By: Will Burchfield
Arguably the biggest knock on Jim Harbaugh during his head-coaching tenure at Michigan is his record in rivalry games.
Through two and half seasons with Harbaugh at the helm, Michigan is a combined 1-4 versus Ohio State and Michigan State. That record took another hit on Saturday night when then-No. 7 Michigan lost to an unranked Michigan State team at home.
Afterward, Harbaugh was asked what the reaction should be to his 1-4 start versus Michigan’s two fiercest rivals. The head coach bristled.
“I don’t know,” he said in a frustrated tone. “We’re bowing our necks and getting ready for the next game. That’s our reaction.”
The topic was broached again at Harbaugh’s Monday press conference. It’s unavoidable at this point, and Harbaugh will continue to face questions about it until he turns the trend around.
“It is what the record is. Well aware of what the record is. Against Michigan State and Ohio State, we’re 1-4. The record (against) all other opponents is 23-3. We know what the records are. We want to win those games. We want to win every game we play, we want to them all. And most importantly, we want to win this one, our next game,” said Harbaugh.
That 23-3 record is well and good. But just six of those 26 games came against ranked opponents. (Michigan, to its credit, own a 5-1 record in said games.) Moreover, it neglects the two games that mean the most to Michigan’s fanbase.
To make matters worse, Michigan’s recent clashes with Michigan State and Ohio State have meant much more than bragging rights. In each case, the result went a long way toward determining the contestants in the Big 10 championship game and those in the College Football Playoff.
Under Harbaugh, Michigan has yet to participate in either. Its inability to beat its rivals is the biggest reason why.
Harbaugh’s only victory versus his rivals came against Michigan State in 2016, when the Wolverines were a 24.5-point favorites. They won by nine.
It’s telling that Harbaugh treats every opponent the same, while his counterparts at Michigan State and Ohio State, especially Mark Dantonio, openly acknowledge the importance of rivalry games.
Said Dantonio in advance of Saturday’s clash with Michigan, “I think coaches know which games are important. They can stand up here and say, ‘Well, it’s just another football game,’ but it’s not. You play in a championship game, it’s not just another football game. You play in a rivalry game, it’s not just another football game.
“It means more. It means more to your fans, it means more to the players on your team who are from in-state. … I think that’s pretty traditional across this country, and that’s how we’ve approached it here. Doesn’t mean that anybody else has to approach anything in this type of way, but that’s how we’ve approached it.”
Maybe it’s time for Harbaugh to do the same.