Jim Harbaugh sat near a microphone in Atlanta looking as dejected as he’d ever been since taking over the Michigan job just after Christmas in 2014.
A once-promising season had crumbled into a dust for the second time in three years, as Harbaugh’s club followed the gut punch it received at Ohio State with a blowout loss to Florida in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29.
Harbaugh would probably say he doesn’t get dejected. He is, after all, the guy who quoted Ernest Hemingway about how a man can be destroyed, but not defeated after his San Francisco 49ers fell 18 yards short in the 2013 NFC Championship game. He’s the same guy who said he wasn’t heartbroken after a stunning last-second loss to rival Michigan State in 2015. If the heart is broken, he explained later, then you’re not alive.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh watches from the sideline during his team’s game against Notre Dame in 2018. (Photo: Matt Cashore, USA TODAY Sports)
This is how it works with Michigan’s head coach. He wants to show a little more steel in the spine. A little more elbow grease. No one’s going to see him break, even if that breaking point might be approaching.
Still, there he was in Atlanta in December, unable to explain why his team couldn’t finish off a season that looked destined to end with a Big Ten title and trip to the College Football Playoff. In the moment, he had no answers.
“I think we’re going to take what we have and reload,” he said. “Keep working to put it over the top.”
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Twelve days after that loss, as is customary with Harbaugh, he changed his mind.
For possibly the first time in his head-coaching career, he passed control of the offensive playbook to someone else. Someone younger, someone with more modern ideas. He hired Josh Gattis, a 35-year-old former co-offensive coordinator at Alabama and Joe Moorhead disciple. The move re-routed Gattis from a possible job at Maryland to a top spot in Ann Arbor with a hefty pay raise, brand new responsibility and a whole lot of pressure.
It’s Year 5 at Michigan, and Harbaugh no longer has the luxury of status quo. In many ways, this always has been a whatever-it-takes situation. Now, more than ever.
“Obviously we’re going to do what’s best for our team and put our guys in the best position to be able to help us (win),” Gattis said this spring. “I think one of the unique things about coach Harbaugh (is) his willingness (to try anything) and his ‘whatever-it-takes’ mentality.”
None of that thinking happened enough last season at Michigan, especially offensively. Harbaugh had put together an offense that too often straddled a line of what used to work – downhill power football with an emphasis on time of possession – and what is known to work now – high-octane spread offenses that attack on the ground and through the air. Against weaker competition, Harbuagh’s method worked. Against better teams, it was a struggle.
Against Ohio State, the Wolverines bottomed out. Michigan’s defense was the main culprit that spurred a 62-39 loss that day. But the offense, despite adding 20 points after the game was basically out of contention, was incapable of playing from behind against a team with elite talent.
Michigan became a one-dimensional football team. One that was good enough for 10 wins, but not good enough for a Big Ten title. Or the College Football Playoff.
And as Harbaugh enters Year 5, with the school’s last conference title coming in 2004, that’s all that matters in Ann Arbor.
So, whatever it takes.
“It just feels natural out there,” Michigan senior quarterback Shea Patterson said this spring of the team’s new offense. “I have all these playmakers around me and all these different ways we can get what we want.”
Gattis takes over an offense that had budding-but-underutilized talent last season and faces the challenge of getting the most out of what should be one of the nation’s elite receiving corps in 2019. Patterson enters his second year as Michigan’s starting quarterback with a receiver trio (Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black) full of NFL potential and a steady offensive line in front of him. If this offense doesn’t put up points, it’s because of a sideline problem.
And that’s something Harbaugh can’t afford at this juncture.
During his four years at Michigan, against teams not named Ohio State, Harbaugh is 38-9 with a 26-5 record in conference play. Against the Buckeyes, he’s 0-4. Urban Meyer’s gone now, but Ohio State’s recruiting profile with Ryan Day, who hired top recruiters Al Washington and Greg Mattison away from Michigan during the offseason, still is one of the country’s best. And the Buckeyes’ edge in the rivalry magnifies that.
Harbaugh has won 73 percent of his games. He’s stabilized the fractured foundation left behind by predecessors Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez. But he hasn’t delivered the type of success most thought he’d be capable of when he took the job. He hasn’t won a title of any kind. The fan base, which adored his every move when he was hired, has grown increasingly frustrated with being good, but not great.
At most places, Harbaugh’s run of three double-digit win seasons in four years would be cause for celebration. Michigan isn’t most places, though, and he knows that better than anyone. So, as Michigan enters a defining year of the Harbaugh era, the situation remains the same:
Another loss to Ohio State and another season absent a championship puts Michigan that much deeper into no-man’s land.
Harbaugh’s program is firmly entrenched in the group of teams that are good enough to be in the conversation come October, but not good enough to really do anything when it matters. The longer a program stays in that situation, the harder it is to recruit against college football’s juggernauts and become a perennial contender. It’s better than being rudderless. But each season still ends in disappointment.
This is the reason Harbaugh changed more than he ever has this offseason. Now, there are only two things left to do: Beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten.
Whatever it takes.
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