When he became the head coach of the 49ers in 2011, Jim Harbaugh quickly solidified his reputation as one of the best coaches in football. He took a team that had missed the playoffs eight years in a row and had them in the NFC Championship Game his first year, the Super Bowl his second year and the NFC Championship Game again his third year. Although his fourth year wasn’t as successful and he walked away to coach Michigan, he left the NFL with his reputation intact.
Today his reputation has taken a big hit.
Harbaugh’s favored and No. 4 ranked Michigan team suffered an ugly 62-39 loss to Ohio State today, dropping Harbaugh to 0-4 against his bitter rival. And the way Harbaugh lost raises questions about whether he’s ever going to change with the times.
From the first drives of the game, when Ohio State marched down the field with ease against Michigan’s defense, while Michigan’s offense looked out of sorts and had to waste an early timeout, Harbaugh’s players looked ill-prepared. If there was ever a game when Harbaugh should have had his team ready, this game — a huge rivalry with a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game and likely a trip to the College Football Playoff on the line — should have been it.
But this wasn’t it. Harbaugh’s defense was burned by Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins over and over and over again. Haskins, who looks like a first-round draft pick, didn’t do anything fancy. He just dropped back, scanned the field and found someone open, usually over the middle on a crossing pattern, over and over and over again.
Michigan’s offense, although it did put 39 points on the board, looked a step slow all day. Harbaugh promised when he took the Michigan job that he’d use fullbacks and tight ends, like his Michigan coach Bo Schembechler had. But the reality is, Harbaugh needs to innovate, not to run an offense like Schembechler’s, which was considered old-school even when Harbaugh was Michigan’s quarterback in the 1980s.
Ohio State suffered one loss this season, to Purdue. In that game, the Buckeyes had no answer for the innovative offense run by Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm. Watch how Brohm’s Purdue offense played Ohio State, then watch how Harbaugh’s Michigan offense played Ohio State, and you’ll see the difference between being innovative enough to win and being arrogant enough to think you don’t have to innovate to win.
And that raises questions about where Harbaugh’s future lies. He has just finished the season 10-2 and will go to a good bowl game. His job is safe at Michigan. But there’s been some talk that Harbaugh wants to return to the NFL some day, that his Super Bowl loss with the 49ers still eats at him and he wants another chance at standing atop the football world. The football world, however, is being taken over by young and innovative coaches like Sean McVay and Matt Nagy, and older coaches who are willing to keep innovating, like Sean Payton and Andy Reid. Is Harbaugh willing to innovate?
If he’s not, he won’t end up on top, either at Michigan or in the NFL.