According to Jim

Looking back at the Summer of Harbaugh and figuring out how to feel about what happens next.
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Michigan football has had its share of low points in the past eight years, but for a particularly deep low point, consider the career of former quarterback Devin Gardner.

Coming into Michigan as the top-rated dual-threat quarterback in 2010, Gardner rode the bench and spent time as a wide receiver before becoming the starter after a mid-season injury to Denard Robinson in 2012. In five games, Gardner put up a solid stat line (1,219 passing yards, 11 passing touchdowns, an additional seven rushing) and, going into the next season, there was something unfamiliar to Michigan fans: if not full-blown optimism, then something close to it. Michigan football could be back after years in the wilderness and Gardner—who, even by the tenuous way we typically delineate Classy and Not Classy Athletes, seems like a pretty good dude—might lead the way.

Gardner’s potential was always visible through the peaks and valleys he went through as a starter, where record-setting games went hand in hand with sub-100 passing yard games. But for multiple reasons (among them: rotating offensive coordinators, a 2013 season spent behind a hazardous offensive line, general coaching malpractice and player regression), Gardner’s star-crossed career remained a constant as Michigan slogged towards the end of former coach Brady Hoke’s tenure.

Take the 2013 season’s 42-41 loss to Ohio State, where Michigan entered the game off a 1-3 losing streak. A week after failing to break 100 yards passing against Iowa, Gardner put up 451 yards, four passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown versus the Buckeyes. Michigan lost after a game-sealing two-point conversion was intercepted, and as author John U. Bacon wrote in Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football (excerpt via Eleven Warriors), this wasn’t a surprise to Gardner:

When I started to explain to Gardner that I'd since learned the Ohio State coaches and players already knew, after the time-out, what Michigan's coaches had called and were ready for it, he cut me off midsentence by raising a hand.

"I know, I know," he said, with a resigned grin. "They [the Buckeyes] called a time-out and we come back with the same look, the same play. When you see them set up, you knew they were ready for us. I'm pretty sure the only person who didn't know they knew was Al Borges. That's the only way they covered it so well."

Gardner might have been stoic about how it went down, but the resulting loss still stung more than a year later.

"My least favorite moment of my career had to be the end of that Ohio State game. It's still the biggest game of the year, we had just run a perfect two-minute drill, and we are losing by just one point. Everyone was covered and I was about to get tackled. Had to get rid of it. But I beat myself up about that for a long time. "

It’s the unfair part about legacies. Sometimes, you manage to live up to the hype. Other times, when you’re facing certain failure and ludicrous odds, what else can you do but jump into the abyss head-first?

***

You likely already have an opinion about Jim Harbaugh. The fifth-best winning percentage in NFL history, the personality that contributed to him leaving the NFL for Michigan and the constant dispatches from Summer of Harbaugh. He might be a high-functioning lunatic—even by the standard of most college football coaches—but he’s Michigan’s high-functioning lunatic, dammit.

And aside from the usual sideline histrionics, the most unusual thing about Year 1 of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan was how ordinary it ended up being. With a roster that struggled towards 5-7 in 2014, Michigan reached a 9-3 regular season record this year without any of the self-created debacles that were commonplace during the previous administration.

It’s usually a fool’s errand to prognosticate too far in advance about the record of head coaches—12-1 Iowa waves from Pasadena and Kirk Ferentz’s contract will get extended to 2999—but Michigan likely isn’t paying Harbaugh $7 million annually for “usually.” For any team, the regular season revolves around watching luck and preparation bash into each other and athletic departments are built on hoping that that the latter beats out the former. After consecutive rebuilds with the University of San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, Harbaugh’s reputation here is sterling. He’s won everywhere he’s gone, so why couldn’t he do it at Michigan? But for fans on their third coach in eight years, the reality of Harbaugh can’t help but come up near the weird, murky edges of the fanbase psyche.

Uncertainty is something baked into the constitution of any reasonable person. You’re maybe certain that you’re right in the middle of the playoff hunt, until you’re suddenly not. You believe in your team just hard enough, but not too hard. And here, you can start to see the appeal of a figure like Harbaugh. With Harbaugh, you’ve got the possibility, however remote, that you can eliminate this sense of doubt from your internal calculus. Jim Harbaugh sees your cosmic uncertainty—it’s something that’s incapable of being tackled and he is rightfully suspicious of it. He’s dragged teams to victories through sheer force of will and he will turn your undergrad friend playing catch on the Diag into the best makeshift receiver, their inability to catch a ball be damned.

It’s the rare coach who can come in and immediately get people to believe (see: Urban Meyer coming to Ohio State & immediately ripping off a 24-game winning streak), and the issue for Michigan fans sitting at the intersection of preseason hype and actual games is a familiar and difficult one: are you ready to believe?

With Michigan State sitting in the playoff and Ohio State having just blown the doors off the Wolverines, Michigan’s challenges in the short-term are clear. “[We’re] very proud of the team: the way they’ve worked, the way they’ve progressed, and we’ll just stay at that,” Harbaugh said after the Ohio State game, via MGoBlog. “Closed quite a bit of ground. Still more ground to close on, but knowing our team, they’ll stay with it.”

But what about the long-term? Certainly, the bar for Harbaugh and Michigan in a hiring market that considers 9-3 a fireable offense is lofty. On paper, the storybook arc neatly writes itself: the prodigal son returns, bringing Michigan football back to its former heights. With a team that exceeded preseason expectations statistically and on its win-loss record, there’s even a foundation for next year and some reason for optimism. But now that the first year of actual Harbaugh-led football is nearly over, there’s the simultaneously encouraging and terrifying sensation that comes from looking into the future and being willing to embrace the potential. Maybe your coach will quit midseason and move up to Pocatello to get into potato farming. Maybe your team will stay healthy enough this year and somehow write their ticket to that improbable playoff run. It never makes sense and won’t ever make sense until, somehow, it does.


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