CHICAGO – Jim Harbaugh unintentionally kicked off Big Ten media days with a dramatic opening salvo on Thursday afternoon. He took a broad swipe at former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer on a podcast with The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami.
“Urban Meyer's had a winning record,” Harbaugh said on the TK Show. “Really phenomenal record everywhere he's been. But also, controversy follows everywhere he's been.”
That singular final line crowbars open a window into the ego, pettiness and rationalizations that bubble through the mind of big-time head coaches. And the attention generated by it serves as another reminder of Harbaugh’s defining trait so far as Michigan’s coach – generating attention.
The line was certainly appreciated by those who revel in clicks and faux controversies, as it’s a collision of two of the sport’s biggest names, program brands and, of course, polarizing figures. Harbaugh delivering verbal haymakers to Urban will provide daytime television content for weeks and get revived again come November. (Meyer declined comment when reached by Yahoo Sports on Thursday.)
Harbaugh doesn’t speak until Friday at Big Ten media days, but the buzz created by the remark serves as a reminder of the new reality of this post-Urban Big Ten. All eyes are on Harbaugh to see if he can finally deliver the product to match the bluster. If not this year, when?
With Meyer retired and off to television, Harbaugh reigns as the league’s most recognizable coach, identifiable star and tortured persona. Harbaugh enters the 2019 season with an 0-4 record against Ohio State, a streak of failure that’s ultimately defined his tenure and clearly crawled under his skin.
Harbaugh’s shot at Meyer underscores a bravado that hasn’t appeared for the Wolverines between the lines. Harbaugh has a 38-14 record at Michigan, and he’s done a fine job pulling the proud school back to baseline relevancy after the disastrous tenures of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. But entering his fifth season, Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan is still more strongly tied to antics rather than accomplishments.
The reality of the Harbaugh era is that he still lacks a signature victory that declares Michigan a true national title contender. Most telling is that the distinct lack of high points contrasts sharply to the depths of the lows. Michigan’s defining moments under Harbaugh have been the 62-39 loss at Ohio State last season, the epic choke at Ohio State two years before (lowlighted by Harbaugh’s crucial sideline penalty) and the end-of-game meltdown against Michigan State in 2015 when it lost on a blocked punt in the final seconds. That doesn’t include the bowl game no-shows against Florida (41-15 last year) and South Carolina (26-19) the past two years.
Entering the fifth year under Harbaugh, Michigan has made more headlines with buzzy quotes, foreign trips and recruiting sleepovers than any on-field victory. Each season, he’s managed to lose at least three games. Harbaugh’s win percentage at Michigan (73.1) is solid, but still ranks behind Gary Moeller (75.8), Lloyd Carr (75.3), Fritz Crisler (80.6), Fielding Yost (83.3) and Bo Schembechler (79.6). While he’s admirably pulled Michigan from mediocrity, the glory days have yet to surface.
To Harbaugh’s credit, on the same podcast he somewhat acknowledged those shortcomings.
“You welcome the accountability that all you can be judged on is your record,” Harbaugh said on the TK Show. “What your record is overall, what your record is within your conference and what your record is head-to-head matchups with the other teams you play. I think you find right now that Ohio State is the only team that has a better record than us, has a better conference record than us and has a better overall head-to-head matchup with us.”
The coaching matchup that will comprise the next iteration of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry will lack the aura of Harbaugh vs. Urban. But it’s unfolding in compelling fashion so far. New Ohio State head coach Ryan Day played a big part as the play-caller in delivering a historic loss to Harbaugh last season, scoring the most points Michigan allowed in regulation since 1891. (Cornell had quite a day back then.) Much more subtly, Day has also outflanked Michigan in recruiting in this early part of his tenure. Two recent blue-chip Ohio State commitments vaulted the Buckeyes to No. 4 in the 2020 Rivals.com team rankings. Michigan is just one behind, but it’s potentially telling that a name coach like Harbaugh hasn’t created separation on the recruiting trail against a rookie like Day.
And there’s even a reasonable question of whether Michigan has a distinct identity, as Harbaugh hired an unproven coordinator, Josh Gattis, to install a no-huddle offense and call plays. It’s telling that Ohio State will have a more recognizable identity on offense under Day in his first season as full-time head coach than Harbaugh in his fifth. There’s little argument that Michigan’s offense needed to be pulled from the 1980s, especially with the skill the Wolverines have at receiver. But it’s reasonable to expect that those radical transitions will come with growing pains.
Michigan hasn’t won an outright Big Ten title since 2003 and hasn’t shared one since 2004. Since 2003, Michigan has beaten Ohio State exactly one time. For all the noise and storylines surrounding Harbaugh and Michigan this season, that game in Ann Arbor on Nov. 30 is truly the thing that matters most in the Big Ten this season. It’s not close. For all of Harbaugh’s chirping, there are still no championships, no identity and no signature wins.
This season, it’s incumbent on Harbaugh to deliver all of those. If the results don’t finally match the noise, it’s reasonable to wonder if they ever will.
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