Michigan, Harbaugh and the Changing Times of Midwest Football

Is One Name That Big of a Deal?
By John Furgele

Jim Harbaugh is a name that elicits; a name that resonates. For Michigan alums and fans alike, they believe that he is the answer, the Wolverine State’s response to Urban Meyer and Ohio State. The Michigan followers truly feel that if they bring Harbaugh back to the place where he spent his undergraduate days that Michigan football will be reborn to that national power that it once was.

That said, Michigan is doing something that Michigan has never, ever done before. Beg. This is the proud university that wouldn’t allow Bill Frieder to coach the 1989 Wolverine basketball team in the NCAA Tournament because he had accepted the head coaching job at Arizona State. Because Frieder was no longer a “Michigan Man,” he was relieved of his duties immediately and replaced by assistant coach Steve Fisher. All Fisher did was go 6-0 and lead the Maize and Blue to the national title.

But things have changed in Ann Arbor and for that matter, across the country. Simply put, there is way too much money to be had and the longer a program suffers, the longer it takes to get that money. Michigan fans have always had a sense of arrogance and truth be told, it’s a good arrogance. That arrogance also exists at Notre Dame, Alabama, Texas, Ohio State and perhaps Oklahoma, too. These are the blueblood programs in college football. It’s that arrogance that reveals admiration, or deep seated hatred. We saw the arrogance when the four team College Football Playoff field was announced and Ohio State, the blueblood, leapfrogged Baylor and Texas Christian to garner the coveted fourth and final spot. If Texas was 11-1 and ranked third, and then blew out Iowa State 55-3, you think Ohio State would have jumped them? What if Oklahoma was 11-1 and did the same? You think those two would be fifth or sixth in the rankings? No chance.

Michigan is a lot like Notre Dame and in some ways Oklahoma. They no longer are true national powers, but they still think like ones. Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship since the 1988 season; Oklahoma hasn’t won since 2000. Sure, both the Sooners and Irish have played in BCS title games, but in many ways, their cache has diminished. At Michigan, it’s even worse. The Wolverines haven’t been champions since 1997, and that year, they shared the title with Coaches Poll champion, Nebraska.

Michigan reminds some as the old British Empire, clinging to its colonies and traditions while the nations they once controlled have broken away and declared independence. An example is little Boise State, which truth be told has done more on the national stage since 2000 then Michigan. Like Notre Dame, they think they can wave their wand and prospective coaches will come running to interview for the job. They’ve waived the wand at least twice with LSU coach Les Miles and both times, he never left Baton Rouge to interview in Ann Arbor. Now, the Wolverines are trying to summon their former, hard-nosed quarterback home, only this time, they’re dangling $49 million in addition to the wand.

How important is a good coach? Naturally, it is important and there is no doubt that Harbaugh is an elite coach. He won at the University of San Diego, a Division 1-AA school that does not offer athletic scholarships. He won at Stanford, a rigorous academic school where few players are admitted no questions asked, and a private school as well. He then went to the San Francisco 49ers and turned the team around in three seasons. In those three seasons, he reached the NFC Championship Game with Alex Smith (losing in overtime), then switched quarterbacks and came within a play of winning the Super Bowl, and then lost a tough road game in the NFC Championship Game against Seattle.

Harbaugh can recruit and more importantly, he can coach the recruits. He made Alex Smith a winner, and then allowed him to go to Kansas City, where he keeps on winning. He tutored Colin Kapernick into an exciting, winning quarterback and though he’s fallen back some this year, the potential still is there.

Things have changed in Michigan and that arrogance could get the Michigan leaders in trouble. For decades, the Midwest was chock full of blue chip talent. The steel and auto workers lived in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania and those states supplied generations of football players. The blue collar parents saw football as a tough guy sport and the supply of great talent seemed endless. But, then the shift began. The factories began closing, the population of these states began to drop and the demographics began to change. The laborers packed up and moved to the Sun Belt or to the West to raise their families. The blue chip talents no longer had allegiances to the Midwest anymore. They grew up in Florida; why not play for Florida, Florida State, Miami, Alabama or another SEC or ACC school? Why come east when you can play football in California or Arizona?

The other change was the type of people who remained in the rust belt states. Because the economy changed from manufacturing to service, the parents and priorities changed. Instead of working Monday-Friday from 6 am to 2:30 with perhaps some overtime, the workers were working swing shifts and on weekends. Now, the days off might be Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday and Sunday and that it makes it harder to take “Football Jimmy” to practice, watch his games and to watch on TV. For the new workers, Friday night was no longer the night to relax, it might be a night to work or a night where one has to get to bed for the 6 am Saturday shift. Even though Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are still top ten states in terms of population, the demographic has changed and the other states are growing at a much faster rate than these states. Census data suggests that for every one person Michigan adds to its population, North Carolina adds 10.

The service industry also includes more white collar jobs like lawyers, insurance agents, professions where nothing is produced, but the salaries are higher. The people who work in these professions have different mindsets. They may have been cross country and track runners, tennis players and golfers or soccer players. Because they work for themselves, they work when they want and have to, and as a result, they don’t watch as much college football on TV, and as a result, their kids are less likely to play the game of football and more likely to go for a run or swing a golf club.

Deep down, Michigan knows this and that is why they’re making the hard press for Jim Harbaugh. Because the Midwest is no longer a football factory that produces enough to feed Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan, the Wolverine brass believes that coaching is more critical than ever. Ohio State knows that the demographics have changed, but they’ve had two coaches in Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer that understood that, worked with it and relished in it. Michigan State seems to have a guy in Mark Dantonio that also understands how it works, making the next coach of Michigan a monumental decision.

The only problem is with Harbaugh himself. Is he really interested in coming back to the college game? Is this the work of his agents, driving the price up so high that an NFL team offers him $49 million or more to coach their team? What will Harbaugh do if he comes to Michigan? Will he stay for five years? Ten? More? He was so close to winning the Super Bowl, could he really walk away from the NFL game without a Super Bowl title?

Nobody knows what Harbaugh is thinking, in fact, I’m not sure he knows either, but there is one problem. What is Michigan’s Plan B? What if Harbaugh signs with the Chicago Bears next week, or the Oakland Raiders or some other team that’s going to fire their coach on Black Monday? Do the Wolverines have a list of other coaches that can understand the landscape like Meyer and Dantonio do?

We’ll know the answer soon enough. Michigan has reportedly made the offer. They know that by New Year’s Day, Harbaugh will be somewhere. If it’s Michigan, then Wolverine Nation will rejoice. If not, then what?

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