A little less than a year ago, some parts of the Michigan fan base were calling for Jim Harbaugh’s head. A 2-4 season preceded by a middling 9-4 season with losses to Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State left a bad taste in the mouths of fans, supplanting the memories of a 2018 ‘Revenge Tour’ and a 2016 where Michigan fell one yard short of making the playoffs.
Now, Jim Harbaugh takes a 10-1 program into The Game. Just like in 2016. Just like in 2018.
There are championship implications beyond The Game this week, for the third time in Harbaugh’s seven years with the Wolverines. The Game may still end the same way, with Michigan taking a ninth straight loss in the rivalry, but it actually catches the attention of more than just the fans of Michigan and Ohio State.
That’s why Harbaugh was extended. To make this team competitive and put the program into a national conversation.
The same can’t be said for the counterpart of other famous rivalries across the country. The Red River Showdown is oftentimes moot, with Texas consistently falling down the rankings throughout the course of the season. Notre Dame-USC doesn’t carry championship stakes anymore either, with USC in a constant state of turmoil. Nebraska doesn’t play its old rivals anymore, but when it does those games don’t carry national implications — the Cornhuskers suck.
This week, this rivalry’s residual relevance is why you bring back Harbaugh, especially on his new contract. This is why you pay him a salary that doesn’t necessarily carry with it the expectations of championship but still brings the expectations of competing.
Texas, USC, Nebraska have all fallen down since their glory days of the ‘90s and ‘00s, something Michigan did too. Until Harbaugh came back. Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez broke Michigan football, but Harbaugh has (at least somewhat) fixed it, and he’s certainly brought back enthusiasm.
Look at how those three glory-days programs have done over the last 10 years — over the last five, even. There’s coaching turmoil every 3-4 years; Steve Sarkisian is on the hot seat less than a year after being hired. There’s lowered expectations, and they even fail to meet those.
Firing Harbaugh a year ago would have brought Michigan back into those death traps. Retaining him keeps the Wolverines competitive and repeatedly in the national narrative.
His shortcomings are well known: His record in The Game is abysmal, he’s only 3-4 against Michigan State, he’s only won one bowl game and he’s never been to a Big Ten Championship. But he’s also ended four out of his six seasons with a team ranked in the top 25. He also gets the fans’ hopes up to the point where, year after year, they still delude themselves into thinking Michigan may beat Ohio State.
Perhaps this year, with a revamped team culture and what is seemingly a new approach to the season for Harbaugh, the team may win (but probably not). The Wolverines have already surpassed the preseason expectations of even the most optimistic fan. They’ve also won in hostile road environments like Penn State and Wisconsin, something past Michigan teams under Harbaugh have struggled with.
This team has suggested it’s different all season, as early as its Oct. 9 victory over Nebraska.
“I think overall that this team has decided to be different this year,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara said then. “And I think it’s not as much what you see football-wise, it’s the atmosphere that we’ve created, and really the mindset that we’ve rebuilt this offseason, and I think it showed today.”
There are posters in Michigan’s locker room that ask, “What are you doing today to beat Ohio State?” They’ve named a drill after The Game. These Wolverines are focused. They believe they are different.
The Game matters more than ever for this program, but it also matters for the Big Ten East championship and the College Football Playoff. That’s something other programs can’t say about their rivalry game.
And that is why you bring back Jim Harbaugh: to play a game in late November, with more at stake than pride.
Managing Sports Editor Kent Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com.