Four years ago, Michigan football was a dumpster fire.
The 2014 season featured a 5-7 campaign that included losses to Rutgers and Maryland, blowout losses to Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State on the road, the Concussion-gate controversy with Shane Morris during the Minnesota game which was another blowout loss, and student-led protests on campus against then athletic director David Brandon, who cared more about marketing the Michigan brand than he did about fielding a successful program. It would be the third time in seven seasons that Michigan would miss a bowl game, after having gone 33 years straight from 1974 to 2007 without missing a single bowl game, and Brady Hoke, the coach who was supposed to be the program's savior in the wake of the Rich Rodriguez disaster (15-22 in three seasons) was on the steady decline from going 11-2 in his first season at Michigan, to 8-5 a year later, to 7-6 the year after that before his final 5-win output of 2014, which surely contributed to the eight decommitments from the 2015 recruiting class that year, one of them being 5-star Mike Weber who is now at Ohio State.
Enter Jim Harbaugh, hired at the end of December 2014 by interim athletic director Jim Hackett to be the head coach of Michigan football. It was a highly calculated, crafty move that involved stealing a successful professional football coach from an NFL franchise that didn't want him after he had just spent four seasons taking them to the NFC title game three times and getting to the Super Bowl, where he lost to his brother by a field goal. Almost the entire nation told us for months that he would never leave the pros for a college job, even if it was his alma mater. We needed to move on and go after Bob Stoops or David Cutcliffe, or maybe finally see if Les Miles will somehow take the job. Any of those scenarios were more realistic than Harbaugh, we were told.
Harbaugh took the job though, and his task was truly gargantuan: Fix Michigan football. Now.
That edict seems so simple when you read it, but it's far more complicated than it looks because of just how horrific Michigan football had become after Bo Schembechler's death and Lloyd Carr's retirement. For seven years, the football team in Ann Arbor was a punchline at best, Rutgers at worst. A 46-42 record that featured two total wins against Michigan State (2012) and Ohio State (2011). A fractured alumni base that was at odds about how the program should proceed for the future. A fractured fanbase that had never seen Michigan win only three games in an entire season. Seriously, when you have students actively protesting to get your AD fired and fans calling radio shows screaming that the program needs to clean house, you have problems well beyond just wins and losses. Those are culture issues, and those take awhile to repair because trust is involved on all levels and that can be very difficult to repair if it can be at all.
So with all that in mind, here we are now in 2018 on the precipice of Harbaugh's fourth season at Michigan. His record is 28-11, which features back to back 10-3 seasons and an 8-5 campaign last year, a pair of loaded recruiting classes ranked fourth in the nation in 2016 and 2017, and a current one ranked seventh in the country.
If you had told 10 Michigan fans in 2014 that Harbaugh would do this in his first three seasons, at least 9 of them would have taken it in a heartbeat, myself included. The planet picked him to go 7-5 at best in his first year and he won 10 games instead. He has galvanized the alumni, the students and the majority of the fanbase as a whole in a bid to repair and revitalize the culture of Michigan football and with Warde Manuel as athletic director, everyone is on the same page now more than they had been before Harbaugh was hired.
And yet, a large portion of the Michigan fanbase now doubts him and questions his ability to coach for one reason: 1-5, which is his current record against Michigan State and Ohio State.
To briefly summarize how that has happened, in 2015 he lost to MSU on a dropped punt snap that was returned for a touchdown as time expired, and got blown out by an OSU team full of talented seniors that had won a national championship the year prior as juniors. In 2016 he beat a 3-9 MSU squad on the road, but lost to OSU in double overtime by three points on a controversial fourth down spot call that would have won Michigan the game the other way. In 2017 he lost to MSU by four in a monsoon with a QB that only got worse as the season went on and lost to OSU by 11 in a game that was close until the fourth quarter.
No one likes losing to rivals and Michigan has been doing it for far too long as a program, but given all that has happened in the last decade there needs to be some serious context taken into account here. The belief in 2015 was that Michigan was three to four years away from competing with its own rivals, let alone winning a Big Ten championship. The thought was that Harbaugh needed to get to a point where he had all of his own recruits on the field with talent and experience and his system in place and then he could start taking steps towards winning his division, but because he turned Brady Hoke's recruits that had gone 12-13 in 2013 and 2014 combined into a team that went 20-6 in 2015 and 2016 and saw several players go to the NFL, Harbaugh is suddenly an overrated underachiever that can't beat his rivals and cares more about taking his team to Rome and Paris than he does winning football games.
You know what that mindset is? It's 15 years of frustration as a Michigan fan being piled on to the current head coach who has only been here for the last three. Stop it, it's ridiculous.
We all forget pretty quick that the 2-15 record against OSU since 2001 started with Lloyd Carr's inability to beat Jim Tressel for seven years. A 1-6 record. 2003 was the only time Lloyd won that game, incidentally the last time Michigan won a Big Ten title outright in football.
Then Rich Rod happens. He fails to beat the rivals once in three seasons. 0-3 against MSU and OSU apiece.
Then Hoke comes in and only beats each of them once in four seasons. 1-3 against MSU and OSU apiece.
That's 14 years of rivalry damage before Harbaugh even steps to the podium on December 30, 2014, and that's amidst all of the other garbage that was going on with the program at the time. So he's had a giant mess to clean up since he's been here and if you go back and compare what Michigan football looked like in 2014 to even what it looked like last year, it's still night and day. No one is happy losing any games, especially to chirpy trash-talking rivals that troll your coach's media day press conference with inanities about the record against the rivals, but if you're a Michigan fan questioning Harbaugh's success at this point in time then you have serious issues with impatience, and what's worse is that the pundits and experts know that and capitalize on it. That's why you have jokers like Jason Whitlock and Shannon Sharpe calling Harbaugh a failure after his first three seasons. Whether they believe that garbage or not, they know that Michigan fans eat that up as a self-pity special and they're going to make sure they hand it to us on a silver platter to consume.
Whether Michigan fans or the pundits admit it or not, Jim Harbaugh is being blamed for more than a decade of failure at Michigan that he had nothing to do with. He's the one that's been spending the last three years doing all he can to fix it, and when you look at the program as a whole, I don't see how you can't find what he's fixed. The alumnus dissension is over, the divisions are gone, we have a competent athletic director and the talent gap between Michigan and the rivals is all but closed. That's seven years worth of catastrophic damage mostly repaired in his first three seasons. Is that the ultimate goal? Of course not. Do we want to beat the rivals and win the Big Ten? Of course we do, but stop the revisionist history on the situation Harbaugh walked into just because you're tired of losing to MSU and OSU. It wasn't that long ago that "Trouble With the Snap" or "JT was short" was "a minimum three touchdown loss by the third quarter to either rival. No moral victories, but it's still a process headed in the right direction at the end of the day.