Wojo: It's time for Jim Harbaugh to prove his worth

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Maybe Jim Harbaugh thought it’d be easier when he arrived five years ago, embraced like few coaches ever are. He was paid immensely. He was given complete control of a Michigan football program in dire need of a strong leader, and he took the responsibility seriously.

He went to extreme lengths to land recruits. He battled other coaches over satellite camps and rules, made well-publicized overseas trips and re-established the brand. The Wolverines pummeled some opponents and lost some heartbreakers, and most figured it was a matter of time before Harbaugh finally beat Ohio State, won a Big Ten title and fulfilled his billing.

Michigan has posted a 40-15 record under coach Jim Harbaugh, but the Wolverines are only 1-9 against top-10 teams.

Fifty-five games in, it has stalled. Not necessarily derailed, but definitely stalled. And now, in the aftermath of Wisconsin’s 35-14 pummeling of Michigan, the task must look larger than it did five years ago, when Harbaugh knew exactly the type of team he wanted, tough and power-based.

Now there’s uncertainty on offense, with the Wolverines stuck between systems, transitioning to the pro spread under first-time coordinator Josh Gattis. There’s uncertainty on defense, where Don Brown’s aggressive, man-to-man fixation doesn’t look so menacing when the talent isn’t menacing. There’s unrest in the fan base and criticism from former players.

And now the question must be asked: Is there uncertainty in Harbaugh himself? If indeed the job is tougher than he imagined, is he willing to fight his way back, fight for his program, even fight for his reputation?

Harbaugh is a successful leader by record and rank, from San Diego to Stanford to the 49ers. But he was still fighting his way up the coaching ladder then, scrapping all the way to the Super Bowl. He was fiery and fearless and innovative, and the prevailing images were of him angrily yanking off his headset, or firing his playsheet to the ground, or shooing away Pete Carroll after Stanford shocked USC.

Flickering fire

We haven’t seen much of that here, especially since the double-overtime loss at Ohio State in 2016, when Harbaugh was furious with the officiating and penalized for it. Listen, no one says a coach has to throw things to show his competitiveness, but there has been a noticeable downtick in his emotional fervor. Harbaugh was never a dynamic press-conference subject, and 49ers players joked about his quirks, even as they were winning.

He seems even more detached now, more distracted by outside issues. He’s never been a fiery pregame speech guy, and most often, those clips come from Brown. Last year, when Michigan won at Michigan State, it was linebacker Devin Bush who lit the pregame fire, stomping on the field.

College football has a lot to do with motivation and inspiration, different than the pros. NFL players are motivated by the paycheck.

At times, Harbaugh seems trapped between the business side of the pro game and the rah-rah rush of college football. He changes assistants regularly. In his “meritocracy,” players appear more inclined to transfer at the first hint of discomfort. I guarantee, Michigan could use more big bodies like James Hudson (now at Cincinnati) and Aubrey Solomon (Tennessee).

Passion can’t be manufactured, and at 55, with the third-highest salary in college football, with a large family living in Ann Arbor near where he grew up, what drives Harbaugh now? Can he still stir an enthusiasm unknown to mankind? More important, can he stir it in players?

I don’t doubt Harbaugh’s desire to win, and when changes needed to be made, he wasn’t stubborn or arrogant. He brought in Gattis to tailor a new offense around Shea Patterson and the quarterbacks, and he said he would retreat from play-calling.

It seemed like the smart thing to do. And over time, it may prove to be.

But in a way it also was the easiest thing to do, abdicating some responsibility to a 35-year-old assistant who had never called plays. The issues were laid bare at Wisconsin — a staggering 359-40 rushing yardage differential — and Harbaugh isn’t skirting them. He was as forthright as he’s ever been after a loss, talking about the lack of toughness and physical play.

“Not acceptable,” Harbaugh said Monday. “It starts, really, with not acceptable for me. You start by being self-critical and determined to get it fixed.”

Troubling numbers

I think he can fix it, as long as he’s passionately determined to fix it. Michigan wouldn’t be the first team to get demoralized early in a season and bounce back. There’s talent, although perhaps not as much as anticipated. You assume the ridiculous rate of fumbles can’t continue. The experienced offensive line surely can play better, and so can Patterson. The receivers should make a bigger impact as everyone adapts to the new offense.

But if issues of entitlement have crept in and disrupted the chemistry, Harbaugh has a lot of work to do. This is about more than one game. Since rising to 10-1 last November, Michigan is 2-3, with losses by 23 to Ohio State, 26 to Florida and 21 to Wisconsin. Several players eying the NFL sat out the bowl game, another example of players adopting the business-like approach that Harbaugh espouses.

The Wolverines are 2-1 with Rutgers coming to town Saturday, and Harbaugh is 40-15 overall, but other numbers tell the troublesome tale — 1-9 versus top-10 teams, 0-7 as an underdog, 0-4 versus Ohio State. Much of college football, annoyed by the attention Harbaugh receives, happily revels in his struggles.

Harbaugh picks battles — large and small — that are perfectly acceptable in college football, as long as you win. He took a jab at Urban Meyer before the season, not prudent considering Meyer will spend the year on national TV bluntly dissecting teams. Meyer had warned a spread offense takes time to install, and practically scoffed at the notion of a smooth transition for the Wolverines. After the Wisconsin game, Meyer said, “You have to lift up the hood and ask what’s wrong,” and it’s not easily answered.

Five years is the longest Harbaugh has ever stayed in a head-coaching job, and it’s well-documented his abrasive manner can be wearying.

Maybe it doesn’t foster the deepest connections with players and assistants.

When the Wolverines have hit adversity lately, they’ve crumbled. As much as physical toughness, the mental toughness is a concern. When fullback Ben Mason fumbled on Michigan’s first possession at Wisconsin — an inexplicable play call, by the way — the Wolverines admitted they deflated. Too often, they lose focus, perhaps because their head coach loses focus.

No one would’ve predicted in Year 5, Harbaugh would still be figuring out the best way to build his program. No, all is not lost, but something is missing. Can Harbaugh find it? I think he can, but at the moment, the uncertainty is very real.


Twitter @bobwojnowski