When Jim Harbaugh was hired at Michigan almost six years ago, he was asked whether he saw himself as the program’s savior. He was asked about that question Monday, fresh off the most demoralizing loss of his tenure.
“I didn’t consider myself a savior then,” he said, “I don’t now.”
Rather, he insisted, he is part of a team. Technically, that’s true. He is part of a team. For him to say otherwise would be silly.
Besides, the issue this week — after losing to Michigan State as a heavy favorite — isn’t whether Harbaugh thinks he is a savior.
It’s whether you do. And by you, I mean U-M fans.
Because if you take away the “savior” expectation, Harbaugh has done a lot of what he was hired to do: rebuild the program and win double-digit games — at least occasionally. OK, so the occasionally wasn’t in the fine print.
Still, Harbaugh won 10 games three times in his first four seasons, something U-M hadn’t done since the late ’90s. Considering where the Wolverines were when Harbaugh was hired, this has been an improvement.
The problem is Harbaugh hasn’t been able to do the other thing he was hired to do:
Beat Ohio State.
For beating the Buckeyes would lead to conference championships and fighting for a spot in the College Football Playoff. And he was hired to do that, too.
Looking back, the expectation was unrealistic. While Brady Hoke compiled a couple of nice recruiting classes, and Harbaugh has signed two, it requires inking elite classes almost every year to compete with the top programs in the sport these days.
Ohio State does that. And until U-M and Harbaugh can close that gap, 10-win seasons and a loss to the Buckeyes is probably the Wolverines’ ceiling.
That may be depressing for U-M fans. But it shouldn’t be. It’s history.
Consider, in the 45 years since the Wolverines have played a minimum of 12 games, they’ve won more than 10 four times.
Bo Schembechler did it once in 15 seasons, in 1986, when he won 11 games. Lloyd Carr did it twice, including the year he won a share of the national championship, when his Wolverines went 12-0. And Hoke did it his first season after taking over for Rich Rodriguez.
It’s not that winning 11 games is the standard for today’s best programs. With the CFP in play, there are more games on the schedule, at least for the top teams.
The Buckeyes, for example, have won 12 or more games in eight of their last 10 seasons. You’ll find similar numbers at Alabama, and Clemson the last five years.
This has never been U-M’s standard. And that’s just fine. The trouble comes with forgetting that, with conflating the program’s iconic helmet and fight song and brand with actual history.
In other words, Harbaugh wasn’t hired to get the Wolverines back to an elite level. He couldn’t have been. Because U-M had never consistently been there.
Not in the modern era anyway, not outside a couple of stellar seasons under Carr and a handful under Schembechler, back when U-M and OSU stockpiled all the talent in the region and dominated the Big Ten.
Which means Harbaugh was hired to do something kind of new. To catch the best programs in the sport.
And he hasn’t. In fact, he hasn’t come close.
For that, rip him all you want. He’s in his sixth season, and his best team was recruited by the coach that preceded him.
Criticize him, too, for not having his team ready to handle MSU on Saturday, for not adapting and adjusting during the game, for not being able to handle adversity — you could see the Wolverines grow increasingly frustrated.
Harbaugh knows he is not the savior. He’s always known that. He knew that before he lost to a three-touchdown underdog Saturday afternoon at Michigan Stadium.
So, what is he?
A good football coach who runs a respectable program who is fighting an all-time run in Columbus and a fan base that thinks its program is something it’s not, and mostly never has been.
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