Grading Coach Harbaugh's First Two Seasons at Michigan

Submitted by SpikeFan2016 on December 31st, 2016 at 2:40 AM

I know that the title and timing of this diary imply a hot-take. I truly don't mean for that to be the case. My intent here is to rationally weigh the pros and cons of the last two seasons in attempt to grade Harbaugh's tenure thus far. 



The Good:

  • Immediately turned around a losing culture. Brought fight into a team coming off a 5-7 season, reignited the passion of the fanbase and righted the national perception of Michigan Football.  
  • The record overall; to double from 5 wins to 10 wins in one year is an INCREDIBLE coaching job. 
  • Dominating wins against three 9+ win teams in Florida, BYU and Northwestern. (I know that these teams were only fringe Top 25, but these were the types of teams that the only way Hoke could win would be in nailbiters). 
  • First road win in a hostile environment in 5 years, in a game we controlled (at Penn State in their White Out; last win in a non Northwestern/Indiana/Illinois-esque environment was Notre Dame in 2010).
  • First bowl victory in 4 years.
  • Overall, continuous player improvement and development throughout the season, something unseen in the previous decade of Michigan football.
  • No "bad losses" to teams that were inferior to us (in terms of either record or overall capability). 

The Bad:

  • The Michigan State tragedy. Even though we had ample chances to be up by more than one score before the punt occurred, not sure that I can hold this against Harbaugh. MSU was a Top 10 team in 2015 that went on to win the Big Ten; while it will never not be excruciating that we lost, losing by 4 points on the biggest fluke in decades of football to a strong opponent can't be looked at too harshly. Especially with a team that was 5-7 the year before.
  • Ohio State...yeah, this one there is no excuse for. It's not that we lost, it's how we lost. A beatdown of historic caliber, at home in The Big House. No Michigan team had lost that badly against OSU in Ann Arbor in more than half a century. And before people come to crucify DJ Durkin, the offense only scored 10 non-garbage time points. That would never be enough to beat Urban Meyer, even if DJ called a perfect game on the other side of the ball.

2015 Grade: A- (overall, incredible coaching job, but the magnitude of failure against the Buckeyes, especially at home, disqualifies a pure 'A' grade in my book)



The Good:

  • In the thick of contention for championships until the bitter end of the regular season; something no Michigan team had done in 10 years (since 2006). 
  • Three wins over Top 15 teams, one in absolutely dominating fashion (Wisconsin, Penn State, Colorado). 
  • Undefeated 8-0 record in The Big House, with 7 of the 8 victories being by more than one score and the other a game we statistically dominated. This was the first undefeated home record in 4 years (2012). 
  • Defeating Michigan State in East Lansing. Yes, the Spartans were trash this year, but winning a rivalry game on the road, comfortably, is an accomplishment; especially being the first win there in 9 years (2007) against a coach that has had our number.

The Bad:

  • Huge waste of potential. Michigan had the most experienced team in the Big Ten, two of our three "tough road games" featured teams significantly and unexpectedly worse than they were a year prior, Ohio State had the youngest team Urban will have for a while and still we could not get over the hump and win a conference (or division) title. 
  • Harbaugh's first loss to an inferior team, at Iowa. Michigan was outcoached, outplayed and out-toughed by a team with significantly less talent (and a significantly lower paid coaching staff) than we do in a game that, with a win, likely would have delivered us into the playoff. 
  • Losing to Ohio State...again. Look, we got fucked over by the refs in a game that was close enough that bad calls made the difference. However, it shouldn't have been close enough for the refs to help them win. We had a senior team against a team full of sophomores and lost, for the billionth time in a row. At some point we have to win The Game, doesn't matter what the excuses are. Harbaugh joins Rich Rod as the only coach in history to start with back to back losses to the Buckeyes. 
  • Fourth quarter collapses become a trend. All three of our losses this were games in which we led in the final two minutes of regulation. Add in MSU 2015 and 2/3rds of Harbaugh's losses at UM have us losing a lead in the final minutes of regulation. This is a disturbing trend and the sample size is becoming large enough to be worrisome. 
  • Continual development was either non apparent or simply did not exist. I don't think anyone would say that this team was better in November than they were in September (wins/losses and opponents aside). 
  • Record stagnation. I understand that 10 wins does not constitute a bad season in any absolute terms. But given the potential, this team should've finished better than 10-3, the same record they had in 2015. 

2016 Grade: B- (As much as it pains me, I can't go higher than this. No matter the margin, losing 3 out of your last 4 games is brutal). 


Overall Grade: B+

I want to, but I can't give Harbaugh a grade in the A range due to the season that just finished. A 10-3 record in the context of 2015 was a great success, but a 10-3 record in the context of 2016 is a failure. If I included off field stuff (recruiting, academics, etc.) it'd be enough for an A-, but I want to focus on results from the playing field here. 

I still believe in this staff and the direction we're going 110%. I just think it will take us a little longer to get there than we hoped. 


To those who suffered through reading this diary (which I'm sure has plentiful typos, I am much too tired to proof-read), what do you think? How would you grade Harbaugh's tenure so far in its very young state? Did I miss any good or bad things in either season?

Forever and always, GO BLUE!




December 31st, 2016 at 3:34 AM ^

Year 1: Won 10 games with Hoke's recruits (Grade-A). Year 2: Won 10 games with Hoke's recruits (Grade-A). Seriously, how many Power5 coaches get double-digit wins in each of their first two years -- especially after taking over a team with a losing record?


December 31st, 2016 at 4:11 AM ^

1) The premise that "Hoke's recruits" is a negative is incorrect and offensive to this valiant senior class. Both the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes were Top 8 in the country, they were the fourth and fifth year seniors this year and hardly the problem. 


2) The answer to your question is painful and unfortunate; Urban Meyer took over a team with a losing record (6-7, albeit they had far more resources and talent to walk into than Harbaugh did at M) and rattled off back to back 12 win seasons.


December 31st, 2016 at 4:46 AM ^

I remember looking in the Phil Steele preview a few months back and noticed that OSU hadn't played a Top 15 ranked team in either of Urban's first two years until they lost to MSU in the Big Ten Championship game (game 25) and then lost to Clemson in their bowl game (game 26). It just seemed like they had a bit of an easier road thanks to the scheduling gods - that and the fact that the Big Ten wasn't that good. 


January 1st, 2017 at 12:13 PM ^

Yeah, I think there's a cataclysmic mistake in rationality when you look at things as simply being and X-Y graph plotting years as head coach and recruiting class rankings.

While it does have moderate correlation, when you've looking at the tail-ends of the distribution, as in 11-1 vs 10-2 and 9-3, you're splitting hairs (though not in fan's perspective is that "true") by equating just 1 or 2 additional losses/wins as being the end all be all of a coaches ability.

There's just so many factors, and while, yes the general trendlines are well correlated, the strength of that correlation is not enough to predict whether you'll get 9, 10, or 11 wins that season, there are just too many other factors.

But, they're not highly publicized or measured (e.g. National Recruit Ranking, Win-Loss Total, etc.), so we nearly ignore their existence completely.

Ghost of Fritz…

December 31st, 2016 at 7:53 AM ^

6-7 year for OSU was in part due to several starters being suspended due to tat-gate for all or most of the season.

Meyer walked into a stacked roster. Harbaigh walked into a a very good roster, but one that still had (still has) some significant gaps--no QB (had to use a grad transfer) and the 0-line problems, for starters. 

Not at all an apples to apples comparison.




December 31st, 2016 at 1:28 PM ^

The kids were not the issue; the lack of their development was. They fought hard but they were not accustomed to winning, that is something that is learned. I credit those kids, and thank them. But they were elite only in recruiting rankings. 

The defense was stacked, the offense was severely lacking, and that is what cost us three games this year. Specifically shitty OL play. That is absolutely Hoke and Darrell Funk's fault. Hoke brought in highly rated kids, but that doens't mean shit if you cannot get them to play up to those rankings. 

The losing record at OSU prior to Meyer was an interim coach year, it doesn't really count. If you want to see what type of program he inherited go look at the decade prior. They were a perennial top 5 team that had played in 3 BCS title games and won one. Aside from the interim year they averaged 11-2 each year. They were/are one of the most successful and consistent programs in the country. 

Michigan was not in the same spot as they were before Harbaugh stepped in. 

At Stanford, Harbaugh used a weird analogy his first offseason to describe the work they needed to do. It is fitting for Michigan now too. He compared it to getting an old school 2,000lb flywheel started. It takes forever to get it going, and it takes hard work, but once it's going it glides along effortlessly.

OSU's flywheel, so to speak, was already going full speed when Meyer stepped in. So it's not too surprising that he did/has done what he's done there. Michigan's flywheel was at a dead stop. To get back to back 10-wins seasons after winning after going 12-13 the two years prior is nothing short of a miracle as far as I'm concerned. 

Expecting the sort of results out of Harbaugh that we saw from Meyer, given the situations they walked into was completely unrealistic. And yet, Harbaugh still managed to win 20 games in his first two seasons. A feat Michigan hadn't seen in quite a long time. 


December 31st, 2016 at 11:19 AM ^

If so, these seasons are top caliber but not top of the class. If you are in the top 10 of your class (like UM football these past two years), your GPA is at least a 3.8 ... so I would grade Harbaugh's 2 years as a solid A- with potential in the next few years to be that top of the class competitor ... making the playoffs is an A grade and winning the CFP is an A+ grade. We may all be disappointed given the lofty expectations this year, but the bottom-line is this team performed as a top 10 level team in both years and this year we were 5 fricking points from an A grade.


December 31st, 2016 at 1:36 PM ^

Actually, I believe the top 10% at U of M for last year's graduating class (the threshold for magna cum laude) was about a 3.85. 


Top 25% cutoff was just under 3.7. 


For top 5% you need higher than a 3.94 nowadays.

The cutoffs for the various latin awards have continuously been trending upwards. Mostly due to the caliber of incoming UM students increasing year after year. It's a lot more competitive to get in and excel than it used to be. 


December 31st, 2016 at 2:16 PM ^

Is it the caliber of students, or is it grade inflation? Obviously both to some extent. There's a lot of general info regarding grade inflation, but I'm not as familiar with the U of M specific situation. More so for private schools than public of course as $ paid as a customer plays into it, but still present for public as well. Certainly, when the legislature de-funded U of M in the mid-90s and the school turned to higher levels of out of state and international students that lead to some increases in the competitiveness of the student body. What's the more recent situation? Just curious as I don't follow this closely. As a 90s student, I'm a little bit skeptical, but also aware of my inherent biases. 


December 31st, 2016 at 2:23 PM ^

The high school class of 2011 had a ~45% acceptance rate into U of M. The high school class of 2016 had a ~25% acceptance rate. 20% in 5 years is a massive drop. 


Even in the last 5 years, the trend has rapidly accelerated. The average ACT score for UM students nowadays is a 32. When I applied 4 years ago it was only a 30. 


December 31st, 2016 at 1:26 PM ^

Your post makes it sound like Harbaugh inherited the 2008 offense and the 2009 defense. The cupboard was not bare. 2014 was a meltdown and the record was not indicative of a team that had major talent deficiencies like 2008 or 2012. It was indicative of a program breaking down, QB injuries/issues, and maybe some people quitting on the season. And poor coaching. Harbaugh inherited much better talent than most other new coaches do. 






December 31st, 2016 at 6:10 PM ^

He inherited no OL and no QB. You can't win with a bum OL unless you have an incredible (and probably mobile) QB. You're correct on the defensive talent, and the defense was good. If the OL talent was even close to the DL talent, we'd be in the playoff.

Die Mannschaft

January 3rd, 2017 at 7:00 PM ^

I feel the offensive line (or lack thereof) was a major reason, if not the reason, the Wolverines couldn't break the 11+ win mark in year two. Sure, there were some coaching blunders along the way; however, if one takes a look at the games Michigan lost (Iowa, Ohio State, and Florida State), the lack of production from the offensive line really hurt and had Michigan playing one dimensional more often than not. 

Mark my words, once Harbaugh gets his offensive line in place (think Stanford, and how much push that O-line got), this Michigan team will be more than capable of putting away teams with solid D-lines. 


December 31st, 2016 at 4:15 AM ^

Continual development...I think you are way off on that one..

You have to account for the fact that the schedule was backloaded. The weaknesses (esp. the Oline) got exposed by better teams. And you have to account for the two key injuries to Newsom and Speight. Overcoming the loss of your starting LT is huge for any team but esp. for a team that was already extremely light at the position. Not many teams overcome that. It was a gift to future opponents and a major challenge to the coaches. 

Then Speight gets injuried right at the most critical point in the season. He wasn't 100% the rest of the way and that had an impact too. In the OSU game alone he was a surprise starter but he didn't even attempt to go long so right there the team lost a critical part of its playbook. 

So, I think the team developed but dealt with signficant adversity late in the season and that masked some of the development. 


December 31st, 2016 at 4:41 AM ^

Was the schedule really that backloaded? 


Colorado, PSU, Wisconsin is a wayyyyy harder stretch than Maryland, @Iowa, Indiana. 


The last game of the year for us is always the same and always tough. 


Also, the only game Speight's injury had an effect was OSU. He was injured at Iowa after the game was already over, didn't have to play against Indiana and all accounts from bowl practice were that he was healed for FSU. 


December 31st, 2016 at 9:47 AM ^

stretch of games, and say the venue not the effort per se led to the seasonal finish. I mean winning the Sugar Bowl was a great achievement but Michigan was leading or tied in the three final road games it lost that doomed its playoff chances.

There are no excuses for losing once the season is done because the dry record of the result never tells the tale of the contest just its finality in black and white. The fact is this team and program is one on  a growth mission and winning is a learning process. And finishing games on the road is the last lesson for a championship team to learn and understand the will and competitive spirit it takes to beat a team with a fanbase edge.

The fact is, other than playing MSU on the road, Michigan never had a chance to play a big road game that wasn't against a rival or a bowl opponent with weeks to prepare for their matchup.

The other point about the implication that Michigan somehow wasted a season of talented experience is the fact that it had to break in a new quarterback for the second season under Harbaugh and he still managed 10 wins with a new guy at the helm, when it remained unclear until the sason began who would actually start. Michigan also had other offensive questions beginning the year regardless of the talent coming back, and most expected they would have to play to the defense in order to succeed.

We forget that over time and the success the offense actually demonstrated because the defense for all its ability, never turned really produced a lot of points itself.

Again, championship contention is a process. Harbaugh-coached teams have similar arcs. And the fact that we want to see success through only a Maize and Blue lens, discounts his personal history or achievement in getting teams to a pinnacle peak in a short time but with room for championship growth. Every team offers a new challenge in this regard.

And this program is a lot closer to the promised land than it was just two years ago. That is the bottom line.


December 31st, 2016 at 10:58 AM ^

They didn't try to go long against Ohio state because Ohio state has 4 nfl starters in their secondary and Wilton was never good at the deep ball all year. His injury was to his non throwing arm. They couldn't go deep against Ohio state also due to the fact the receivers weren't going to get by the secondary, nor was the line going to be able to consistently protect long enough to allow the play to develop. Look, great year, Jake butt, my new all time favorite, but there is a lot to work on.


December 31st, 2016 at 5:18 AM ^

The grading of a B- is perfectly fair.

I think you nailed the point - this is going to take longer than we hoped.

This team should have been playing for and winning the Big Ten title this year.  I won't go as far as saying that we could win the National Title, but to not even make the Big Ten title game is an absolute joke.

At some point the we actually have to prevail despite bad calls/bad reffing.

The problem is our team makes enough other mistakes that people circle back to the refs being the main reason we lost. 

We look like absolute shit, missing wide open passes, dropping passes, our LB decides to put his hands near a punt returners face to even give the appearance of a facemask and the defense struggles to stop an offense that has zero threat of a pass.

We are about to go up 24-7 and our center for whatever god damn reason grabs the face of a defender when he already made a block seconds earlier that was perfect.    Our RB who people constantly praise can't make a basic cut on play that has worked all year and would have gained big yardage.   Our QB and senior receiver can't make a simple throw and catch to keep a drive moving.  Wormley for whatever fucking reason instead of holding contain on a complete garbage play decides to do the exact same thing as the guy next to him and pointlessly dive at a guy setting up 4 and 1 (leading to the debacle) instead of 4th and long.  

Looked unprepared from the get go.  Turn things around, have guys celebrating instead of picking up fumbles, then give up a 3rd and 22 TD the next play.   Again, fight back, actually look competent on both sides of the ball.  Take the lead.  And then can't even execute basic kickoff defense.   Actually manage to get to 3rd and 9, and our best defender is burned again.  

Low and behold, the extra point is blocked (which I firmly believe we could have done on the field goal).  We made enough mistakes to not even get that opportunity.  

The team had flaws, but the team always made crucial mistakes in the big moments.

You could even argue the Wisconsin win where we gave them like 2 extra possessions at the end was mismanaged because we couldn't execute offense to maintain possession of the ball.  


Ghost of Fritz…

December 31st, 2016 at 7:48 AM ^

valid points. 

But there was only one real flaw in the 2016 team--the o-line.

All of the mental mistakes and poor officiating would have been irrelevant if the o-line had been able to generate a half way decent inside run game against good defenses.

That is the real story of 2016. 

O-line was actuallly better in 2016 than in 2015, overall.  But against good defenses, it was still the not where it needs to be. 

snarling wolverine

January 1st, 2017 at 5:20 PM ^

But there was only one real flaw in the 2016 team--the o-line

The OL was definitely subpar, but honestly, our offensive talent overall - outside of TE - wasn't that great. Some of the young guys may develop into stars down the road (Evans, McDoom, Asiasi, etc.) but this year they weren't quite there yet, and the veterans generally weren't really standouts. Darboh is a solid #2 WR but we needed to him be our #1 as Chesson apparently never quite got back to his 2015 form.


December 31st, 2016 at 7:46 PM ^

I strongly disagree with this B- crap.  Unlike many rebuilding programs Harbaugh has to scramble at QB.  2015 he has to salvage a grad transfer that Iowa dumps.  In 2016 his only choice is a busted O'Korn or Speight.  If you recall the preseason expectation was O'Korn had to be the starter.  When it appeared he was damaged goods the only option was Speight.  Recall that prior to Speight that no Borges recruited QB had ever started a single game.  So a coach whose greatest strength is developing QB's has been hampered by having scraps for a QB.  I give this man an A+++ on the fact he has taken two individuals from the tire fire and turned them into viable QB's.  Then add the fact that the Oline is pedestrian at best and most of the skill positions are manned by grinders and possesion types I find it amazing that we did what we did.  The failure at the end was due to the caps on the capability of Speight and the less capable individuals on the offense.   The defense played great but just wored down.

Replace Speight with Peters, Smith with Harris, and Darbough with Peoples-Jones, you will see that Harbaugh will be able to do a lot more with a wheel barrow and morners cowl.

The Oracle

December 31st, 2016 at 7:08 AM ^

Michigan's record under Harbaugh: 20-6
Michigan's record in the seven seasons preceding Harbaugh: 46-42
Harbaugh 10 win seasons: 2
10 win seasons in the seven years preceding Harbaugh: 1
10 win seasons in the 25 years preceding Harbaugh: 7

2015: A
2016: A
Overall: A

Spikefan's "rational" critique: D


December 31st, 2016 at 9:00 AM ^

emotional hot take / waste of the hamster wheel.

The team did better than last year (up until the bowl which was going to be a disaster when the linchpin of your defensive gamelan pulls a hamstring the day before). The team still struggled behind the same interior O-line issues that led to Hoke's demise. (You can't develop good QBs and RBs without the protection from which to do so.)


December 31st, 2016 at 1:05 PM ^

but maybe your glasses are a bit too rose-colored. Let's grade our modern history:

Bo Schembeckler era ... top 10 program, consistently, but no nat'l titles / grade = A-

Loyd Carr era ... top 10 program, mostly, with a national title, but regression at the end / grade = B+

Rich Rod / Hoke era ... completely lost our way / grade = C-

Harbaugh era ... TBD, but the start is a huge turnaround with two top-10 level teams / grade = A-

The measure of Harbaugh's success will be in keeping that turnaround going and consistently delivering a top 10 competitor that, when things go our way, makes the CFP and hopefully get the titles we all want. To expect that to have occured in year 2 following an era of C- results and the negative impact it had on our football culture is just absurd. I mean Harbaugh turned those kids around to 10 win seasons like a light-switch. Let's get some recruiting success and ride this wave to the next level. The pinnacle isn't here yet.


December 31st, 2016 at 3:20 PM ^

So basically, you want to use the RRod/Hoke 7 years as your measuring stick?


In the 39 years of modern M football under Bo/Mo/Carr, 3 losses or fewer occured in 28 of those 39 seasons, or 72% of the time. Before the dark times, a 3 loss season was relatively common place. 


Different standards for success I guess. 




December 31st, 2016 at 4:45 PM ^

Michigan being mediocre for a while doesn't make above average seasons great ones.  Harbuagh had a stacked defense and a senior laden offense in year two of his system with a generous schedule.  This year was a dissapointment, that doesn't get an A.  

Ghost of Fritz…

December 31st, 2016 at 7:39 AM ^

when you are cranky after a close loss.

Your 2016 grade is way too  low.  And some of your reasons are flat out wrong.

Despite the same ending record, the 2016 team was miles better than the 2015 team. 

In 2015 M very easily could have lost to IU and Minnesota.  A few points from a five loss season.

In 2016, M came 5 total point s short in the three losses.  

Player development was there in 2016.  2016 O-line was not great.  Not good enough, for sure.  But it in fact was better than in 2015. 

Not happy with the three losses.  But M came up short in the very end of three toss ups. 

Until the o-line rises above mediocre, 11-1 or 12-0 will be unlikely. 

Still, 2015 team was as close to 7-5 as the 2016 team was to 12-0.  




December 31st, 2016 at 12:21 PM ^

I never said or meant to imply that the 2016 team was not miles better than the 2015 team. 


However, they should have been miles better based on everything that returned and another year in the system. Context is really important. 


I would give 10-3 an A in 2015 or 2017, but it doesn't qualify for that in 2016. 


Also, you are being way too harsh on the 2015 team. We had 4 one score games and went 2-2, with the closest of the 4 being a loss (to MSU). So no, they were not closer to being 7-5 than 9-3. 

2015 was a solid of a 9-3 team there is. 


December 31st, 2016 at 1:29 PM ^

and shouldn't be weighted based upon expectations which is an emotional goal yet to be tested against competition on the field. College football seasons are tough, filled with ups and downs, injuries, suspensions, etc. Keeping that altogether to deliver a 10 win season is a top-level program achievement. Look at the CFP rankings to develop an objective grading, something like:

CFP Nat'l Title = A+
CFP rank 2-4 = A
CFP rank 5-10 = A-
CFP 11-25 = B+/B
Bowl Particpant not CFP top 25 = B-/C+
Teams 3-5 wins = C/C-
Teams Less than 3 wins = D/F


December 31st, 2016 at 8:14 AM ^

I'll defend OP.

It feels weird to say that a meaningless bowl game was the difference between an "A" or a "B+" for Harbaugh, but I think it's true.

The program is miles ahead of where it was in 2014, that's for sure, and Harbaugh deserves all the credit in the world. But, he's had back-to-back 10-3 seasons with 2 losses to Ohio State. A win against FSU would've put him above the .800 winning % mark and given him a NY6 win and a Citrus win over FSU and Florida.

I mean, thank God he's here, and I wouldn't want anybody else as our coach, but to say his first two years get an A when we haven't won a division, conference, or NY6 game is a little optimistic.


December 31st, 2016 at 9:09 AM ^

I still think the team did better this year than last, but yes - who gets the better grade if both lose their NY6 bowl game, Harbaugh or Franklin?

Franklin: he beat OSU, won the Division and the Conference, is off to the Rose Bowl, and did it with less talent - even on O-line.