Nearly every year of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure has prompted the question whether he’s the right man for the job. Season after season, questions swirled and doubts arose — until this one, that is.
A College Football Playoff berth, a Big Ten Championship and, perhaps most importantly, a win over rival Ohio State vaulted Harbaugh onto a pedestal. He expelled his demons overnight like a scene pulled straight from The Exorcist.
But one ghost still remains.
The final blemish on Harbaugh’s updated résumé is Michigan State. Harbaugh holds a meager 3-4 record against the Spartans in his previous seven seasons as coach. In the past two years, with Mel Tucker at the helm in East Lansing, Harbaugh is winless. And unlike the juggernaut Buckeyes, Michigan State has been human, rendering some losses inexcusable.
It’s why Harbaugh focused his and his program’s attention on the Spartans all the way back in July.
“I don’t want us to be more worried about Ohio State than we are of Michigan State, because we haven’t beat (those) guys in two years,” Harbaugh said. “We need to get right, get dialed in with them too, and we will.”
Now is the time for that attention spent on the Spartans to pay off in a win; But Harbaugh’s grotesque history with Michigan State almost seems, well, haunted.
It began in Harbaugh’s first bout against the Spartans as coach, perhaps the most harrowing of them all. You might not want to talk about it, but you know it as well as any game — win or loss — in the past decade.
It’s 2015, the No. 12 Michigan football team is 5-1 and a No. 7 undefeated Michigan State team is in town. Up 23-21 late in the fourth quarter, the Wolverines landed an all-important sack and forced a turnover on downs. An upset, the first rivalry win in Harbaugh’s career, was in reach. With 10 seconds left, Paul Bunyan was all but Michigan’s — all the Wolverines had to do was punt.
You can fill in the blank.
“We played winning football and didn’t get the result,” Harbaugh said after the game. “Welcome to football.”
Welcome to the rivalry, Jim.
Harbaugh’s Spartan woes never really went away. A 14-10 loss in a virtual monsoon, a Halloween COVID-year upset and a heartbreaker last season in a top-10 battle of unbeatens round out the remaining defeats. His results haven’t done much to inspire confidence in a rivalry where Michigan fans like to claim dominance.
That confidence is a large reason why, from an outside perspective, this game matters so much for Harbaugh. There’s been little reason, and few legitimate excuses, for his teams not to be dominating this rivalry. Year after year, the Wolverines bring in better recruiting classes. Michigan State has even undergone a coaching change. But still, Harbaugh has struggled.
Some losses, such as last year’s, are so puzzling that all Harbaugh has left to say is simple.
“That didn’t go the way we wanted to,” he lamented after the 2021 defeat.
And what else can he say? That he failed once again? That, whether the Wolverines are the better team or not, the Spartans seem to be able to walk away with Paul Bunyan in years they shouldn’t?
No, the only thing that can speak for Harbaugh are the results on the field. And those results can shout.
After the 2020 loss, in Michigan’s worst season in many years, three-star recruit Andrel Anthony — an East Lansing-native — might have wavered.
“That did open a lot of eyes,” Anthony told the Detroit Free Press in 2020. “I can tell you that. It opened eyes across the United States. Everybody was looking at MSU as ‘Oh, they’re really bad right now and they’re in a rebuilding process.’ But to go out and beat Michigan, I am pretty sure everybody was surprised.”
The sophomore receiver, as we of course know now, did not flip his commitment. Anthony remained steady, bound for Ann Arbor. But that’s not always the case, and there are fallout effects that span larger than a loss on the record.
And it’s on Harbaugh to prevent that from happening.
A 3-4 record isn’t enough, zero wins against Tucker isn’t enough and frequently losing to worse Michigan State teams is far from enough.
This Saturday, against the hobbling 3-4 Spartans, Harbaugh has the chance to get even in his tenure and begin to reclaim the rivalry. Frankly, he doesn’t have a choice. A loss would be catastrophic, not only proving once again Michigan State has his number, but crippling the Wolverines’ chances at the College Football Playoff and back-to-back Big Ten trophies.
A win won’t earn Harbaugh high praise or laurels. It’s what should happen, and it’s what needs to happen. But it will be a part of his narrative. This week, in preparation, Harbaugh gets to dip his pen in the ink one last time.
Saturday, it hits paper.