Paul Finebaum is no stranger to making headlines, and the ESPN SEC Network analyst added another Monday morning when he spoke with 247Sports and said Michigan football’s Jim Harbaugh is the “most overrated coach in the country.”
“There’s no getting around it,” Finebaum said Monday. “For what he makes, for that program, he wins the crown. I’ve believed in them a couple of times. Maybe they’ll win at home. And I’m not a hater. I just have been abused by Jim Harbaugh in believing too often that he could get it done. He can’t get it done.”
Detroit Free Press sports writers Orion Sang and Rainer Sabin discuss Finebaum’s comments below.
Sang: So … thoughts on Finebaum’s comments? He and Harbaugh already have a well-documented history, so today’s words don’t really come as a surprise.
Sabin: It’s true they have gone back and forth ever since Harbaugh arrived at Michigan. I wrote a story about their contretemps over the years and how they almost settled their “feud” last summer. But I think Finebaum has a point here. Harbaugh was expected to win championships. He was paid accordingly and now is set to make more than $8 million this season.
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Sang: Sure, I think we all can agree that Harbaugh’s tenure hasn’t played out the way many thought it would (especially against Ohio State). But is he really overrated as a coach? I would not take him before the big names in the sport, but he’s also rebuilt the program and had a solid winning percentage.
As for pay, this is a topic I go back and forth on — he’s paid a lot, but isn’t that the reality of college football right now? Big-name coaches with a proven track record are naturally going to earn a lot. He hasn’t lived up to expectations on the field, but he has revived the program. And financially, the team seems to be doing very well.
I guess my overall point is that he seems to be ranked accurately by most people. There are no illusions about him being a top-three coach in the sport right now.
Sabin: But there are coaches who were hired after Harbaugh who have accomplished more. Look no further than Kirby Smart and Ed Orgeron. If you told me that Orgeron would have won a national title and fielded one of the best teams the sport has ever seen before Harbaugh even advanced to the Big Ten championship game, I would have said you were crazy.
The other thing about Harbaugh I find somewhat troubling is that he doesn’t really have a specialty. Nick Saban is a master at teaching coverages. Orgeron is a great recruiter. Dabo Swinney is an expert motivator and manager who has also developed intense loyalty among his assistants, keeping the core of his staff throughout Clemson’s recent run.
Harbaugh, meanwhile, ceded control of his offense to Josh Gattis — moving from the rugged, pro-style system that he became known for during his stints with Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers. What is he hanging his hat on now?
Sang: I think Harbaugh has deservedly earned a reputation as a coach who can turn things around quickly. He did so with the 49ers, at Stanford and in San Diego. Michigan fans might’ve blocked all memories of the 2014 season, but this program was in shambles before he arrived. He doubled the win total in his first season and was a botched snap away from beating the Big Ten champion.
Obviously, this brings us to the next point, one that has already been discussed ad nauseam: When will Harbaugh beat Ohio State? Michigan has shown it can beat Penn State and Wisconsin. It’s mostly shrugged off Michigan State, which dominated the Wolverines for close to a decade. When you talk about Harbaugh as a coach, it has to reflect the program’s status, which at this point can be summed up as ‘pretty good, but not elite.’
Sabin: That’s exactly how I would describe Michigan under Harbaugh’s leadership. Until the Wolverines beat Ohio State and are in contention for a championship past November, he will continue to invite criticism. The fear I have with him is that he didn’t take advantage of the excitement he generated in the first few years of his tenure and he’s lost that momentum.
Nick Saban won in his third season at Alabama. Urban Meyer also won it all in his third season. Orgeron won the title during his fourth season in Baton Rouge. Harbaugh, meanwhile, is entering his sixth season in Ann Arbor and really hasn’t advanced the Wolverines much further than he did in Year One.
Sang: Yeah, he can thank Ohio State for that. Imagine how differently people would feel had Harbaugh and Michigan held on to the 17-7 fourth-quarter lead in 2016 down in Columbus. I agree that Michigan has entered no man’s land, especially considering last season’s setbacks against Wisconsin and Penn State, and that’s not really where you want to be as a program. But it’s also considerably better than rebuilding.
I also believe Harbaugh’s inability to beat Ohio State goes back to Meyer, who arrived in Columbus three years before. By the time Harbaugh coached his first game against Ohio State, that program was already fully operational, coming off a national championship and putting together some of the best recruiting classes the Big Ten has ever seen. You can say that it’s up to Harbaugh to close that gap, but Meyer’s head start certainly has played a role in the lopsided nature of the rivalry.
Sabin: Indeed, recruiting is the name of the game in college football and Ohio State has established itself as a destination program. Michigan has a lot to overcome in that regard.
But Harbaugh is paid a sum of money that indicates he has what it takes to overcome that advantage, or at least find a way around it. He was supposed to beat Ohio State by now and put the Wolverines on even footing.
Until he does that, his tenure will be viewed as a disappointment in many ways. In the end, Harbaugh has been pretty darn good, but not great. And he’s paid to be great.