Well, that was fast.
It took exactly one game into the college football season to destroy any maize- and blue-colored fantasies of Jim Harbaugh and his band of merry Wolverines steamrolling their way to the national championship. In fact, one more loss like the one on opening night and it might be considered bad etiquette to even admit that you ever had any hope of them returning to relevant form anytime soon. This is the NCAAs after all, and even with a fancy new playoff system in place that made determining the best team a smidgen more fair and a lot more pleasurable, what it doesn’t do is go back in time and turn old realities into new ones.
Michigan came into the season unranked after years of basking in the shadows of its past glory and more recent mediocrity, but who among us would not admit that Harbaugh makes us believe in miracles? We were all witness to his phenomena in San Francisco that started almost as immediately as he arrived. Why wouldn’t the pigskin whisperer be able to work his magic anywhere and anytime he pleases? The top brass at the University of Michigan was likely thinking the same thing when it scooped him up after his old employers cut him loose.
Speaking of Harbaugh being cut loose, apparently that happened because he wasn’t agreeable. It’s hard to know for sure whether that means he was a stubborn, “shut up because I’m calling the shots and I know what I’m doing; in fact I know everything” kind of guy or whether it simply means that sometimes he dared to agree to disagree with his boss and every now and then challenge his players to do better. Whatever the real answer, there is probably a little bit of truth to the lies. Simply put, if Harbaugh was the kind of coach who went around smiling incessantly, doing everything everyone told him to do, never speaking above a polite whisper and whistling happy songs all the time, he wouldn’t have his reputation. Also, he’d be a boring coach-bot.
The question is whether the coach-bot is the wave of the future.
If Harbaugh’s ways were supposedly too rigid and forceful and aggressive for million-dollar-making grown men to deal with, how quickly will it all become too much for these college amateurs, fresh out of their teens, to handle? It used to be that tough-guy types were thought to fare better in the college ranks with less push-back from oversized kids who didn’t mind the bombastic and oppressive but motivational routine from their father figures on the sidelines. That was until some tapes from practice and a whistle-blowing employee got Mike Rice fired from his position as head coach of the Rutgers basketball program and started a very big and important national conversation about potentially abusive behavior from coaches.
Take a moment to Google “coaches caught on tape” and you’ll see a clear pattern of student athletes who feel more empowered to hold their coaches accountable for perpetual line-crossing.
For now it seems that they’ve been helping administrators to get it right. This most recent case at Illinois is just one more example of how both player statements and video evidence came together to influence the right decision.
I do wonder, however, if coaches might now be living in fear of the wrong decision — hether they are afraid of just how bad of an impression a relatively benign but passionate rant caught on camera after a tough loss might give us.
Harbaugh is no stranger to coaching college players — having enormous success at San Diego and Stanford — but I am curious if his stint with the 49ers, where even a winning record couldn’t keep him off the chopping block, made him more cautious, if the whole ordeal took a bit of bite out of his bark.
After losing to Utah 24-17, I pictured a livid Harbaugh in the locker room going absolutely ape nuts over the opportunity his players had squandered. Then I pictured a kid getting it all on tape.
And then I considered how much of what happens in the locker room these days won’t necessarily stay in the locker room.
It will be a while before we know for sure if his time by the bay took a bit of the edge off.
For now though, coach Harbaugh will just have to accept the fact that, as the wildly critically and commercially successful 20th- and 21st-century poet Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter put it, “The streets is watching.”
And it’s not just the wins and losses that are getting our attention.
I once ran a 6 and a half-minute mile. So, there’s that.