Since I started this job before the 2015 season, I’ve been hearing variations of a phrase repeatedly. It’s not necessarily exclusive to Michigan fans, either. National college football analysts have thrown it out there. For the most part, I was willing to nod my head in agreement when this notion was referenced.

“If Jim Harbaugh can’t win at Michigan, who can?”

On the surface, that belief made sense in 2015. Harbaugh wasn’t just considered a home-run hire. He was a walk-off, grand slam hire. He was the guy who was going to restore glory to the maize and blue because after all, he was the Michigan Man. You couldn’t have created a more perfect candidate to take over the struggling Wolverines.

Experience rebuilding programs at the college and NFL level? Yep. Experience developing quarterbacks like Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick? Absolutely. Experience winning as a player at Michigan? Duh.

But nearly 6 years after that notion of “Harbaugh or bust” was put into the world, it looks outdated. You know, like Don Brown’s defense.

To be clear, that’s not my way of saying that Harbaugh, who is 33-14 against B1G competition, should absolutely be let go at season’s end. That’s Warde Manuel’s decision to make, though with just 2 years left on his contract, one would think he’ll either cut bait and pay the $6.5 million buyout or he’ll agree to some sort of brief extension.

If Harbaugh does get another non-pandemic season to figure things out, it shouldn’t be based on that outdated notion.

Keeping a coach because you feel like you can’t do any better is a defeatist approach. It’s the person who stays in a long, unhappy relationship with someone because they’re afraid of being single. It’s the head coach who continues to employ a defensive coordinator even though his group gets shredded every time it sees a modern downfield passing attack.

OK, that was my last dig at Brown.

Six years ago, Michigan couldn’t do better than Harbaugh. That, we can agree on. Could Michigan find a coach who isn’t as stubborn and understands that you need to put up 40 points on a weekly basis to win big in 2020? Absolutely.

You see, while Harbaugh was the obvious choice to replace Brady Hoke, there are coaches who wouldn’t make the same mistakes that he made. For example, there are coaches who would’ve recognized before 2019 that the offense needed to get with the times. There are coaches who would’ve been able to actually develop a quarterback. There are coaches who would’ve been able to prepare for a home rivalry game, which Harbaugh is now 1-6 in.

What Michigan experienced these last 2 games is telling. Yes, it should’ve alarmed every Wolverines fan that a week removed from getting smashed by Rutgers, Michigan State turned around and lit up Michigan a week later. Even a team with an unproven, defensive-minded head coach who hired a 51-year-old, journeyman offensive coordinator dialed up a 323-yard passing day in Ann Arbor. I suppose that wasn’t as bad as allowing 342 passing yards losing by 3 scores to an Indiana team that hadn’t beaten Michigan since 1987.

If the mindset is, “well, I guess we’ll just have to take the good with the bad because it’s Harbaugh or bust,” that’s awful.

Firing the coach deemed the savior is a risk, especially when he’s had more success than either of his 2 predecessors. Obviously. It’s also a risk to stick with a regime that is clearly heading in the wrong direction in Year 6. There’s no guarantee that we’ve seen the Harbaugh era floor. A team ranked No. 102 in FBS against the pass doesn’t exactly scream “about to rattle off a winning streak” in 2020.

There are cautionary tales for Michigan fans to be mindful of as they endure the process. That is, cautionary tales from the traditional power that bails on a coach with a perceived limited ceiling.

There are the horror stories like Tennessee, which fired Phillip Fulmer after a 5-7 season in 2008. Fulmer was a decade removed from his national title in Knoxville, and perhaps of equal importance, he was a decade removed from his last SEC crown. He at least won 4 division titles in the 8 seasons leading up to his firing (including the 2007 title), but the 58-year-old head coach was believed to be past his prime.

From 2009-present, the Vols:

  • Had 4 head coaches
  • Went 4-31 vs. rivals (Alabama, Florida and Georgia)
  • Had 5 total seasons without a bowl
  • Had 2 winning records in SEC play
  • Went 0-30 vs. AP top-10 teams

You know it’s bad when after losing home games to Georgia State and BYU, a portion of Vols fans called for Fulmer to come back and replace Jeremy Pruitt.

Nebraska is another horror story in the “traditional power that bails on a coach with a perceived limited ceiling.” Some would argue the Huskers did that with Frank Solich, who went 33-15 in conference play (almost identical to Harbaugh) with 3 finishes inside the top 8 of the AP Poll in his first 4 seasons. But Solich went 1-9 against ranked teams on the road and Year 6 marked his 4th consecutive season without a conference title, which wasn’t considered good enough for the post-Tom Osborne era Huskers.

The Huskers have yet to win a conference title or finish inside the top 10 since Solich got the boot. Perhaps more alarming is what’s happened in the post-Bo Pelini era. While Pelini and athletic director Shawn Eichorst clearly couldn’t see eye to eye, and leaked tapes of audio criticizing administration, fans and the media didn’t help, Pelini won at least 9 games in every season.

From 2015-present, the Huskers:

  • Had 1 winning season
  • Went 18-28 in conference play
  • Missed a bowl in 3 consecutive seasons
  • Went 0-5 vs. Iowa

Scott Frost to Nebraska is Harbaugh to Michigan, and not just because both have been stubborn former quarterbacks who have underwhelmed at their alma maters. There’s a belief that if Frost can’t win at Nebraska, who can?

But perhaps there’s 1 more tale of the “traditional power that bails on a coach with a perceived limited ceiling” that is worth referencing — Georgia.

Mark Richt got 15 years of “close, but no cigar” in Athens. He did things that hadn’t been done in the post-Vince Dooley era, which wasn’t taken lightly by a fan base waiting for its first national title since 1980. There was a bit of uncertainty around firing a coach who had as much success as Richt had, but the role of the dice was made and then Kirby Smart happened. Smart earned a national championship berth in Year 2, and he coached UGA in 45 consecutive games as a top-10 team (Richt’s longest streak was 16 games). The Dawgs are now a recruiting force with as much talent as anyone in America, which was a different story under Richt.

Georgia believed it could do better, and it was rewarded for that. Tennessee and Nebraska weren’t.

Would Michigan be rewarded for having that mindset? It’s certainly possible, even if there isn’t an obvious home-run candidate waiting.

Michigan fans know better than anyone that a home-run hire isn’t guaranteed to return a program to prominence. And of course, it’s also possible that it blows up in Michigan’s face and fans will be clamoring for Harbaugh by 2024.

A fork in the road awaits in Ann Arbor. There’s no telling where either path leads.

But if that outdated notion pushes Michigan to follow the path of least resistance, well, it’s doing it all wrong.