About halfway through Jim Harbaugh’s postgame news conference Saturday night, someone asked the Michigan coach whether his team’s 24-17 loss to Notre Dame was a setback.
Harbaugh shrugged. “It’s not a setback,” he said. “It’s a beginning.”
Most of Harbaugh’s answers during the eight minutes he spent with media members were like that one: delivered in a monotone, brief and — for the most part — not to the point. He showered the media with cliches: “We played fast and competed hard. . . . We fought hard; there’s room for improvement. . . . We didn’t play well enough. Notre Dame played very well. . . . This was a big opening game. It was not the outcome we wanted. . . . We need good old-fashioned resolve.”
The case can be made that a season-opening loss on the road to the 12th-ranked team in the country is hardly reason for panic, especially when your prize offseason acquisition — Mississippi transfer quarterback Shea Patterson — had moments that provide legitimate hope that Saturday was a new beginning.
But clearly this is not the way it was supposed to be when Harbaugh came home to Michigan in December 2014 to lead the Wolverines back to their rightful place in the college football pantheon.
In the wake of the Notre Dame loss, Harbaugh, 54, even had to endure a Twitter attack from a fellow Michigan man, former wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who called center Cesar Ruiz “weak,” Patterson “scared” and the program as a whole “trash.”
Edwards was suspended by the Big Ten Network, for which he works as a television analyst — no attacks of anything or anyone in the Big Ten allowed — and deleted his tweets. He said afterward that he was wrong to criticize the players but stood by his assessment of the program.
This is not the way it was supposed to be when the prodigal son returned home.
To say that Harbaugh’s return was greeted as a second coming — in this case of Bo Schembechler — might be an understatement. He wasn’t just a “Michigan man,” as Michigan people like to say, he was a MICHIGAN MAN, a protege of Schembechler, THE MICHIGAN MAN, with a coaching résumé that sparkled in every possible way.
There’s a book about Harbaugh titled “Michigan Man.” It is one of a number of books spawned by Harbaugh’s return to his alma mater. One, titled “Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” came out before Harbaugh’s first game. Another, “Rise Again,” co-written by Harbaugh, shows the coach on the cover presenting a Michigan football helmet to Pope Francis.
Drawing attention to himself and his program hasn’t been a problem for Harbaugh. Winning games against quality opponents has been the issue. The Wolverines were 10-3 in each of Harbaugh’s first two seasons. They were literally an inch away from beating Ohio State in 2016 and almost certainly reaching the College Football Playoff. They were very much rising and returning.
But last season they lost their final three games — including a second-tier bowl loss to South Carolina — to finish 8-5. The best players recruited by Harbaugh’s predecessor, Brady Hoke, were gone. People began to notice that Harbaugh was 1-7 in games against top 10 teams and 1-5 against Ohio State and Michigan State, including 0-3 against the despised Buckeyes.
With the loss Saturday in the resumption of the rivalry with Notre Dame, Harbaugh is 1-6 against the three teams Michigan men (and women) want most to defeat.
The loss to Notre Dame dropped Harbaugh’s record since he rode in on his white horse to 28-12. That’s more than respectable. It’s also almost identical to Hoke’s 27-13 record one game into his fourth season.
No one expects this Michigan team to go on to a 5-7 record, the way Hoke’s fourth and final Michigan team did. But beating Western Michigan on Saturday and the likes of SMU, Maryland and Rutgers in weeks to come isn’t going to salve the many wounds suffered by Michigan people in recent years.
To get Michigan minions to buy the next Harbaugh book, the Wolverines are going to need to be successful during a three-game stretch that begins in mid-October when Wisconsin comes to Ann Arbor. A short trip to Michigan State follows, and then, after a week off, Penn State comes to town. After two breathers, Rutgers and Indiana, the regular season will end in Columbus against Ohio State.
Those four games and the Notre Dame game are the ones that will define Harbaugh’s fourth season. The loss to Notre Dame is only going to fuel the questions about Harbaugh’s future at Michigan — not so much short term as long term.
The standards for those who get to coach Michigan Men are almost impossibly high. Lloyd Carr was 122-40 in 13 seasons, won a national championship and went to four Rose Bowls. But when the 2007 season began with a loss to Appalachian State and finished 9-4, Carr was nudged into retirement at age 62. Eleven years later — and after the diminishing returns of Rich Rodriguez and Hoke — Carr is back on a pedestal only below Schembechler.
In these days of instant gratification, Harbaugh might be in some trouble if his team doesn’t start beating ranked opponents this season. But he is absolutely safe for several reasons: First, he is Jim Harbaugh. Second, his coaching pedigree says he will get Michigan where Michigan people believe it should be. Third, if not Harbaugh, then who? Schembechler’s not available. Carr is 73.
The general thinking after last season’s late crash and burn was that quarterback was the team’s problem. That’s why Harbaugh went after Patterson, who was instantly eligible after two seasons at Mississippi because the Rebels are on NCAA probation.
What was apparent Saturday was that Patterson is talented but his offensive line is going to have to improve to beat good teams.
Years ago, Bob Knight, the brilliant but troubled Indiana basketball coach (who was a close friend of Schembechler’s) said this: “I know as long as I win, Indiana people will see me as eccentric. If I ever stop winning, they’ll see me as an embarrassment.”
Harbaugh’s quirky behavior is still viewed by most at Michigan as eccentric. But a few more losses to the rivals that matter most and they might not see him quite that way anymore.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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