Why can't Michigan win big?
They've got an elite budget. They've recruited at an elite level (on paper). Why are they struggling, coach after coach after coach?
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We’re now four weeks into the season. That’s long enough for just about everybody to have played one real game, or at least a conference one. That’s long enough for some fanbases to start clamoring to fire their coach (sup, Rutgers). And long enough for some dreams and aspirations of a special season to die.
Boy, that sounds like Michigan’s music!
Why the hell can’t Michigan win?!?
Okay, I guess I should be fair here. Or at least, as fair as possible (I am an Ohio State fan, after all). Michigan has won! Under Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines are 40-15, and have gone to the Peach and Orange bowls. That is objectively pretty good.
But it isn’t great, and Michigan fans expect great, especially under Harbaugh, a coach who won everywhere else he’s been, a coach that has gone to the Super Bowl, and easily the most prestigious and accomplished, at least on paper, coach they could ever reasonably hope to lure to Ann Arbor. He isn’t just a Michigan Man. He is THE Michigan Man.
The Wolverines have never played in a Big Ten championship game, something Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern and Michigan State have managed to do. They haven’t finished in the top ten of the AP Poll since 2006, and haven’t finished in the top five since 1999. And against their biggest opponents, well….
Seems bad! Well, not to me…but to everybody else. I think this is good, actually.
It would be one thing to paint this as exclusively a Jim Harbaugh problem. He’s an easy guy to make fun of, given his histrionics and propensity to talk shit. Harbaugh has easily been the best and most accomplished Michigan coach since Lloyd Carr. He hasn’t had a losing season like Brady Hoke. He hasn’t cratered or been a horrific cultural match like Rich Rodriguez.
But he isn’t winning big games. And after last weekend’s debacle in Madison, where the Badgers systemically dominated them in nearly every facet of the game, it’s hard to see how Michigan suddenly learns to do that this season. Amid another offseason of promise, with games still on the schedule against Iowa, Penn State, Notre Dame and Ohio State, this looks much closer to an Outback Bowl than a Rose Bowl type of team.
The specific failings of this particular flavor of Michigan football are worthy of digging into, but my big question is…why can’t Michigan seem to pull this off? Why can’t they take the next step and win a division title?
Is it about institutional commitment?
No. Michigan’s athletic department brought in nearly $200 million in revenue last year, more than Alabama or Clemson. Jim Harbaugh makes over $7.5 million. They paid two coordinators more than $1.2 million last season. They play in the biggest stadium in college football. Do they have the absolute best in athletic facilities? No, but they’re still very good, and given these massive figures, there’s nothing really in the way of infrastructure or commitment that Michigan is lacking. This is one of the absolute mega-richest athletic departments in college football.
Is it about talent acquisition?
Sort of? I think Michigan’s demographic decline is often brought up as a possible reason, but I don’t think it tells the full story.
The state of Michigan might not produce loads of elite prospects, but Michigan has always recruited outside of their footprint. The Wolverines are 11th in the 2019 247 Sports Team Talent Composite (ahead of programs like Notre Dame, Washington, Auburn, Texas A&M, and just a hair below Clemson), and have more four and five star recruits on their roster than three star recruits. Most of their recruiting classes over the last decade have included more blue-chip players than non blue-chips, and that’s true under Hoke and Rich Rod as well.
If you squint under the hood, I think you can see a few recruiting problems though.
For one, especially in recent classes, Michigan isn’t getting quite as many truly elite recruits. The 2018 recruiting class, for example, did not include a single consensus Top 100 recruit. The 2019 class had just three, and the current 2020 class only has one. A few of the biggest signees from the 2016 and 2017 classes, kids that should be key contributors, also washed out. Five-star DT Aubrey Solomon, for example, transferred. So did high four-star linebacker Drew Singleton, four-star wideout Oliver Martin, four-star QB Brandon Peters, and four-star tight end Devin Asiasi.
Another potentially troubling trend? Not as many Ohio kids. Ohio State typically dominates recruiting in the state of Ohio, but Michigan history is full of elite performers getting pulled from the Buckeye state, especially in places like Toledo and Youngstown. But for a variety of reasons, be it a lack of relationships, the buzzsaw that is Ohio State, an emphasis on hitting the east coast and northeast, or something else, that pipeline hasn’t been nearly as full since 2016.
I don’t know if there is data on this, but I have a sneaking suspicion there’s a tangible benefit to recruiting kids who grew up really aware of your program. When adversity hits, if you have kids who grew up rooting for you, or who have the massive chip on their shoulders from their archrival not wanting them, you may find an extra gear that you might not have had you grown up rooting for say, UCLA. This sport is about emotions, after all.
Michigan isn’t as easy a place to recruit to as Alabama or Texas. Michigan’s academics make JUCO prospects basically a no-go, and the state of Michigan might only produce half a dozen or so four-star kids a class, and Michigan State might get one or two. But you can get elite recruits to go there. They’ve been doing it for years. Just not as many as Ohio State, apparently.
Is it administrative?
There might be something to this. Pete Thamel wrote a pretty scathing column that pointed some blame at Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel. From the Yahoo!:
Instead of begging Harbaugh to stick around for life, Manuel should have done more to question or guide Harbaugh on his coaching hires. Harbaugh has operated with impunity as the operation around him has underachieved and underwhelmed. And the biggest question Manuel needs to ask: Why did the Wolverines look so lifeless, uninspired and listless on Saturday?
Gattis’ early struggles should be pinned squarely on Harbaugh. The offseason coronation of Gattis as a great hire included these delicious details in a story in The Athletic – “There was no interview. No face-to-face meeting. No get-up-on-the-board-and-show-me-how-you-run-this session. Not even a tell-me-about-your-offensive-philosophy discussion.”
Harbaugh basically put the future of the program on a 20-minute phone conversation, which is a bit like getting engaged after the first drink on a first date. And he did it knowing that Nick Saban had an opportunity to promote Gattis to the same job and declined. That’s impulsive and reckless even by Harbaugh’s standards, and was begging for more skepticism from an athletic director and administration who’d already seen a pattern of bad hires and dysfunctional offenses.
While it may be too early to call Gattis a bad hire, I think there may be something to the idea that the school has enabled Harbaugh’s worst impulses. A great manager still needs to provide star employees with structure and guardrails. Basically every college football coach in FBS needs somebody to save them from themselves sometimes.
I think it’s fair to say Harbaugh hasn’t done a great job hiring assistants, defensive coordinator Don Brown notwithstanding. Otherwise, this offense would be better.
But I don’t think this is just a Harbaugh issue. Rich Rod and Brady Hoke were famously not Michigan’s first choices to take the head coaching job, and Michigan’s AD during part of the last decade was Dave Brandon, perhaps the most cartoonishly bad athletic director in my lifetime. Finding the right people has not been an athletic department strength.
Great organizations hire great coaches, then hire great assistant coaches when they get promoted or poached. Michigan has not done this particularly well.
Are the expectations too high?
Forgive me for trafficking in generalities a bit here, but I think it’s fair to say that Michigan has a unique culture that isn’t for everybody. Can it be stuffy, holier-than-thou and elitist? Yes. A coach with a southern accent and a fondness for Cabelas is probably not going to be as comfortable in Ann Arbor as he might be at dozens of other jobs.
But I don’t really think the fan expectations are that unrealistic. Michigan still has a massive fanbase, an enormous budget, a powerful conference, loads of history and tradition, a fun college town, and a track record of being able to recruit at a high level. The weather sucks and the division is hard, but schools with less going for it have achieved what Michigan has not over the last several years.
Are they going to take that next step forward this season? Probably not. If Harbaugh were to leave (and I’m skeptical he would), would Michigan be able to hire a coach with an equal resume? Probably not.
But could somebody get this going again? I still think so, and not just because I remember the 1990s as an Ohio State fan and refuse to take Michigan being butt for granted. This gig still has a lot going for it, and there aren’t too many others in college football with that level of recruiting, money and history that have struggled so much in the BCS era and beyond. You have to think that eventually, they figure it out.
But as far as I’m concerned, they can take their sweet time doing it. I’m personally enjoying watching them flail about very much.
And if Michigan fans don’t, well….have they considered…cheating?
Thanks again for reading Extra Points. Questions, comments, angry messages and memories of your favorite Michigan wins over Urban Meyer should be sent to @MattSBN or Matt.Brown@SBNation.com