Advertisement
  1. Sports

The Jim Harbaugh Effect: More sizzle than steak?

Pope Francis is presented with a football helmet by Michigan football team coach Jim Harbaugh during the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
Published Aug. 24, 2017

The Jim Harbaugh spectacle is so irresistible that the undisputed champion of college football's offseason can make a story out of something as routine as a roster reveal.

Harbaugh won't share Michigan's roster until Wednesday — three days before his No. 11 Wolverines open the season against No. 16 Florida. Big Ten Network analysts accessed a list of players during practice but promised not to share it. NJ.com tried (unsuccessfully) to get one through a public-record request.

"Really?" Gators coach Jim McElwain said.

Yes. Really.

There's always something with Harbaugh — usually because of what he did off the field rather than the three-loss seasons he keeps compiling on it.

The spring break trip to IMG Academy in 2016.

Presenting a winged helmet and Nikes to Pope Francis.

Sleeping over at a recruit's house.

Twitter feuds with Florida State and the SEC.

And now treating a list of names, numbers and inexact measurements like it's a state secret.

"Everything Jim does," Vanderbilt coach and former Harbaugh assistant Derek Mason said, "he does for a reason."

The underlying reason seems to be recruiting.

Eleven months after the trip to IMG, Harbaugh signed a pair of four-star prospects from the Bradenton football factory. Think 2018 prospects aren't intrigued by the possibility of going to France next year?

"I don't think you go to Michigan for that reason," Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said, "but in recruiting everything adds up."

Including the rest of the Harbaugh hoopla.

When Harbaugh arrived after the 2014 season, Michigan had only won 10 games once in the previous eight years. Today's recruits weren't born the last time the Wolverines won a national championship (1997), and they were in kindergarten the last time they went to the Rose Bowl.

Michigan needed to do something to remain nationally relevant — like hire a lightning-rod coach who could thrust college football's winningest program back into the spotlight.

It worked. Over the last three offseasons, Harbaugh has been searched on Google 43 percent more often than Alabama titan Nick Saban, according to Google Trends.

Since Harbaugh's hire, in-season Google searches for the Wolverines' football team have increased 138 percent compared to the previous 11 years. From August-December last year, Michigan was googled more frequently than eventual national champion Clemson.

Whether it's because of the spike in enthusiasm or the antics themselves, Harbaugh has boosted Michigan's recruiting. From 2006-15, Michigan signed only two classes ranked in the top eight; Harbaugh has done that in back-to-back years — which, of course, he celebrated with celebrity-studded Signing of the Stars extravaganzas.

And that leads to the problem with Harbaugh. He's been almost all sizzle and no steak, unless you count the viral image of him with a hunk of red meat and a glass of milk.

"At some point, it has to come out on the field," DiNardo said.

Through two seasons, it hasn't. Harbaugh looks a lot like McElwain in khakis.

Harbaugh is 20-6. McElwain is 19-8 and would have a 20th win, if UF didn't have to cancel the Presbyterian cupcake because of the Hurricane Matthew fallout. Although Harbaugh has the head-to-head victory (a 41-7 demolition in the Citrus Bowl), McElwain has two division titles; Harbaugh has only finished third in the top-heavy Big Ten East.

For all of the attention and recruits Harbaugh has attracted, he's 0-2 against Urban Meyer's rival Buckeyes and 3-5 against teams that finished ranked in the top 20.

"I don't think it's gone unnoticed that Urban won a national championship in his third year," said DiNardo, the former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "(Penn State's James Franklin), under much more difficult circumstances, won the Big Ten championship in his third year. And so the bar has been set in the East Division."

Maybe, DiNardo said, Harbaugh doesn't have to clear that bar in this third season. You don't need a roster to know that Michigan is talented but young, with only five returning starters. The Wolverines could be another year away from breaking through.

But Harbaugh was the highest paid coach in the game last year, according to USA Today. Third-place finishes with a $9 million salary will start to get stale at a blue-blood program.

"I don't think we're there yet," DiNardo said, "but I don't think that's far away."

Eventually, it won't be enough for Harbaugh to own the offseason. He'll have to start dominating the actual season, too.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. New Jersey Devils' Nico Hischier, right, (13) defends Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos (91) during the second period of a game Oct. 30 in Newark, N.J. FRANK FRANKLIN II  |  AP
    Stamkos has not missed a game in two seasons.
  2. Tampa Bay Tech's Janiah Barker was among the state's top freshmen last season. Can she lead the Titans to a second straight state title? Times
    We spotlight 25 of the area’s talented players as the 2019-20 season gets underway.
  3. Florida State head coach Willie Taggart leaves after the loss to on Nov. 2 in Tallahassee. Florida fired Taggart the next day. PHIL SEARS  |  AP
    The lesson from the Willie Taggart debacle isn’t to avoid golden parachutes. It’s to learn how to make the exits happen.
  4. Tampa Bay Rays' Carlos Pena hits a sixth-inning solo home run off New York Yankees pitcher Sidney Ponson in their baseball game at Yankee Stadium on July 9, 2008. KATHY WILLENS  |  AP
    Just the other day, Pena’s son asked him about being considered for the Hall.
  5. Atlanta Falcons offensive cooridnator Dirk Koetter watchs teams warm up before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) JOHN BAZEMORE  |  AP
    Two former head coaches, a Super Bowl-winning GM and red-hot defense await in Atlanta.
  6. There's no doubt Kobe Knox and Tampa Catholic have one of the toughest boys basketball schedules in the state ... possibly the nation. SCOTT PURKS  |  Special to the Times
    The contenders, like the Tampa Catholic boys and defending state champ Tampa Bay Tech girls, aren’t leaving their fates to just district matchups.
  7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Sean Murphy-Bunting (26) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards (34) celebrate a tackle during the second quarter of the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, November 17, 2019, in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Bruce Arians said he’s still trying to figure out why weekday preparation isn’t translating to Sundays following a 34-17 loss to New Olre
  8. As Jameis Winston showed late in Sunday's loss to the Saints, he's not ready to give up on the 2019 season. MARK LOMOGLIO  |  Associated Press
    Though the 2019 season hasn’t gone as planned for Tampa Bay, the next six weeks are an opportunity for the team to show us what’s ahead.
  9. Lightning and more sports on the air.
  10. Atlanta Falcons offensive cooridnator Dirk Koetter watchs teams warm up before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Atlanta. JOHN BAZEMORE  |  AP
    Koetter went 19-29 until his dismissal following the 2018 season
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement