By Wendell Barnhouse, TMG Special Contributor
You get what you pay for.
Those six words are about price and value. You wouldn’t pay $100,000 for a Smart car and you couldn’t pay $10,000 for a Mercedes SL. Consumers working with a budget have to be concerned about the worth of what they buy.
Sports, college football in particular, exist in a bizarre parallel universe where the price point chases the scoreboard points. Especially in the high-toned neighborhoods, the fans clamor for double-digit wins (minimum) and national championships (once a decade, at least).
The collegiate sports industry, thanks to football, generates so much legal tender that the solution for changing a moribund program typically involves the “Hey, let’s throw millions at coach Whistle.”
Saturday was a particularly desolate for two men who have benefitted from the throw money syndrome. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh (annual salary: $7.51 million) and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher (annual salary: $7.5 million) each suffered losses that plummeted their teams in this week’s rankings. Despite the defeats, the automatic deposits still arrived in their checking accounts.
(For what it’s worth, 10 of the top 25 coaches on the highest salary list lost Saturday.)
Harbaugh and Fisher trail only Ruler Of The College Football Universe Nick Saban and His Likely Successor Dabo Swinney. Along with those two, Fisher is one of five active coaches with national championships. Two of those are North Carolina’s Mack Brown and Kansas’ Les Miles, both of whom are pursuing coaching glory as retreads.
The College Culture of Coach creates hires like Harbaugh. He arrived at his alma mater in 2015, nearly two decades after the school won a share of its last national championship. Coach Khaki wasted little time in acting like a first grader on a sugar high – remember the satellite recruiting camps?
Michigan fans hoped and assumed that Harbaugh, a winner in the NFL and two previous college stops, would instantly transform the Wolverines into a team that could compete with That Team Down South. “That Team” was coming off its second national title since 2002 and had made two losing appearances in BCS title games. Since 2002, Block M had been largely mediocre, going 3-6 in bowl games and only once being a national title contender.
Harbaugh has been much more sizzle than the steak he loves to eat with a tall glass of whole milk. Each year, the enthusiasm has been high. Recruiting classes have had glitzy introduction productions. But, as friend John Walters wrote in The Athletic Monday: “The Wolverines under Harbaugh have the premier summer abroad/spring break program in the nation, but the autumn semester course load seems a little daunting this year.”
Harbaugh is in his fifth season in Ann Arbor. In his previous coaching stops, he never stayed more than four years. His motto of “attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind” tends to wear down all those around him.
In the off-season, Michigan hired Josh Gattis from Alabama to be the offensive coordinator. He’s the fifth coach to have or share that title under Harbaugh, who is the son of a coach and grew up playing and loving smash-mouth football. If you’ve been paying attention, college football’s top teams – even Alabama – are more about the pass than the run.
Michigan’s 35-14 loss at Wisconsin was not as close as the final score indicates thanks to two oh-by-the-way touchdowns. What was worse was that the Wolverines played with little enthusiasm. After a week off, they also were ill-prepared to face a Wisconsin offense that has a simple but effective style. (What Harbaugh would call “smash mouth.”)
Narratives can often be decided by narrow margins.
In 2016 at Columbus, Michigan nearly beat Ohio State to earn a spot in the Big Ten championship game and a path to the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines lost in two overtimes and a pivotal play was a fourth-and-one play where Michigan came up just short in the spot and in instant replay. That’s as close as Harbaugh has come to a significant season.
The loss to the Badgers can be overcome. The problem is that the loss exposed issues with the offensive line, the defense and at quarterback. The Wolverines have talented receivers, but it doesn’t appear (thus far) that Gattis’ playbook is compatible to the roster. And there’s reason to wonder if Harbaugh has fully committed to this new-fangled thing called the forward pass.
The game was nationally televised by FOX in its “Big Noon” (Eastern time) slot. Anyone watching was far more impressed with Wisconsin than with Michigan. Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, who played on the ’97 co-title team, made his debut as a FOX studio analyst.
“This does not look good,” he said. “Right now, I’m sick about how Michigan football looks. And I’ll be honest with you, man. I’m embarrassed.”
The embarrassment traveled to College Station later Saturday. Texas A&M, playing its second top 10 team in two weeks, was hoping that 102,000 fans in Kyle Field would provide the 12th man energy that would contribute to an upset of Auburn. Bo Nix, the Tigers’ freshman quarterback, was making his first road start. Surely, the frenzied atmosphere would shake, rattle and roll him into game-changing mistakes.
Instead, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn limited the game plan and was judicious with his play calling. A slick reverse to a speedy receiver produced a 57-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The Tigers then converted a fumble on A&M’s opening possession of the second half to build a 21-3 lead. The Aggies’ offense, which sputtered in a loss at top-ranked Clemson, again couldn’t get out of neutral in a 28-20 loss.
Jimbo Fisher, who fled Florida State for the $75 million deal offer by the Gig ‘Ems, guided the Aggies to a 9-4 record last season. The key game was the seven-overtime defeat of LSU. The only reason the game became a marathon was because an apparent game-ending interception by LSU was overturned by an instant replay review that the SEC later admitted had been incorrect.
To repeat: Narratives can often be decided by narrow margins.
That victory helped Fisher’s team finish with a four-game winning streak. Despite losing its top rusher, receiver and offensive lineman, there was talk that Fisher was the Miracle Worker the program needed. His 2019 recruiting class was in the top five and if this season’s schedule was too tough, the program was poised for big things in 2020.
Fisher, though, might be more Music Man than Miracle Worker. The folks in Tallahassee, while destitute over their team’s current state, can at least tell A&M fans, “We told you so.” Fisher is 23-17 against Power Five teams since Jameis Winston ended his career at Florida State. His pro-style offense needs a considerable talent at every position and while West Division rival LSU has (finally) upgraded to modern-day football, Fisher appears stuck in the past.
It’s fair and true that point out that the roster is young, with just one senior starter and four in the two-deep. Five-star freshman Baylor Cupp, expected to be a factor at tight end, was lost to an injury in August. Sophomore Jayshaun Corbin, the team’s starting running back, was hurt at Clemson and is out for the season. An offensive line with 69 starts hasn’t jelled under first year coach Jim Henson. Against Clemson and Auburn, the Aggies gained a total of 109 rushing yards.
Thus far, the Genius Jimbo hasn’t appeared. The game plan against Auburn was pedestrian at best. Junior quarterback Kellen Mond can be an effective runner but without an experienced backup, Fisher appears hesitant to turn him loose and is stubbornly turning him into a pocket passer. The receivers are talented but have been inconsistent with too many drops.
The Aggies weren’t supposed to beat Clemson. They were favored against Auburn. The performance and game plans were flat in both games. With seven more SEC games – including contests with Alabama, Georgia and LSU – A&M will have a tough time avoiding regressing from last season’s record.
Your Veteran Scribe is loathe to quote Lou Holtz, but he once said that in college football, you coach a different team every week From week to week, teams of 18- to 22-year-olds can go Jekyll to Hyde and back again.
With another September Saturday and two more months remaining, Michigan and Texas A&M fans can cling to the fact college football is volatile, whacky and unpredictable. But that’s only good if those factors help your team win.
Both schools invested heavily in coaches who are being paid to deliver. For Saturday at least, Jim Harbaugh and Jimbo Fisher were overpaid and under-performed.