The question made Jim Harbaugh pause and shake his head a little, then break into a quizzical sort of smile: What should people think of his record in big games since he took over as Michigan’s football coach?
“I don’t know,” he finally said, before returning to the work of chewing hard on his gum.
It might seem odd, but questions like that one, asked during an October news conference, are growing louder around one of the premier coaching names in college football.
For all his success since taking over in Ann Arbor — the 10-win seasons, the major bowl invitations — Harbaugh is beginning to attract doubters.
They point to his 1-6 record against Top 10 opponents. He hasn’t done much better versus the top of the Big Ten Conference, with four victories in 10 tries against Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin.
After each of the Wolverines’ three losses this season, Harbaugh has remained calm. He has a way of cocking his head at an odd angle, peering through those old-style glasses.
A bit of defiance tinges his otherwise deadpan response when he says: “Just keep fighting … keep battling.”
Heading into Saturday’s rivalry game against Ohio State, there is no doubt about one thing: Harbaugh has proven he can walk into a bad situation and turn things around.
The Stanford team he inherited in 2007 had gone 1-11 the previous fall. Within three years, his smash-mouth brand of football introduced the Cardinal into the national conversation.
The same thing happened in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, who improved from 6-10 to 13-3 with a trip to the 2012 NFC Conference championship game in his first season.
If there was any downside, neither Stanford nor the 49ers won championships, falling short with talented teams.
Still, when Harbaugh left the NFL after an 8-8 record in 2014, his jump to Michigan generated sky-high expectations.
This wasn’t just a marquee hire, it was the return of a favorite son, a former All-American quarterback who led the Wolverines to the 1987 Rose Bowl.
In his first season, Harbaugh led the Wolverines to 10 victories and a blowout of Florida in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. University administrators quickly added $2 million to his annual base salary of $5 million.
That made him the highest-paid coach in college football — at least for one season, until Nick Saban of Alabama and Dabo Swinney of Clemson got raises.
“We have big hopes. We’ve got big dreams,” Harbaugh said that summer. “We’ve got lofty goals. And all those are achievable.”
Michigan went 10-3 again in 2016, losing in the Orange Bowl, and is 8-3 this fall.
So why has grumbling begun to sneak onto fan forums? Why was he voted “most overrated” in a recent poll of FBS coaches?
There are several reasons, starting with those expectations that come with a program drenched in maize-and-blue tradition.
Also, Harbaugh’s style off the field has probably fueled critics: the controversial tweets, the jabs at opposing teams, satellite camps that pushed the envelope on NCAA rules and a field trip the Michigan team took to Italy.
Harbaugh seems to have kept a lower profile this fall, though apparently not on purpose.
“Wasn’t doing anything to be on the radar then,” he said of the past two years. “Not doing anything now … to stay off the radar. Just coaching the football team.”
In 2014, James Franklin took over a Penn State program decimated by the Joe Paterno scandal. The Nittany Lions have shown marked improvement and are No. 10 in this week’s College Football Playoff ranking.
Things have gone even better for Paul Chryst at Wisconsin. He inherited a solid team and now has the Badgers ranked fifth at 11-0.
There is also the conference gold standard, Urban Meyer, who has led Ohio State to a series of major bowl games and a national championship.
“Really talented team,” Harbaugh said of Michigan’s rival. “Very well-coached.”
Meanwhile, the Wolverines have struggled with injuries and subpar play at quarterback, the offense sinking to 102nd in the nation.
The defense is young but Harbaugh tends to excel in that category, and Michigan ranks third this season. Still, defense hasn’t been enough to win for a team that is scoring less than 27 points a game.
“Whether we’re doing great or we’re doing bad, it’s all about us,” quarterback John O’Korn said recently. “We have a great group of guys that don’t expect anyone to quit or give up.”
O’Korn, who has shared time under center, could start on Saturday if Brandon Peters cannot progress through concussion protocol and Wilton Speight doesn’t receive full clearance in his recovery from cracked vertebrae.
Amid a media report that Michigan might offer him a lifetime contract extension, Harbaugh sounded upbeat when speaking to reporters this week. He remains confident in his players.
“Love the way they work, love the way they compete,” he said. “I feel like our team has improved each week.”
If the whispers around him have risen in volume, it doesn’t seem like he is listening.
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