There was a moment, roughly three quarters into Jim Harbaugh’s return to college football, when he appeared to be literally recalibrating his worldview: Here was his Michigan team, down seven points and facing a fourth-and-5 on the Utah 26, and Harbaugh decided to kick a field goal despite having a questionable kicking situation, and as soon as the field goal missed, Harbaugh appeared to mouth to himself, Should have gone for it.
You could kind of see Harbaugh battling against his instincts all night during Michigan’s 24-17 loss to Utah. You could see it when his quarterback, Jake Rudock, threw an early interception (largely due to a receiver’s incorrect route) and Harbaugh welcomed Rudock back to the sideline with a look of encouragement; you could see it when Rudock overthrew a wide-open receiver in the end zone and Harbaugh shook his head and smiled to himself. You could hear it afterward, when Harbaugh spoke largely in platitudes about his team’s effort and preparation; between the lines, you could hear a coach who was actively willing himself to be patient with a team that fell victim to the same kinds of errors and miscues that have plagued the program in recent years.
This is the battle Harbaugh faces: He inherited a job with tremendous resources and at least a modicum of talent, but he also inherited a program that’s been beaten down psychologically. This takes time to repair, and this requires a certain amount of perspective, especially for a coach who’d grown accustomed to the exacting standards (and more mature bodies and minds) of the NFL. And this is the challenge of coaching in college football as opposed to the pros: 44-yard field goals are no longer automatic, and perfection is the exception rather than the rule.
This realization occurs every year during Week 1 of the college football season: Teams that are considered national favorites look sloppy and unkempt, and they show weaknesses that no one thought they would. Does it say something, for instance, that second-ranked TCU often looked rough around the edges against Minnesota, or does it say something that the Horned Frogs managed to win an ugly game on the road in their season opener? The beauty of college football, for those of us who prefer it to the NFL, is in its inherent imperfection. (See, for instance, the Twitter hashtag #collegekickers, which was emblematic of the problem Harbaugh came face-to-face with for the first time since departing Stanford for the 49ers after the 2010 season; either you find this narrative inherently endearing, or you’re an NFL fan who sees it as eminently frustrating.) The product on the field is a constant work in progress, and this is what Harbaugh will have to readjust to as Michigan’s season progresses.
He’s done it before, obviously, at Stanford and at the University of San Diego before that – lest we forget, Harbaugh’s first two teams at Stanford went 4-8 and 5-7. There’s no reason to believe that Michigan is as far down as Stanford was; it doesn’t seem like it should take Harbaugh quite as long to revive a program that has every advantage in terms of money and resources. But this is still college football, which means there’s still a process here, and while Harbaugh may be one of the best coaches in the country, he has to deal with the same inherent flaws that every other coach runs up against.
This is not the NFL, and nothing is given, and whatever the job at Michigan might be – whether it’s a full-on rebuild or a mere remodeling – it’s going to take time, and it’s going to require the sort of patience that Harbaugh didn’t have to display with the 49ers. I imagine Harbaugh understood this going in, or he wouldn’t have taken the job. But last night, for the first time, he faced up against the inherent truths of the choice he made. He’s a college football coach now, and nothing will ever be perfect again, which is what makes this sport so damned beautiful in the first place.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb