Is Jim Harbaugh’s Seat Heating Up?

That’s the question that was broached on a text thread I’m in with other followers of Big Ten football in the aftermath of the 42-13 thrashing Michigan took at the hands of Penn State on Saturday night. It was the question that was at least the implication of a column in The Detroit Free Press, admonishing Wolverine fans to stop seeing Harbaugh as “a savior.”

The natural follow-up question is whether or not this level of impatience is fair or reasonable. And the follow-up to that is what the consequences are to a “yes” answer. No serious person thinks Jim Harbaugh is anywhere close to getting fired at Michigan. So is this just fodder for those of us who watch and write about college football or is there any real-world meaning to the rumblings that have started?

Let’s break it all down. The case against Harbaugh is summed up thusly…

*For all the accolades he’s received, there are no national championships in college, nor Super Bowl titles in the NFL. Does any other coach without a ring get the kind of adulation Harbaugh receives from Maize-N-Blue Nation?

*This is his third year at Michigan. He’s lost four of five games against Michigan State and Ohio State, his two biggest rivals. And for the sake of this discussion why don’t we just presume a home loss to the Buckeyes this year and say five out of six? The reason I say that is not to dismiss Wolverine chances of winning at home, but if they do, the rest of this conversation goes to the backburner for at least another year.

*He gets paid $7 million a year, more than any other college coach not named Nick Saban. Harbaugh makes more money than Urban Meyer, who has three national championships on his resume—including one in his third year at Ohio State.

*While Harbaugh inherited a program that was playing below historic expectations, recruiting wasn’t the problem. His predecessor, Brady Hoke, brought in well-regarded recruiting classes. Not as good as what Harbaugh has reeled in, but good enough that high expectations were reasonable. We might compare it to the situation at Notre Dame in the late 1980s—Gerry Faust struggled in South Bend, but always recruiting well. When Lou Holtz came in, he won a national championship soon after—in his third year.

A defense attorney for Jim Harbaugh might argue the following…

*Saying Harbaugh doesn’t have a ring is misleading. He took over a Stanford program that was at rock bottom and built it into a Pac-12 power that lives on to this day. When he went to the 49ers, he reached three straight NFC Championship Games, a feat that hadn’t been since the Dallas Cowboy Dynasty of the early 1990s, and prior to that, only by John Madden’s Oakland Raiders of the late 1970s.

*Though he doesn’t have the ultimate ring at either the college or NFL level, he does have a championship—the George Halas Trophy, for his 49er team winning the NFC crown in 2012. And only the worst non-call in the history of the Super Bowl—failure to call interference on Michael Crabtree in the end zone–prevented Harbaugh from getting over the top.

*It’s not as though Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan has lacked success. His first two teams went 10-3, levels of success the program had reached only once in the previous eight years (a 2011 Sugar Bowl trip under Hoke). On a more subjective note, Harbaugh’s 2014-15 teams were better than any Michigan edition since a 2006 team that reached a historic season finale in Columbus still undefeated.

What’s the consequence if influential backers agree more with the prosecution than the defense in this case? It’s likely that atmosphere in Ann Arbor gets testy enough that Harbaugh keeps his eyes peeled for opportunities to return to the NFL. Given his past success, such an opportunity is surely out there and the cost of buying out his contract means nothing to an NFL franchise.

My own view is this—while reducing adulation is always a good thing for any program and any head coach, Michigan fans would be crazy to create a truly uncomfortable environment for Harbaugh to work. I understand any frustration that’s tied to how much he gets paid and measuring the results in accord with the salary. That’s fair, but the wealthy Wolverine program is still better off with an overpaid Harbaugh versus a fairly compensated Brady Hoke, or whomever would be next in line.

I write as one who roots for Wisconsin. When it comes to the Big Ten East, I support Michigan State and have some sympathy for Penn State and Indiana. I can only say this—I’d be very happy if Jim Harbaugh went back to the NFL. If you’re a Michigan fan, that tells you all you need to know.