Barring an unexpected turn over the next two months, Michigan will go another season under Jim Harbaugh without winning the Big Ten, without qualifying for the College Football Playoff and without sniffing a national championship.
Suffice to say, this was not the plan when he was hired in 2014.
Many will point to Harbaugh as the primary culprit, and he's certainly not clear of blame. Several former Michigan players have questioned him, perhaps most notably Braylon Edwards, whose infamous tweet during last year's season-opening loss to Notre Dame cut right to the point.
"Michigan football is sadly one thing......Trash."
But to Edwards, it's not really about the coach. It's about the players -- and the willingness of the program to cast a wider net in recruiting.
"It doesn’t matter if you fire Harbaugh," Edwards told 97.1 The Ticket's podcast The Time That. "You have to adjust the deeper-seated problem, which is, we have to change the way we recruit. We have to get some guys in here that may be projects mentally, educationally. That’s the best thing about being a Michigan Man, what Bo said: 'Those who stay.' You bring these guys in and you teach them, you nurture them, you mentor them.
"Stop trying to bring in kids that had a 1600 on the SAT. Let’s be honest, stop trying to bring in kids that come from two-parent homes and picket fences and got a dog named Fluffy and all that. You need to bring in some dogs. You need to bring in some kids that are hungry. You need to bring in some kids that need Michigan. Stop trying to bring in kids that don’t need Michigan."
Harbaugh has successfully rebuilt Michigan into a consistent winner. The Wolverines have averaged 9.5 wins per year during his tenure, compared to 6.5 wins in the seven years prior. But the growth has stalled. And unless Michigan starts bringing in more talent, Edwards believes the program will stay where it is.
For some people, particularly those in charge at Michigan, that may be fine. Not for Edwards.
"Even though he’s not winning Big Ten championships and getting to the final four, he’s winning 9.5 games a year. No one cares about that," said Edwards. "Do you want to be Oklahoma State and Mike Gundy? He does that. Mike Gundy will never get fired, but they never expect to win national championships. You have to ask yourself the question: What do you want? What do you want to hold yourself accountable to? What is our school? Are we academics first and we’re going to win 9.5 games and maybe we’ll battle it out against Penn State, lose to Ohio State?
"Or do you say, listen, man, we’re going to ride the wave that we have right now with Harbaugh and even (former athletic director) Dave Brandon before he left. They raised us back into the media, back into the spotlight, back into the national appeal. I don’t want Harbaugh or whoever to take us back down, like Rich Rod and Brady Hoke."
In Edwards' view, the talent gap between Michigan and the true national powers is most obvious on offense, particularly at the skill positions. While the Wolverines have produced a number of great defensive players in recent years, including four first-round draft picks under Harbaugh, they've lagged behind on the other side of the ball. Since Edwards went third overall to the Browns in 2005, not a single skill player from Michigan has been drafted in the first round. And just four have gone in the second or third rounds: WR Amara Darboh (3rd round, 2017), WR Devin Funchess (2nd, 2015), QB Chad Henne (2nd, 2008) and WR Mario Manningham (3rd, 2008).
In that same time span, Ohio State has produced 17 such draft picks.
"When you look at Oklahoma, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, you always have a quarterback that can potentially be up for the Heisman. You always have a running back, or two, that can potentially be up for the Doak. You have a wide receiver that’s probably going to be up for the Biletnikoff or get drafted in the first round. You have game changers all around that offense. Just think of the last couple national champions, the last couple runner-ups, the last teams in the playoff. That’s what you get. When you get Michigan, it’s like, wondering who’s going to be quarterback. Is it Shea Patterson, is it Joe Milton, is it Dylan McCaffrey? All pedestrian, nobody’s really excited. Tarik Black is a very athletic receiver, but he’s not somebody that’s going out there and about to give you 140 yards and two TDs or just demolish defenses. … The running back situation, when’s the last time they had a running back who was like, this guy might win the Doak, this guy’s going to be first-team All Conference? The last time Michigan had a game-changing offensive player was Denard Robinson, 2012, and the time before that was Mario Manningham, 2007. That’s Michigan’s issue.
"What’s going to have to happen, maybe it’s not Harbaugh, I don’t know, but this is what I think. You have to start recruiting athletes. I feel like Harbaugh is looking just for that Stanford grad, he’s looking for that Michigan Man that’s 18 years old. 'This guy right here is a Michigan Man. This guy right here is a 3.9 scholarship guy.' Man, down south they don’t give a damn about that. At the end of the day your job as a coach is to mentor players. Your job isn’t to recruit a Michigan Man, your job is to turn that high school player into a Michigan Man. So if you gotta go to Tuscaloosa or down to Gainesville or down to Biloxi (Mississippi), get out of Lapeer, get out of Michigan, get out of Lansing, get out of Indiana, get out of these places. To get something you’ve never had, which is a national championship or even a berth into the Big Ten championship, you have to do something you’ve never done. You have to stop trying to recruit men like they’re from Stanford. ... Go into the jungle, recruit some players."
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