Jim Harbaugh having 1 foot out the door continued an emerging nationwide trend in college football
Six years ago, Jim Harbaugh hosted the “Signing of the Stars” event at Michigan. Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Migos and Ric Flair were just a few of the celebrities who helped welcome Michigan’s 2016 class. It was a star-studded affair that was supposed to send Michigan into a new stratosphere.
Six years later, Harbaugh was off interviewing for the Minnesota Vikings job and his staff was literally given an off day because the entire class was already signed.
Call me crazy, but I think Georgia might’ve been partially to blame for that.
It was Georgia that gave Michigan a swirly in the Orange Bowl. A sea of maize left Miami not only with a long flight home but with a massive dose of reality to swallow.
Playoff? Sure. Championship? You’re still a long way from that.
Beating Ohio State for the first time didn’t change that reality for Jim Harbaugh. Beating Iowa like a drum was cool, but winning a Big Ten Championship was never Harbaugh’s primary focus when he decided he would take no prisoners at Michigan. Forget just Urban Meyer and Ohio State. Harbaugh wanted Michigan’s ceiling to be winning it all.
Instead, Harbaugh finished the 2021 season with 1 foot out the door.
Harbaugh at least returned to Michigan, unlike Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley. They left their respective programs for places that don’t have that built-in ceiling that so many have seen in a Playoff system that all but demands you go at least 12-1. That’s right. Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Michigan all had coaches who saw their ceiling.
Even though they’ll never admit it.
And to be clear, they don’t have to. While some have been transfixed on this narrative that the Playoff is too exclusive, what’s more evident than ever is that exclusivity is still a byproduct of talent. That’s recruiting, coaching and development. Since 247sports started tracking composite talent in 2015, we have still seen just 1 team outside of the top 10 even win a Playoff game, and it was 2015 Clemson, which beat an Oklahoma team that also ranked outside of the top 10.
Harbaugh just had his best team yet. He had a dominant ground game, he had a smart, efficient quarterback and he had a future top-3 NFL Draft pick/Heisman Trophy runner-up on the defensive line. What did that net? The nation’s No. 15 roster and a 23-point beatdown that was probably an even bigger blowout than the final score indicated.
Reports surfaced that Harbaugh wanted to pursue a chance to win a Super Bowl, which was why there was interest in jumping back to the NFL. Harbaugh got closer to winning a Super Bowl than he did to winning a college national title. Harbaugh made it to the conference championship in 3 of 4 seasons and lost to his brother John by a field goal in Super Bowl XLVII.
Compare that to getting clubbed by Ohio State every year except this one and the 2020 COVID-shortened season and only earning 1 semifinal berth in 7 years as a head coach.
Ceiling? Um, yep. Michigan isn’t working with the same talent pool that Georgia is. Not in this modern era wherein the gap is wider than ever. Recruiting is national. This story came from USA Today shortly after UGA completed its title run:
“Over the 6-year period that began with the 2015 fiscal year, when Mark Richt was still its head coach, Georgia spent more than $14.8 million on football recruiting — an amount that is just over $3.2 million greater than the next-largest total, the $11.6 million spent by Alabama.”
In 2021, Georgia spent $3.6 million on recruiting. What about Michigan, you ask? At No. 10 nationally at $1.4 million. Sorry, but the school that spends 2.5 times more on recruiting has a decided on-field advantage. Combine that with having excellent coaching and yeah, there’s not really much Michigan can do in a game with a month to prepare.
It’s not that Harbaugh stopped trying to elevate his team’s ceiling. His recruiting class is indeed national. He had 16 states represented in his 2022 class, all of which was locked in during the Early Signing Period.
But there’s now a greater disparity in talent at the top than ever before. In the 8 years of the Playoff system, only 6 programs can say that they won a Playoff game. That’s Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and Oregon.
Why can’t programs like Michigan, Notre Dame and Oklahoma follow the Clemson path to a title, you ask? Clemson had Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, who were 2 of the best quarterbacks of the 21st century. And that 2018 Clemson team had one of the top defenses of the modern era, which was loaded with 3 defensive linemen who made the surprising decision to return for Year 4.
Harbaugh, on the other hand, just watched his once-in-a-generation defensive line get eliminated against Georgia. Somewhere, Riley and Kelly watched that play out and they said “yep, I’ve seen this movie before.”
There is no fairytale ending for Harbaugh at Michigan. If anything, Harbaugh going to interview with the Vikings was like in “Moneyball” when Billy Beane ends the movie by interviewing for the job with the Red Sox, only to return to Oakland. Beane had to get creative because he saw his organizational ceiling next to all those big-market teams.
Last I checked, there’s no Moneyball strategy that’s going to help Harbaugh take that next step. There certainly wasn’t for Riley or Kelly, which was why both went where the ceiling was higher and the pockets were deeper. Those 3 have as many Playoff wins as the rest of us combined. Well, excluding those 6 programs with coaches who have actually won a Playoff game.
Don’t be surprised when more coaches from respected programs flee to reach new heights. The increased television revenue combined with the Playoff system created a barrier to entry that few could’ve anticipated a decade ago. But it’s here now.
Perhaps that reality hit Harbaugh harder than ever during the beatdown in Miami.