top 10 teams on the road, the one win coming 12 years ago (no. 8 Miami, 40-37). Kirby Smart is also winless (0-and-2) on the road against the top 10 since he took over Georgia in 2016.

It might surprise you David Shaw is the third highest-paid coach in the country at $8.92 million. And his one-and-three record against top 10 teams on the road since 2015 doesn’t give the athletic department buyer’s remorse.

Paul Chryst joined Wisconsin the same year Harbaugh assumed the reins at Michigan. He is 5-and-9 against the top 10 and 3-and-6 against ranked opponents on the road, but you wouldn’t know it.

That leaves just two coaches: Franklin and Jimbo Fisher, and both have records extremely similar to Harbaugh’s in all three areas. Franklin’s are even worse than Harbaugh’s actually.

The football world didn’t fall out of love with Harbaugh due to underwhelming performance in the above categories. Anyone who claims the opposite is ignorant, disingenuous, or purposely trying to deceive. Of the nine aforementioned coaches, only one of them is still looking for that first championship

Chryst has taken the Badgers to Indianapolis thrice. The fact he hasn’t won one of them is inconsequential. He got there, and for the sake of this discussion, that’s all that matters. Swinney has won a ridiculous seven conference championship games in eight tries since becoming the head man in 2009 to go along with his two national titles. Shaw has led the Cardinal to the Pac-12 Championship Game four times since Harbaugh left, winning three of them. Nobody cares Smart is winless against top 10 road opponents and it has everything to do with his 2017 playoff team. Franklin won his championship in 2016. How long of a reprieve from meaningful criticism does a B1G championship buy you these days? At least five years apparently since Franklin is believed to be under serious consideration for a promotion at either USC or LSU. Evidently, a national championship provides super immunity because Fisher has won a fat lot of nothing for the Aggies since taking over in 2018, the huge upset a couple weeks ago against Alabama notwithstanding. Fisher gets a pass solely for the fact he hoisted the crystal football five years before at Florida State.

Harbaugh has dug himself quite the statistical hole at Michigan – a hole so vast he’s going to have to produce a full-fledged dynasty just to break even. It’s unnecessary to quiet the critics, though. Deliverance from Harbaugh’s purgatory comes by way of beating Ohio State and wining the Big Ten championship – just once. Do it once and watch hope spring anew in Ann Arbor. Just the thought causes it to spring eternal in the heart of hearts of even the most jaded, pessimistic fans of the program.

Update: At the time this article was published, Michigan had not yet traveled to no. 23 Penn State. With the 21-17 win, Harbaugh is now 3-9 against ranked opponents on the road.

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Keith Eichholz

Lead writer for the Voice of College Football. Thorough, evidence-based, critical thinker. Husband to a beautiful wife, father to a terrific kid, always looking forward to football Saturday.

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