Here is a list of every current college football coach that has won at least a share of a Power 5 conference title: Kirk Ferentz, Mark Dantonio, Brett Bielema, Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher, Les Miles, Mark Richt, Gus Malzahn, Nick Saban, David Shaw, Mark Helfricht, Mike Gundy, Gary Patterson, Art Briles, Bill Snyder, Charlie Strong, Bob Stoops, Tommy Tuberville, Bobby Petrino, Brian Kelly (Big East when it sort of mattered), Frank Solich, and Rich Rodriguez (see Brian Kelly). Jim Harbaugh, the mania inducing curmudgeon on the sidelines in Ann Arbor, is perhaps the most notably absent name from a list ranging from coaching legend to “Wait when the fuck did Tommy Tuberville win something?”
Yet, though Harbaugh sports just a 39-24 career record at the collegiate level, quite pedestrian compared to other “celebrity” coaches like Nick Saban who is 91-17 at Alabama, it is Harbaugh that seems to be taking the nation by storm while giving literally zero fucks. I’m confused as to why I haven’t seen Frank Solich visiting the Supreme Court, as Harbaugh did. When did Urban Meyer coach first base for the Cleveland Indians, prompting an almost three-minute SportsCenter segment? Can we please start following Les Miles as he travels the world on vacation with his family? I sincerely feel we are missing out on the tree climbing abilities of Nick Saban.
Instead, we simply watch Harbaugh. Unless Petrino is wiping out on his motorcycle with a teenage slam, Shaw flirts with every NFL team like a freshman Alpha Phi, Gundy lets everyone know what a “man” he is, or when Bill Snyder someday expires, we hear essentially nothing about these men outside of gameday, and perhaps more tellingly, when substantive discussion of their program and/or university accompanies their mention. This is undoubtedly influenced by Harbaugh’s spectacular ability to not only promote the University of Michigan, but to willingly humiliate himself all with a feigned lack of self-awareness or care. In just over fourteen months on the job in Ann Arbor, even the casual fan has witnessed Harbaugh parade around the nation ruffling feathers, “hiring” families of sought after recruits, sub-tweeting celebrities, and laughing his way to near-icon status.
But is Jim Harbaugh a Saban-esque caliber coach, or a spectacularly interesting fraud? Unfortunately, even I (not a Michigan or Harbaugh fan) cannot come up with a coherent argument for anyone not named Meyer or Saban eclipsing the Harbaugh supernova. Frankly, I don’t really know why. In reality, Harbaugh is a great NFL coach, but highly unproven at the NCAA D-I level. Though undoubtedly a success at Stanford, Harbaugh teams, prior to the emergence of perhaps the greatest college quarterback of all time, posted just a 9-15 overall record. With Luck, Harbaugh earned a 19-6 overall record, one bowl win, and came within one game of a shared conference title. This doesn’t sound all that impressive, but when considering the fact Stanford under previous coach Walt Harris had won a combined 7 games the previous two seasons, posting a 1-11 record the year prior to messiah Harbaugh, the turnaround is nothing short of remarkable.
In San Francisco, Harbaugh took over a franchise without a playoff appearance in the better part of a decade, a team so bad that former NFL linebacker and 49ers Head Coach Mike Singletary ripped Vernon Davis before being replaced, 10 months later the 49ers were in the NFC title game, where they would appear in each of Harbaugh’s first three seasons (with one victory). At Michigan, Harbaugh took over a fallen giant, just a month after their second worst season since the Kennedy administration, allowing Brady Hoke to return full-time to his position as Governor of New Jersey. In his first season at the helm of his alma mater, Harbaugh doubled the previous season’s win total and won Michigan’s first bowl game since 2011.
However, Harbaugh led teams have seemingly always come up short in the biggest games. There was the collapse at the hands of Chip Kelly with an undefeated Stanford in 2010, guaranteeing another Oregon PAC 12 title. The next year, another 4th quarter stumble led to a Giants NFC Title in overtime. Harbaugh was four plays from within the 5-yard line to win the Super Bowl, resulting in little brother John hoisting the Lombardi trophy. Remember Harbaugh’s curious play call attacking Richard Sherman at the end of the 2014 NFC Championship game? The ball was tipped and intercepted. In his first season in maize & blue, Harbaugh oversaw perhaps the greatest blunder in college football history. 10 seconds from defeating Mark Dantionio and the Spartans for just the second time since 2007, Harbaugh failed to call timeout after MSU had shifted into an all out block, leaving two “gunners” 12 yards to the outside of the formation, in an apparent attempt to tackle the Spartan’s nonexistent return man. Then this happened:
Even after the debacle in the Big House, Michigan entered “The Game” with a chance at a Big 10 championship, and the Buckeyes on their home turf. The most notable moment of this game, for Michigan fans at least, was the pre-game flyover. Michigan lost 42-13.
I have little doubt Harbaugh will win a lot of games in Ann Arbor. He is recruiting too well not to, and Michigan is an enduring brand in college football that will always be relevant (though Rich Rodriguez really tested this narrative). However, as it stands today, I can’t proclaim Harbaugh as anything more than the “greatest coach that hasn’t actually won anything.” Sorry Lane Kiffin..
Image via YouTube