Coming out of the 2020 pandemic season, it seemed like Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan homecoming was headed for a not-so-amicable divorce. What once seemed like a sure thing — Harbaugh bringing his alma mater back to the top of college football — had been reduced to a punchline.
It wasn’t that Harbaugh had failed. Michigan could — and has — employed coaches who did worse than finish in the top 20 four out of his first five years. But under the surface, there were problems.
Harbaugh wasn’t beating Michigan’s biggest rivals with enough regularity. He seemingly couldn’t beat Ohio State at all. His quest to bring in and develop a top-level quarterback had hit the wall, and the recruiting momentum from his first couple years had fizzled. And, as has often been the case with Harbaugh at various coaching stops, his hard-charging nature and oddball personality were wearing thin on everyone in the Michigan athletic department.
Only because Harbaugh is Harbaugh — a Michigan legend and a proven winner in college and the NFL — he got another chance, albeit with a pay cut and a contract that made it easier for the school to fire him. Adding it all up, the 2021 season was pretty much do-or-die.
But even the most optimistic vision of how Harbaugh’s last charge up the hill might play out didn’t account for this. In a mere two years, Harbaugh has flipped everything on its head. Michigan isn’t just back to being really good, after Saturday’s 45-23 destruction of No. 2 Ohio State — this time in Columbus — he suddenly owns the entire Big Ten.
How do you like him now?
On paper, this Harbaugh resurgence doesn't make a lot of sense. Sure, the Wolverines put it all together last year, finally breaking through against Ohio State for the first time. But that was in Ann Arbor on a bad weather day when Michigan had the best player on the field in Aidan Hutchinson. There were rumors that Ohio State was stricken by a team-wide flu bug. Maybe it was a fluke.
Surely things would flip back in 2022. Ohio State was bringing back more offensive talent than any team in the country and overhauled its defense to emphasize the toughness and physicality the Buckeyes lacked in last year’s matchup. Michigan, meanwhile, was still projected to be a good team but had lost other big-time playmakers on defense like Daxton Hill, Josh Ross and David Ojabo in addition to leading rusher Hassan Haskins and two key offensive linemen.
But, surprisingly, there wasn’t a single moment this season in which it looked like Michigan took a step back. Now, we can finally say it: The Wolverines are even better this year.
And that’s because of one quirky coach who has turned around his tenure more dramatically than anyone in recent memory.
Be honest, you didn't see this coming. How could you?
With its first win in Columbus since 2000, Michigan is headed back to the Big Ten championship game, then probably the College Football Playoff after that. Can Michigan win a national title? The odds are against it, though who knows in this oddball season where it doesn’t seem like any of the contenders are bulletproof.
But that’s almost beside the point. What Harbaugh has done is already mind-boggling. To be clear, this is what Harbaugh was hired to do when Michigan made him the sport’s highest-paid coach in the country in 2014, pulling him away from a successful run in the NFL.
To do it now, though, after six years of frustration to the point of a near-breakup, is almost unprecedented. And to become the Big Ten’s standard-bearer at a time when Ohio State was supposed to have a far better team is as impressive of a coaching job as anyone has done in the last decade.
On paper it doesn’t really make a lot of sense, except for this: There’s still a place for physicality toughness in the game of football, and Michigan has become as tough as they come.
Ohio State, for all of its blue-chip talent, is not.
Looking back, the Buckeyes probably had a sense they were in trouble Saturday when they completely controlled the first quarter and a half but did not land a knockout blow and found themselves tied, 10-10, after a 69-yard touchdown pass from J.J. McCarthy to a wide open Cornelius Johnson.
It was a profound moment in the game, infusing confidence in the Wolverines that they could get something done on offense even though their running game was struggling without leading rusher Blake Corum, who tried to play a little bit but was clearly hampered by the knee injury he suffered last week.
On the other side of the field, doubts crept in for Ohio State. Coach Ryan Day started to get tight and lost his aggressiveness as a playcaller. On defense, the Buckeyes succumbed to a lack of discipline, committing terrible penalties and giving up touchdown runs of 75 and 85 yards in the fourth quarter.
By the end, it was a runaway, likely knocking the Buckeyes out of the playoff picture completely.
A year ago, after Michigan’s 42-27 win, Harbaugh poured fuel all over the rivalry when he said, “Some people who are standing on third base think they hit a triple, but they didn’t,” a comment that was correctly interpreted as a shot at Day.
It might have been an overly chesty thing to say for a coach who had been 0-5 against Ohio State. But the reality is, Harbaugh’s poor record had come against Urban Meyer, not a first-time head coach who inherited a program that was already humming on all fronts.
Without Meyer in the picture, Harbaugh’s job was to finally plant some seeds of doubt in Columbus. And goodness has he done that.
The vibe around Harbaugh will never stop being odd. Last January, he had a prolonged flirtation with the Minnesota Vikings but got left at the altar without an offer. This summer, with the country roiling over the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, he drew criticism for speaking at a fundraiser for a pro-life political group in Michigan.
But in the end, only Harbaugh could have kept everything from falling apart two years ago when it seemed like Michigan was ready to admit failure and try something else. Now Harbaugh and Michigan are on top of the world.
The work is never done in college football, but nobody else could have pulled this off at Michigan but stubborn, eccentric, brilliant Jim Harbaugh. If becoming a better program than Ohio State is as good as winning a national championship at Michigan, it's time to go ahead and ship them the trophy.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan improbably own Big Ten after Ohio State victory