Jim Harbaugh's debut as the head coach of Michigan is one of the most anticipated coaching debuts ever, but he also faces a stiff battle with history.
In his first season as head coach of Michigan, Fielding Yost finished 11-0, beat Ohio State 21-0 and won the first-ever Rose Bowl, with a team that scored 550 points and allowed zero. Fritz Crisler went 6-1-1, beating Ohio State 18-0 and giving up only 40 points all year. Bennie Oosterbaan finished 9-0 and won the national championship, beating Ohio State 13-3 and pitching five shutouts. Bo Schembechler lost three games, but he beat No. 1 Ohio State 24-12, won the Big Ten title and took Michigan to the Rose Bowl. Lloyd Carr went only 9-4, but he beat No. 2 Ohio State 31-23.
The greatest coaches in the history of college football's winningest program have a few things in common, then: They all won their head coaching debuts, they all finished with many more wins than losses and, perhaps most importantly, they all beat Ohio State to cap their first regular season.
There's a good chance Harbaugh does none of the above, which would be an indictment of where the program has been as opposed to where it is going.
If Harbaugh is to join these Michigan greats, he's likely to break the trends set by those who came before him, because over nearly a decade leading up to his debut on Thursday night at Utah, Michigan football has been broken like never before, as detailed in John U. Bacon's new book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football, which was released Tuesday. Endzone is an engaging, exhaustively reported book that details the history of Michigan football; how the athletic department, under athletic director Dave Brandon, lost touch with what had made it so successful for so long; and how Harbaugh's hiring has signaled the return of the entire program to solid ground, even before he's coached a game.
Harbaugh would be treated as a hero anytime he decided to return to Michigan as head coach, but in this case the timing couldn't be more perfect for Harbaugh to leave the NFL to return Ann Arbor, where he spent part of his childhood and starred as a quarterback under Schembechler in the 1980s. Michigan had devolved into a punching bag by the end of last season, and there was only one man who could fix the entire trajectory of the program simply by signing a contract.
"As I said before Jim took the job, if he went to the Bears, Jets or Raiders, he'd be well received and he would be a top NFL coach," Bacon said in an interview. "If he goes to Michigan, he can be a savior, and how many chances would you get to be that?"
The savior finally gets to start proving that he is indeed the savior on the field Thursday in Salt Lake City, against a Utah team that pounded the Wolverines 26-10 in the Big House last September. By that point, humiliating losses had become commonplace, with the obvious first sign of the program's fall being its shocking upset loss to Appalachian State to open the 2007 season.
Bacon goes back a little further for the first signpost of Michigan's collapse, even if it seems a bit melodramatic: Nov. 17, 2006, the day Schembechler died. Two days later, No. 2 Michigan lost to No. 1 Ohio State, before losing to USC in the Rose Bowl and then seeing the bottom fall out against Appalachian State at the start of the next season. So close to being on the top of the world at the end of 2006, Michigan hasn't been the same since, with zero Big Ten titles and only three top-25 finishes in the AP poll in eight seasons. From the time Schembechler arrived in 1969 through 2006, Michigan finished unranked in the AP poll only three times. In only seven seasons under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, Michigan finished unranked five times.
Michigan has hired and fired Rodriguez, hired and fired Hoke and alienated lettermen, students and fans under the direction of Brandon, who serves as the centerpiece of Endzone. Rodriguez never fit in and coached the worst defenses in the history of Michigan football -- literally the three worst defenses in Michigan history, according to Sports-Reference's SRS data. Hoke was in over his head and coached the worst offense in school history in 2014, according to SRS. While this was going on, Brandon sought to break everything intentionally and then mark up the price, commodifying the experience of Michigan football -- or, as Bacon says, treating fans and alumni as merely customers -- instead of letting things happen organically. Bacon writes that one of Brandon's favorite mottos was "If it ain't broke, break it," which is a misguided philosophy in an industry that draws much of its appeal from tradition and history, especially at a place like Michigan.
Here, again, Michigan hurt from the loss of Bo, who even after he retired was still the de facto head of the Michigan family.
"If Bo Schembechler was still around, Dave Brandon could have succeeded," Bacon said. "Bo is one of the few guys who would not be afraid to tell Brandon 'no' on certain ideas. Bo Schembechler might have been the only one that Brandon would have listened to."
With Brandon and Hoke gone, if anyone can channel the spirit of Bo and modernize his approach to fit today's game, it's Harbaugh, who worships his former coach and lives down the street from where Bo lived. At Big Ten media days in July, one of Harbaugh's few revealing moments was when he spoke about how he often thinks about how Bo did things, such as which routes he took to work every morning.
As a quarterback, Harbaugh helped modernize Bo, becoming Michigan's starter at a time when the Wolverines felt like they might be falling a step behind.
"I hate to say this, but we're going to throw more," Schembechler said prior to the 1984 season, according to Sports Illustrated. "Not 40 times a game, mind you, but maybe 25."
The actual number proved to be 21.4, but, nevertheless, Schembechler's attempts at modernization occurred at the same time Harbaugh became his quarterback.
Their partnership got off to a fantastic, hyped start, only to be derailed. The Wolverines opened the '84 season by beating No. 1 Miami 22-14 and vaulting to No. 3 in the AP poll. They proceeded to lose to Washington and Michigan State over the next month, with a broken arm knocking Harbaugh out for the season. The Wolverines stumbled to a 6-6 finish, with the Harbaugh era getting off to a false start.
The truth is that Thursday night's game means almost nothing despite all the hype, Khaki Cam and all. Utah will probably beat Michigan. Michigan will probably go on to lose another three or four or five games this season. For as much as we want to judge things as quickly as possible, the results of this season don't matter much in Ann Arbor. It is likely going to be similar to Nick Saban's frustrating debut at Alabama rather than Yost or Crisler or Schembechler at Michigan. Too much has been broken for too long at Michigan for Harbaugh to work a miracle and put the Wolverines in a major bowl game or beat Ohio State for the Big Ten title in Year One.
And so this will be a lot like Harbaugh's quarterback debut in 1984. There is the rush of initial excitement, which in this case has been the entire offseason. Then there is the acceptance of the current reality, which could come as soon as Thursday night. Then there is the hope for the future. Upon returning from his broken arm, Harbaugh led Michigan to a record of 23-3-1 in his final two seasons in 1985-86, earning bids to the Fiesta Bowl and Rose Bowl. The Schembechler era had life again, as Bo would finish in the top 10 in four of his final five seasons.
For now, the Michigan fan base is at a 1984-win-over-Miami level of excitement.
"It's like Christmas times 100," Bacon said. "Last year at this time, people expected the team to win nine or 10 games, but they were getting discouraged about certain aspects of the program. Now there are more doubts about the team but fewer doubts about the coaching staff."
And that gets to the heart of why Michigan football is back, even if Harbaugh hasn't coached a game yet and even if expectations are modest in 2015. It gets to the heart of why the use of the word "return" in Endzone's title isn't presumptuous.
College football is an endless parade of uncertainty. The faces change every year. It's a constant cycle of development, and only a select few coaches are consistently great at that part of the job, at ensuring steady success through the ebbs and flows of personnel successes and failures. Nobody knows which Michigan quarterback will throw the most passes this year or which running back will get the most touches. Nobody knows who the best player will be or how many wins can be realistically expected. But through his time with San Diego, Stanford and the 49ers, Harbaugh has built credibility. His personality is off-kilter and rubs some the wrong way, but he can be entrusted to recruit players, develop them and put them in the best position to succeed while embracing the parts of the program that made Michigan successful in the first place.
Harbaugh is authentically Michigan. He can be entrusted to make Michigan football feel like Michigan football again, instead of the emotionless, commercialized feel of the past several years. The path to get there might be different from the legends who came before him, but for the first time in a long time, there's a good chance the end results are the same.