No doubt Jim Harbaugh is an elite football coach, at any level. But bowl preparation is not what he does best. His Michigan Wolverines were No. 6 in the land, 7-point favorites in Friday night’s Orange Bowl, and they lost to 11th-ranked Florida State.
The difference may have been bowl prep. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher used the week-long excursion to South Florida for half work, half vacation, a reward for a successful season.
A day at the beach? Sure, there’s time for that.
He was confident the young men could recover from it by game time.
He knew his Seminoles did not become 10-2 without being consistently sharp, well disciplined, able to balance work with relaxation.
So they were ebullient, refreshed, eager to compete after a five-week hiatus. They were ready to play, while their opponents in blue and maize needed a wakeup call.
The Wolverines were weary, and, though they hid it pretty well, bitter at their coach for turning the holiday season into boot camp. It was all practice and film meetings. Football, football, football.
Their mood was further dampened when their Heisman Trophy finalist, junior linebacker Jabrill Peppers, withdrew, sobbing, from Orange Bowl warmups. He had a strained hamstring. The injury occurred during a vigorous practice session the day before, when he jumped to try to intercept a pass.
Hey, Coach, would a Thursday walk-through have been a better idea?
The Seminoles romped to a 20-6 lead in Hard Rock Stadium. Michigan rallied, thanks to its superior depth, a pick-6 and Kenny Allen’s booming punts, and briefly led in the fourth quarter before losing 33-32.
The final score is misleading. FSU dominated the action, totaled 371 yards to Michigan’s 252. The ’Noles won the ground battle (Harbaugh’s forte), 149 rushing yards to 89. Michigan averaged 4.3 yards per pass, 2.5 per run and may have left its best football on the practice field of Barry University.
Whereas most bowl teams disband for a week or two, go home and visit families, with school on break, the Wolverines spent the entire month of December in what the players sarcastically called “Christmas Camp.”
This was Harbaugh being a hard-ass, and that attitude bit him at bowl time, as it has before. Fisher’s bowl record is 5-2, Harbaugh’s 2-2.
Harbaugh adopted the extreme bowl strategy of his college coach, Bo Schembechler, who learned it from his mentor, Woody Hayes. These legendary coaches had mediocre bowl records: Hayes 5-6, Bo 5-12.
They believed in shielding their players from the bowl spotlight and neon lights. Hayes lodged his team in a monastery prior to the Rose Bowl.
The current edition of Wolverines arrived in South Florida on Christmas night. They spent the next four days scrimmaging as much as NCAA rules allow. There was curfew every night, no opportunity for a spin on the town. No chance for trouble and distraction.
Not that this came as any surprise to the players.
They expected the same regimen as last season, Harbaugh’s first as a coach at his alma mater. He had them toiling on the lawns of Orlando while the Florida Gators were playing golf. In the subsequent Citrus Bowl, Michigan thrashed Florida 41-7, which gave Harbaugh a false sense of being right.
“I don’t think anybody approaches a bowl game like coach Harbaugh and the rest of his staff,” said Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight.
I’m not sure he meant that as a compliment.
During the week of bowl prep, Harbaugh declined the various recreation offerings of his Orange Bowl hosts. Such as jet skiing and beach time which the soft-nosed Seminoles were enjoying.
Except for a dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse in South Beach on Wednesday night, the Wolverines had no team activities apart from football work.
At a bizarre Harbaugh press conference – the kind he tends to have – the coach was asked about players who felt “a little disappointed they haven’t seen any bikinis. I would like to get your thoughts on that.”
“I don’t have any thoughts on that.”
“They would like to see some bikinis before they leave.”
“I don’t know about that. I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“See the beach.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Sadly, perhaps he doesn’t.
And that particular deficiency of knowledge and understanding could lead, in another year or two, to his wearing out his latest welcome. As he did in his previous post: head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Harbaugh pushes athletes harder than his fellow coaches, and that does produce a team that’s highly disciplined and close to error-free. He builds locker-room support with his clarity of command, wise personnel decisions and instructions that don’t require more than the players are capable of doing.
Except when it comes to practice.
Sometimes he doesn’t know when to ease off the grindstone. You can’t hold them to it forever without, eventually, rebellion. By the middle of his fourth year in San Francisco, players were turning against him, and soon it was on to Michigan.
To show he wasn’t all Scrooge & Grinch, Harbaugh did let his players stay in Miami Beach, on the university dime, to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Then it was back to Ann Arbor, where they can dream about doing it all again next year.