Harbaugh might soon have his own controversy

Rob Oller
Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh against Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2nd quarter of their game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on November 24, 2018. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

CHICAGO — Jim Harbaugh abandoned his traditional look for more serious attire. The Michigan football coach, who likes to wear a block “M” hat and maize and blue sweatshirt to news conferences, showed up in the traditional ball cap but also a navy-colored suit Friday at Big Ten media days.

Whose funeral was it? Not Harbaugh’s. Not yet. And probably not for a long time, if ever, in Ann Arbor. Captain Khaki will coach the Wolverines for as long as he wants.

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Say what you will about Harbaugh: The 55-year-old is quirky, gets knocked for failing to win big games and generally is ridiculed outside of UM country for being all hat, no cattle, but Michigan has improved during his four seasons.

True, the bar is low. Harbaugh following Brady Hoke is not exactly Urban Meyer following Jim Tressel. But still, credit where due: Michigan under Harbaugh (38-14 and 1-3 in bowls) is better than Michigan under Hoke (31-20 and 1-3).

Harbaugh is a Michigan Man, having come up through the system. He played for Bo and despised the Buckeyes. The winged helmet is imprinted on his psyche. Pedigree beyond the Big House? The former Michigan quarterback did admirable work coaching at University of San Diego and Stanford before taking the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.

On paper, and generally on the field, Harbaugh need not apologize. Not that he apologizes for much of anything. Offered a chance on Friday to take back or rephrase his comments about Meyer — “Controversy follows wherever he has been,” Harbaugh said during a Thursday podcast with The Athletic — he instead doubled down.

“No, I don’t see any — no context you should know about,” he said of whether his words were taken out of context. “I don't think it was anything that was anything new or anything of a bombshell. It’s things that many of you all understand and have written about.”

Later, he said, “I don’t see why people are so afraid to say what they think. Maybe that’s something worthy to be examined.”

Harbaugh was asked if he honestly reacted to a question on the podcast or whether his intent was to “poke the bear.”

“I’m not into making animal analogies,” he said. “So the poking-the-bear thing doesn’t resonate.”

Umm … OK. That didn't stop him from using an anaconda analogy in earlier remarks.

He finished with this: “It was me saying what I think.”

A lot could be written about Harbaugh’s unprovoked comment about Meyer, beginning with its lack of accuracy. No question Meyer ran into and even created controversy at Ohio State and Florida, but not at Bowling Green or Utah.

Harbaugh’s swipe also was unnecessary and smacked of insecurity. Leave it at this: Harbaugh was 0-4 against Meyer. He cannot change the past but can try to reframe the future by muddying Meyer’s legacy to deflect attention from his winless record against the Buckeyes.

But Harbaugh’s sometimes odd remarks are a sideshow to a more serious fear facing Michigan; namely, that it must ask itself the question: If not Harbaugh, then who? If this high-dollar coach raised in maize and blue can’t turn the program into a perennial top-five power — goodness, even top 10 would be a major step up — it’s hard to think of anyone who can. There are better coaches, particularly with game management, but none understands the culture of Michigan as well as Harbaugh.

That is not just a local or regional viewpoint. Dennis Dodd of put the question to Michigan fans, specifically as it relates to Michigan breaking its 0-7 skid against Ohio State.

“OK, you have your guy. There is nobody who is a better fit,” Dodd said of Harbaugh. “You have a senior quarterback (in Shea Patterson) and you’re going against a freshman quarterback (Justin Fields). If it doesn’t happen now, when? And if not with Harbaugh, then who?”

Who indeed? Michigan faces a tempest. Is the program capable of making a full-blown comeback?

The controversy will follow everywhere Harbaugh goes.


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