It must be startling for old-time Wolverines fans to consider that a freshman arriving in Ann Arbor this fall probably remembers the one and only occasion in their living memory when University of Michigan beat Ohio State at football. “The Game,” as the yearly matchup is still known because it was once the most anticipated gridiron event in the nation, is now so firmly a Buckeye bonanza that U-M fans were grateful when COVID-canceled it in 2020.
No, it’s basketball that those kids get excited about now, with two Big Ten tournament championships and two appearances in the March Madness finals in the past decade and, this year, a firm berth in the national Top 10.
Michigan, the one-time football powerhouse, now clings to its glory years by, bafflingly, renewing the contract of 1980s Wolverine great Jim Harbaugh despite a disappointing record capped by a disastrous 2020. It’s now a hoops school, having seen a successful transfer from longtime head coach John Beilein to Juwan Howard, a former Wolverine of a more recent vintage.
So how did that happen? Let’s break it down.
In 2019, Howard, one of the Fab Five recruiting class in 1991 responsible for U-M’s only back-to-back NCAA Finals appearances, took over a well-crafted team after Beilein left for an ill-fated stint coaching the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Howard’s new team had up-and-coming freshmen and sophomores as well as seniors Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske to provide a steadying influence. And Howard, like Beilein, proved skillful at molding young players.
He also only needed one or two standouts to carry the team, unlike in football, where few particular players have quite so much impact. Howard brought in center Hunter Dickinson, the 7-foot-2 tree from Maryland who said he wanted to take advantage of Howard’s strength and conditioning program. While Howard has other weapons in Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner, the team’s fate rests on Dickinson’s broad shoulders to dazzling effect. As of late January, Michigan was 13-1 and ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation.
Next door at the Big House, Harbaugh’s history is that of some flash and hype followed by important failures. The expectations, though, were also dramatically higher when a beloved homegrown star returned to reverse the hard times of history’s winningest Division I college football team.
Harbaugh’s record may not seem so bad. Since his 2015 arrival following a stint taking the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl, Harbaugh is 49-22. That first season was promising, with a 10-3 record, a bowl victory, and a year-end rank of No. 12. Since then, though, he has largely failed in the games that matter most to fans. U-M is 3-3 versus Michigan State under Harbaugh and, far more dispiriting, he’s winless against Ohio State. Michigan is mired in its longest-ever losing streak against That School Down South — eight and counting, including six on Harbaugh’s watch.
Worse yet, in 2020, Michigan went 2-4. The last losing record was under predecessor Brady Hoke, who was fired for a 5-7 season in 2014. Harbaugh, on the other hand, just got a contract extension through 2025, albeit at a reduced base pay that still gives him more than $4 million a year.
It’s difficult to know why Harbaugh’s teams aren’t working. Ann Arbor may be a victim of the adage that failure begets failure. Why would a top prospect being lured to Alabama or Ohio State want to be a Wolverine with their recent inability to triumph? What’s more, U-M in the past 20 years has become a significantly more elite academic institution. It’s hard to find enough star football players who also happen to be stellar students to fill a roster.
Beilein, and now Howard, needed far fewer. Beilein also was gifted at spotting unnoticed or undervalued talent — Nic Stauskas, Moe Wagner, Spike Albrecht — to mold into stars or workhorses. This being basketball, he could scour Europe, too, which isn’t a thing in football. After a few years of Beilein turning ragtag gangs into national contenders, the word went out that Michigan had game.
Howard could have undone that, but he arrived as hungry as his players. It’s his first head coaching gig after years as an assistant for the NBA’s Miami Heat, so he learned the ropes along with his players. And, as it turns out, kids really like playing for a young-ish coach — he’s 48 — whose own pro-playing career ended only a few years ago.
He also arrived amid lower expectations. The fast start of the 2020-21 season was impressive, but he also started fast in 2019-20 only to cool in February. COVID canceled March Madness last year, so we don’t even have a full season of Howard to judge.
Thus, we can’t crown Howard the better coach yet. But it’s hard not to compare when
the programs are heading in opposite directions. A successful football season — with a win over Ohio State, at least! — would wipe away a lot of frustration and disappointment with Harbaugh. Until then, though, basketball will reign in Ann Arbor.