Max Marcovitch: The tiresome Harbaugh whiplash

Sunday, October 6, 2019 - 8:24pm

Saturday's victory over Iowa marked the fifth top-15 win of Jim Harbaugh's tenure at Michigan, none of which have come on the road.

Saturday's victory over Iowa marked the fifth top-15 win of Jim Harbaugh's tenure at Michigan, none of which have come on the road. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

I don’t know about you all, but I’m exhausted.

Saturday, a pretty-good-but-flawed Michigan team beat a pretty-good-but-flawed Iowa team, 10-3, in a game that clearly highlighted both team’s merits and shortcomings. The Wolverines were favored by 3.5 points — and that seems about right. Their defense shone, their offense sputtered. The former outlasted the latter, and so Michigan is now 4-1 instead of 3-2. It was the fifth top-15 win of the Jim Harbaugh era, none of which have come away from Michigan Stadium. That’s a game Michigan wins at home and might not on the road.

And that’s all it was.

We’re five years into Harbaugh’s tenure now, and all of these narratives follow a remarkably consistent path. It’s time to stop treating every “big” game as a referendum on the Harbaugh era. This Iowa game, that coming Notre Dame game. Hell, even this Ohio State game. In all likelihood, none of it will bring about the “breaking point” that so many in the national media ecosystem seem to clamor for.

Some, like Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt, billed this Iowa game as such. “I believe that Saturday is the defining moment of the Harbaugh era,” Klatt said on The Herd with Colin Cowherd. “… If they do (win), there’s at least hope. If they don’t, they’re in trouble. I think it’s in-defendable if they lose this weekend.”

This is not to pick on Klatt specifically, who is merely one in an assembly line of analysts who recite similar tropes.

This specific team has some real flaws, no matter if its coach wants to acknowledge them, publicly or otherwise. Asked to assess his offense — which gained 267 yards, totaled under four yards per carry for the fourth consecutive game and failed to score in the final 53:33 of the game — Harbaugh said: “I really do think they’re hitting their stride. Got great faith in our players and our coaches.” 

Some diagnosed the characterization as wrong and tone deaf or — undoubtedly worse — correct and indicting. Others dismissed it as a defense mechanism for his players, who will face the brunt of criticism this week for an offense that looks lost.

Criticism is wholly warranted right now. This offense, billed as a bale of goods has, instead, been a bundle of mediocrity. No spin will change that. But what the head coach says publicly doesn’t matter if the actions behind the scenes dictate otherwise.

What it shouldn’t be, as everything seems to funnel back to these days, is a commentary on the future of the Michigan football program, and specifically on the Harbaugh era.

Michigan is a top-10-to-15 football program in the nation. It is a good program that almost always wins the games it should and almost never wins the games it shouldn’t. The latter is what prohibits upward ascension. That boils down to recruiting, execution and, yes, coaching. No, the momentary satisfaction of removing the head coach would not be the salve to vault this program into that elite upper-echelon. 

This doesn’t seem to be the year that move happens, if it ever does. As it turns out, that leap is quite rare and quite difficult to sustain — particularly when your primary rival is among the best programs in the nation.

We’re five years in now. This is what it is. Not every game is “Harbaugh’s breaking point.” Most are not. When Michigan goes to Penn State, it will have a chance to win a road game of the ilk it has yet to do under Harbaugh. Take it to the bank that some commentators — national media, in particular — will bill it as some form of a breaking point. An inflection point. A moment of truth. Choose your cliché.

Win or lose, there will be some wildly reactionary narrative that will stray to one polar end. Then, we’ll gear up for Notre Dame weekend to do it all again. 

Sometimes a mid-season home win over Iowa is just that — no more, no less. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. Because I'm getting pretty tired of it.

Marcovitch can be reached on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch or via email at maxmarco@umich.edu