Hours before Michigan arrived at the lowest point of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as coach, one of the Wolverines’ old rivals provided an oblique diagnosis of their woes.
On a TV set thousands of miles away from Ann Arbor, former Ohio State coach and current Fox college football analyst Urban Meyer advised that a coach of a struggling team should assume its problems are caused by one of three phenomena: Trust issues among players, selfishness that undermines a collective effort or a dysfunctional environment that spawns entitlement instead of hard work.
As Wisconsin steamrolled Michigan football during a 49-11 rout on a frigid night in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh had to wonder whether a combination of those factors had torpedoed his football team — transforming it from one that was ranked in the preseason to an unsightly mess that is off to its worst start since 1967. The Wolverines, after all, looked discombobulated, lifeless and uncompetitive throughout a disastrous performance that left Harbaugh crestfallen.
“Not in a good place as a football team right now and that falls on me,” he said.
The week before, following a loss to Indiana that was devastating in a different way, Harbaugh tried to sell the idea that the Wolverines were nearing the point of playing well.
He explained that the sound performances in practices were not being replicated in the games for some inexplicable reason.
But by the end of Saturday night, he had scrapped that rationale and simply accepted the harsh reality.
“Every part is not close to where it should be,” he confessed. “Stopping the run. Stopping the pass. Running the football offensively. Throwing in the passing game. All things are thoroughly not where they need to be in terms of execution, so that starts with me. It starts with our coaches and also every person here.”
Harbaugh promised there would be fixes and that everything would be evaluated. He told reporters Michigan would go “back to the basics” and “try to win by all means necessary.” Harbaugh vowed the Wolverines would reexamine the schemes, the players and the performance of all involved.
Yet Harbaugh acknowledged he doesn’t have a magic potion to cure the Wolverines.
The coach who returned to Ann Arbor with the reputation as a sorcerer of X’s-and-O’s seemed at a loss for answers.
Instead, he was the one asking questions.
“If someone is not executing it, why is that?” he wondered aloud. “Are we communicating? Are we coaching it well enough?”
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It was strange to hear Harbaugh like this. For so long, he has been so self-assured — even cocky. In the face of previous defeats, he often exuded confidence and defiance as if he knew the pain was temporary and success was just around the corner.
But after he watched Wisconsin roll through Michigan’s front seven to gain 341 yards rushing, after he saw his starting quarterback Joe Milton throw interceptions on his first two pass attempts, after he witnessed the Wolverines trail the Badgers by four touchdowns at halftime for the second straight year, he simply appeared defeated.
He knows there is no easy solution because he admits that everything is on the table.
“Everything we do is going to aim at improvement,” he said. “Anything we can identify that we can do better.”
The problems, though, are systemic. A wave of transfers has depleted depth and diminished the talent pool. The approach to practice and preparation has been questioned by multiple people inside the program, including offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and receiver Giles Jackson. The coaching — from evaluation of the roster to the play-calling — has also invited skepticism. The culture of Harbaugh’s organization that has allowed complacency to seep in and unwarranted arrogance to mushroom is now under the microscope.
In essence, Harbaugh’s Wolverines have become the quintessential example of the broken team Meyer described on Fox’s pregame show.
The former Ohio State coach saw what had happened to Michigan before Harbaugh did.