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To turn around the Wolverines, Harbaugh should look to his own past

Bo Schembechler talks to Jim Harbaugh during a 1985 game against Notre Dame.
Bentley Historical Library
Bo Schembechler talks to Jim Harbaugh during a 1985 game against Notre Dame. The Wolverines would end the season in second place.

This year, for the first time, the Big Ten failed to place a team in the four-team College Football Playoff. But the league redeemed itself by winning its first seven bowl games – an amazing run. The Big Ten was just one win away from an unprecedented 8-0 bowl record: Michigan versus South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

Michigan finished the regular season with a disappointing 8-4 record, which wasn’t not too surprising after losing two quarterbacks. But a bowl game victory would put them at 9-4, just one short of the standard set by Harbaugh’s first two Michigan teams. Not bad at all.

The Wolverines were heavily favored, and that seemed right when Michigan jumped out to a 19-3 lead. The offense looked solid, and the defense dominant, as usual -- and that’s when the wheels came off in spectacular fashion. The Wolverines gave the ball away five times in the second half. The offense was disorganized, undisciplined, and poorly coached – the antithesis of Harbaugh’s previous teams.

Michigan’s 26-19 loss sparked a crescendo of criticism from fans and reporters alike. The national media crowed that Harbaugh, Michigan’s homegrown hero, was a bust. For the first time, a significant minority of the Michigan fans wondered aloud if that might be true.

These predictable responses are overreactions, and most Michigan fans know it. But they do pile on the pressure for the season ahead, raising three possibilities:

First, the Wolverines could get worse. It’s not clear if the NCAA will let five-star transfer quarterback Shae Patterson play this coming season, so Michigan’s offense could be leaderless again next year. With a historically brutal schedule, another step backward is entirely possible – an outcome many are betting on.

Second, Michigan might hold its own, and finish with 8 wins again. If so, the future could still be bright, with a stronger roster and easier schedule coming the next year.

But there’s a third scenario: Harbaugh sorts out the offense, starting with his coaching staff. Right now they have too many cooks in the kitchen, with not one but two offensive assistants making a million dollars. This creates a cloudy chain of command – poison for any organization.

But it’s worth remembering Harbaugh played quarterback in the NFL for 14 years, and coached great offenses for another 14, so it’s hard to believe he suddenly forgot how to run an effective offense. I’d imagine he’ll take charge of the offense, get back to basics, and start scoring points. With a defense returning almost everyone, they could get back to ten wins.

If they do, it will be reminiscent of Bo Schembechler’s biggest turn-around. In 1984, Michigan’s quarterback went down, and the Wolverines finished 6-and-6 – Bo’s worst season.

The next year, 1985, Bo made everyone – coaches and players – start from scratch. His quarterback returned to lead an unranked team to number two in the nation – Bo’s best finish.

What was the difference? “We just remembered how we do things around here,” he said. “Then we went back to doing those things better than anyone else. That’s all.”

Who was that quarterback? None other than James Joseph Harbaugh, who knows that comeback script better than anyone alive.

The odds don’t favor a comeback for Harbaugh’s current team – but the odds didn’t favor his mentor’s comeback, either.

John U. Bacon is a freelance sports commentator. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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