Rob Oller | Jim Harbaugh is out of time as Michigan's football coach

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh watched his team absorb a 49-11 beating from Wisconsin on Saturday.

Ten years ago at Michigan’s season-ending football banquet, an emotional Rich Rodriquez read lyrics to Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” then lifted his hands and began singing. Several awkward seconds passed before players joined their embattled coach in song.

Adding insult to injury, two days later Groban tweeted: “Coach Rodriguez I’m very flattered, but crying to You Raise Me Up is SO five years ago.”

RichRod’s Hallmark Channel meltdown in 2010 ranks among the more embarrassing moments in Michigan lore, behind the 2007 loss to Appalachian State and the spectacular botched-punt loss to rival Michigan State in 2015 that has been memorialized by the “Surrender Cobra” meme of the UM student with hands on head in disbelief.

But suddenly we have a new contender: Michigan’s 2020 season, lowlighted by Saturday’s 49-11 loss to Wisconsin at The Big House, which luckily for UM sat mostly empty or else boos would have mixed with Hail to the … what? Not exactly victors.

Michigan trailed 28-0 after two quarters, its largest halftime deficit since Michigan Stadium opened in 1927. It was the largest home loss since a 38-0 blanking by Ohio State in 1935.

The Wolverines appeared hapless and hopeless against the Badgers, which is not entirely new — UM went 15-22 under Rodriguez from 2008 through 2010 — but things feel especially unsettlingly in Ann Arbor because Jim Harbaugh was supposed to be the answer to the question: How does Michigan return to glory? Instead, the Wolverines have returned to gory, and Harbaugh clearly is out of ideas on how to heal the wounds. He may also be out of time. His contract runs through next season, but Saturday’s loss may have sealed his fate; many do not expect him to return next season. 

A longtime Michigan insider told me, “No one wants to see him get fired because he is a Michigan guy and cares about the university, but we all know he needs to go. It would be nice if the Detroit Lions would hire him. He would not have to move and could exit gracefully.”

Many Ohio State fans will see that as sympathy for the devil, but it speaks to the sense of sadness permeating the fan base. Harbaugh is viewed with poignant pity more than antipathy, similar to what might happen if someday Luke Fickell returned to Columbus to coach the Buckeyes. And failed.

Michigan would be wise to give Fickell a call. While it's hard to picture the former OSU nose guard and defensive coordinator leaving Cincinnati for TTUN — for one thing, why not wait for an even better opportunity? —switching allegiances is not without precedent. Gary Moeller played for Woody Hayes (1959-62) at Ohio State and later coached Michigan.

“Open the truck up for Fickell,” the UM source said, adding that “It is really crazy how the bottom fell out so quickly. A year ago at this time they beat Notre Dame 45-14. ND is No. 3 in the country right now. Something is very wrong.” 

That something is Harbaugh, who is 48-21 (.696) in five seasons, an improvement on the four-year .608 win percentage of predecessor Brady Hoke and much better than RichRod’s abysmal .405. But a Fred Flintstone lookalike and Groban groupie are not the measuring sticks Michigan had in mind when it hired Harbaugh in 2015. The Maize and Singing the Blues are paying the former UM quarterback $8 million this season to lose games, fall behind in recruiting and fail to develop players. 

It is one thing to be embarrassed by Rodriguez’s attempts at musical motivation in 2010, quite another for Michigan alums to feel ashamed by the lack of motivation on display in rivalry games. Harbaugh is a combined 3-8 against Ohio State (0-5) and Michigan State (3-3). The failure to inspire actually goes much deeper, as Michigan is 0-11 as an underdog under Captain No Comeback.

Rob Oller

It is startling to see UM at a place where the product on the field produces as much wincing as a teary Rodriguez bellowing out sing-a-long syrup. According to ESPNStatsInfo, the Wolverines against Wisconsin became the first Big Ten team over the past 15 seasons to not record a sack or takeaway in five consecutive halves. And the 1-3 record is the worst four-game opening to a Michigan season since 1967. The only worse beginning was an 0-4 start in 1928.

I find it most interesting that my voice, who is associated with Michigan athletics, points to a specific moment when it unraveled for Harbaugh.

“He is not the coach he was in 2016. It is like he lost his coaching DNA; that fourth-and-1 in 2016 broke his will for some reason,” the source said, referencing J.T. Barrett’s run that kept alive an OSU drive in the Buckeyes’ 30-27 double-OT win. “He has never been the same.”

If true that “Out, out damn Spot” did Harbaugh in, then no wonder players keep transferring out and coaches defect. The man acts defeated.

Harbaugh, despite his outward confidence, seems inwardly uncertain. He needs a new start. So do the Wolverines, who — lift your hands and voices — want to be raised up to more than they currently can be.   

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD