The Wolverine

2021 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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38 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2021 FOOTBALL PREVIEW BY CHRIS BALAS W hen Jim Harbaugh met with members of the Michigan High School Coaches Association for his annual meeting this spring, it had a much different feel from years past. For one, it was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic — not face-to-face in a room filled with people as it usually is — and didn't allow for the usual mingling and prolonged question-and-answer sessions that almost always followed. In addition, Harbaugh was coming off an epidemic-shortened season in which the Wolverines faced opt-outs, injuries and youth, resulting in a 2-4 campaign that left some questioning the direction of the pro- gram. He signed an extension in the offsea- son, making it clear in Schembechler Hall he was 'betting on himself' in taking a pay cut and adding incentives that would award him much more for winning championships. The change was evident in one part of his presentation in particular — the last of his six listed goals for the 2021 season. "Do not be scared of any man, moment, circumstance or of being fired," he wrote in his PowerPoint production. This was coming from the guy at one time considered perhaps the best head coach in the country for his successes with San Diego and Stanford at the collegiate level and the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, in particular. It was a surprising revelation from a man whose confidence has always been a hallmark. But don't mistake that for vulnerability, Michigan professor and historian John U. Bacon noted. The highly respected author, known for penning three best-selling books on the program in the last 15 years (includ- ing Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michi- gan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football), grew up with Harbaugh and has a good idea of what makes him tick. "I've known the guy most of my life. I've never seen him back down from a chal- lenge," Bacon said. "I've never seen him unwilling to bet on himself, and one thing that surprised me in the research I did for Overtime, talking to his brother [Baltimore Ravens coach] John [Harbaugh], mainly, is how often Jim was an underdog as an ath- lete. I didn't fully appreciate that. "Growing up here [in Ann Arbor], he was the guy, no question. But not in [high school football] in Palo Alto [Calif.]. He had to earn that. He had to get to Michigan, get to the NFL and keep fighting those fights. He is used to being the underdog more than I expected." And now he is again. He arrived at Michi- gan with huge expectations given what he had accomplished, and he's had his mo- ments. Ohio State (71-8, .8987 winning per- centage) is the only program with a mark- edly better record since Harbaugh's arrival in 2015, and the Buckeyes are head and shoulders above everyone. The next two, Wisconsin and Iowa, have 19 and 21 losses, respectively, playing in the weaker Big Ten West, while Penn State has 22, the same as Michigan under Harbaugh. U-M's coach stood 49-22 (.6901 winning percentage) after year six, including the 2-4 mark in the abbreviated 2020 season. He already ranks seventh all time among Michi- gan coaches in total wins, and he's gone into the last regular-season game in two of his six years with a chance for a title (2016, 2018), arguably robbed of one in a double-overtime loss at Ohio State in the former. Championships, though, have been the standard since Bo Schembechler arrived as head coach in 1969 and captured 13, and that's where Harbaugh has fallen short. It was never going to be easy — he inherited a 5-7 program that hadn't tasted a champi- onship since 2004, an 11-year drought not seen since the 1950s to early '60s — and it's much harder now in the age of parity. But there were high expectations given his recent past accomplishments. In some ways, that makes him a victim of his own success. "Not in some ways. He definitely is," Ba- con said. "He came in as the messiah, not re- ally a football coach … not his doing, it must be said. He never believed that, but everyone else did. I never thought we'd be having this conversation six years in, and find me even his critics who thought they would. "But in my lifetime — prior to my life- time, even, in the history of Ohio State foot- ball — have they ever had a better run? I don't think so. It's been three coaches in Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and Ryan Day, and there seems to be no let up. That is bad tim- ing for Harbaugh." That obstacle was always going to be tough to overcome, and it seems to get harder every year. It's one thing to battle the national elite, which essentially includes three or four teams in this day and age; it's another when one of the elite is in your divi- sion and happens to be your biggest rival. Alabama, Clemson and the Buckeyes are the three constants in what's become a mo- ANTE UP Jim Harbaugh's Latest Moves Prove He's Taking His 'Bet On Himself' Seriously "I've known the guy most of my life. I've never seen him back down from a challenge." MICHIGAN PROFESSOR AND FOOTBALL HISTORIAN JOHN U. BACON ON HARBAUGH

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