Jim Harbaugh is entering what some may suggest is a pivotal third season at Michigan. I tend to give head coaches in a new job a full four-year cycle to prove whether or not they are the right fit for a job, but there are certain jobs that see that evaluation period trimmed down. Michigan, paying Harbaugh over $9 million, is most definitely one of them.
Last week on The Comeback, during Big Ten week on the college football preview schedule, Harbaugh was in the spotlight heading into the 2017 season. The question posed to the roundtable forum was how long the Harbaugh hype can continue to carry the load at Michigan. The premise of the question was based on the fact Michigan has finished the past two seasons in third place in the Big Ten East, during a stretch in which Harbaugh and Michigan are 0-2 against Ohio State. Overall, you would be silly to suggest Harbaugh has been a failure at Michigan after just two seasons (one of which was highly encouraging), but as time goes by it is fair to suggest Michigan should expect more out of Harbaugh if that trend continues in 2017.
Michigan will start the year far less experienced than they were a year ago, but the talent and potential for the Wolverines is still considerably high given how Harbaugh has recruited since arriving as the head coach and seeing what he can do to help develop the talent he brings in and inherits (see this past NFL Draft as an example). But in 2017, Ohio State figures to be the Big Ten favorite with a chance at making a third trip to the College Football Playoff. Penn State is also entering the season with some high expectations and some consider the Nittany Lions a viable playoff contender as well. Does that leave Michigan sitting in a reserved spot for third place once again?
While playing off the recent conversation on The Comeback on Twitter with some others on Twitter, I gathered a few collective thoughts and shared them in one Twitter post to recap where the discussion had gone. I will admit it comes off looking much more nitpicky and narrative-esque than I intended. In it, I looked at the results of some head coaches in their third years at their current jobs so we can get a sense of what Harbaugh may be up against as far as his job performance is concerned.
Fortunately for me, the president tweeted a video meme of him knocking down CNN so it got people off my back for a little bit.
Of course, we are comparing gala apples to red delicious apples here. For starters, building a foundation at Stanford in no way should be comparable to what any of the other coaches happened to do at their current jobs. The intro comes off misleading because it looks as though I am completely ignoring the previous head coaching stints of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and James Franklin while including Harbaugh’s first FBS job. That was not the intention at all. But I would suggest that taking over as the head coach of a program like Michigan is on par with Saban taking over at Alabama at the time Saban was hired by the Crimson Tide. Alabama wasn’t the Alabama they are today before Saban took the job, and in his third year he managed to win a national title.
Ohio State was a well-oiled machine before Meyer took over as head coach (it just needed a one-year service check-up under Luke Fickell after Jim Tressel was removed), but he won a national title in his third year on the job and went undefeated in his first (and probably would have beaten Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game if not for a postseason ban). At Clemson, Dabo Swinney turned Clemson in the right direction and stunned Virginia Tech for the ACC Championship in his third season in charge. (nevermind what happened in the Orange Bowl after that).
And yes, Harbaugh is 2-0 against Franklin and smacked Penn State all around Ann Arbor last season, but Penn State was the one hoisting the Big Ten championship trophy at the end of the season thanks in part to wins against two teams Michigan lost to in November. Penn State also got on a fast track with a rebuidling roster that was inherited in worst shape than Harbaugh took over at Michigan.
Considering all that is being invested in Michigan football between the coaching contracts, a spring practice trip in Florida, an overseas trip to Italy (and more to come?), and so on, should Michigan fans begin putting more pressure on Harbaugh to deliver a Big Ten championship, if not a national championship? Absolutely, if he doesn’t do it this year.
Harbaugh entering Year 3 as Michigan’s head coach will do so starting the year with a younger roster in need of experience. Ohio State is a better team. Playing at Penn State in a revenge game could be difficult. Playing Florida in the opener should be a challenge. Michigan may not really have a shot at winning the Big Ten in 2017, and most will give Harbaugh a pass for that. That’s fair, but the pressure for winning big in 2018 will be high. By then, the entire program will have been modeled and developed by Harbaugh and his staff. The excuses will be gone, just as they expired for Brady Hoke taking over for Rich Rodriguez and Brian Kelly taking over after Charlie Weis at Notre Dame.
Harbaugh is not going to be thrown on any hot seats so long as the donors keep supporting Michigan and the Wolverines remain relevant. But if Harbaugh does not deliver a national championship in the next 24 months, the story could begin spinning a different direction.