By the Numbers: Comparing Harbaugh’s First 5 Seasons

Last January, Phil and I discussed a comparison of Jim Harbaugh’s 4-year coaching record to the last 4 years of Lloyd Carr’s coaching career (Harbaugh and Carr each had an advantage in 7 metrics, with 3 ties).  My general feeling was that Harbaugh had returned Michigan to the level at which Lloyd had left it. In my eyes, that made the 2019 season pivotal for the Harbaugh era.  Phil and I wondered whether the program would continue to rise, and I was certainly optimistic.

Now, in February of 2020, we have more information to process, and we can complete a 5-year analysis.  After Michigan completed a frustrating 9-4 season in 2019, and the 2003 Big Ten Championship season (10-3) gets added to the Carr side of the ledger, the comparison swings in Lloyd Carr’s favor.   Carr has an advantage on 7 metrics, Harbaugh in 4, with 2 ties. The advanced metrics were ignored for lack of 2003 & 2004 data, but Lloyd’s 3-year average would have been 3 more wins for him. This seemed like bad news for a Harbaugh optimist like myself.  So, I wanted to extend the comparison to see how the Harbaugh era, as it stands right now, compares to some other notable college football coaches.


In addition to Lloyd Carr, I chose these coaches to compare to Harbaugh: Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio, Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Brian Kelly, James Franklin, & Chris Petersen.  From the Carr comparison, my curiosity immediately jumped to Jim Tressel’s final five seasons at Ohio State.  After completing that comparison, I wanted a better apples-to-apples comparison so I wanted to use the first five seasons (of their current tenure) for the rest of the coaches I selected.  In addition to comparing the coaches’ records through their first five seasons, I also wanted to be able to use consistent metrics. The advanced statistical rankings didn’t exist back into the early 2000s, and recruiting has also changed significantly since then.  Each metric was compared head-to-head with Harbaugh’s results to create an Advantage %. Records and stats came from  Recruiting rankings came from 247sports.comF+, FEI, & S&P+ rankings come from   Here are the 17 metrics that I compared:

  • Final Rankings in F+, FEI, & SP+  systems (SP+ now on ESPN in 2019)
  • Overall W-L record
  • Offensive Pass Yds / Game & Rush Yds / Game
  • Points Scored / Game
  • Defensive Pass Yds / Game & Rush Yds / Game allowed
  • Defense Points Allowed / Game
  • Big Ten W-L record (if applicable)
  • W-L Record vs. OSU (or record vs. Michigan for OSU coaches)
  • W-L Record vs. MSU (record vs. Michigan for Dantonio)
  • W-L Record vs. Notre Dame (record vs. Michigan for Kelly)
  • W-L Record in Bowl Games
  • Number of NFL Draftees
  • Recruiting Class Rank (cycle following the season)



The summary table above lists the coaches from least favorable comparison for Jim Harbaugh (Jim Tressel – final 5 seasons) to most favorable (James Franklin) sorting by ascending Harbaugh Advantage Percentage.  Using this method, Jim Harbaugh falls between Lloyd Carr (final 5 seasons) and Chris Petersen’s 5-year tenure at Washington. 

If we only look at the initial 5-year start for each coach (removing Tressel & Carr), it’s clear that Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are in a league of their own.  Urb won a national title during the first playoff season in year 3, and made a return to the playoff in year 5. Saban won his 2nd national title at Alabama in year five, and went back-to-back in year six.  

Once you move past those two historically successful coaches, there is a very tight grouping between Jim Harbaugh and the other 5 coaches I selected.  Each coach averaged a 9-4 record through his first 5 seasons. I was surprised that using my Advantage Percentage, Harbaugh compares favorably to all 5 of those coaches, despite Brian Kelly reaching the BCS Championship game in year 3.  I also included each coach’s Year 6 record for a possible glimpse into the future. Year 6 results range from unacceptable (7-6 for Dantonio) to achievable (11-2 in 2019 for Franklin).  

One other interesting note on Big Ten record: If Harbaugh had managed one more B10 victory, his average record would have rounded up to 7-2, and it would have been +1 over Carr.  Had he suffered one more loss, the average record would have rounded to 6-3 and been -1 to Carr. The program has clearly returned to the Carr level. I think we’re all very anxious to take the next step forward.

Michigan Football vs Michigan State — Looking Back — 1998

The fifth and final installment of this year’s series looking back at the football rivalry between Michigan and Michigan State takes us back to 1998. The new year had shined bright in Ann Arbor before the season began. Michigan finished the previous season with a perfect record, 12-0, capturing the Rose Bowl championship and a share of the National Championship. As if that weren’t enough, 5,000 seats had been added to Michigan Stadium in the offseason, re-establishing The Big House as the largest on-campus stadium in the country.

Things were so heady for the Wolverines that the team suffered what could politely be called a National Championship hangover. The Maize & Blue dropped the first two games of the season, and they entered the game vs. Michigan State sporting a rare losing record. The first half of the game was one of the most exciting in the history of the series, and it ended with Michigan leading by just three points, thanks to the fact that three Michigan turnovers resulted in 10 points for the Spartans.

The second half was nothing like the first, to the delight of everyone in Maize & Blue. The defense suddenly reverted to 1997 form, and junior quarterback Tom Brady found receiver Marcus Knight several times as the Wolverines extended their lead to 29-17. Michigan State coach Nick Saban still had a few tricks up his sleeve. On 4th down and eight yards to go, Saban called for a fake punt, and Aric Morris scampered more than 20 yards to give the Spartans a first down. Michigan State’s optimism was short lived, though, as Michigan defensive back DeWayne Patmon coolly ran under a Bill Burke pass, intercepting it to end the Spartan threat. It took until the second half of the fourth game, but the Michigan defense finally returned, and helped to set Michigan’s season back on a path to success.

Our thanks to youtube poster WolverineHistorian and ABC Sports. As always, we own nothing, and this blog and the attached videos are presented strictly for the enjoyment of readers. We do not profit in any way from this.

…and the band played on- Michigan Wolverine Marching Band *will* play in the Cowboys Classic

On October 14, 2010, the Michigan athletic department announced that the Wolverines would travel to Dallas, Texas to face the Alabama Crimson Tide for the 2012 season opener.

“This is a great way to kick off the 2012 season with two of the nation’s winningest college football programs,” said U-M director of athletics Dave Brandon. “We are excited about playing a regular-season game in the state of Texas, a region of the country where we have traditionally recruited. Our goal is to get as many Michigan fans to the game as possible to witness this match-up of traditional powers.”

On Thursday April 19 2012, the members of the Michigan Marching were informed via email that

“…it has recently been decided that the Michigan Marching Band will not be traveling to Texas for the Cowboy Classic game vs. Alabama this fall. The Athletic Department is treating the Alabama game as a standard road contest, not as a bowl game. Therefore, there is no bowl-style budget available to bring the band to Texas.”

What happened during the 18 months between these announcements may take some time to uncover but reaction from Wolverine fans was known immediately. Less than 5 days later the athletic department reversed itself and it was announced that band would be traveling to the game.

The solution that had remained a mystery for 18 months was suddenly solved in less than 5 days.

The message is clear- don’t mess with the band.

Fans may be accepting of piped in music during home games but the idea of having the Victors played via tape during a huge national game is unacceptable.

Fans, stung by rising ticket prices and seat licenses, and a less than stellar home slate of games put their collective feet down.

Sending the band isn’t cheap, and surely the athletic department can’t be expected to pay for everything all the time but considering the special nature of this game and the projected athletic department budget for 2012

…At the University of Michigan Board of Regents meeting on Thursday, athletic director Dave Brandon presented a budget with anticipated revenues of $121.2 million versus expenses of $109.8 million, a surplus of $11.38 million. The Michigan athletic department expects a surplus of $4.7 million for fiscal year 2011, which ends June 30. It will be the department’s 10th straight year in the black.

This should have been an easy call. Certainly it shouldn’t have taken 18 months to find a solution.

Now some have questioned the financial terms of the deal Michigan negotiated to play in the Cowboys Classic. They cite the loss of revenue for surrendering a home game at Michigan Stadium versus the revenue generated by traveling to Dallas.

This is why accountants don’t make strategic decisions for organizations.

Now there are things I don’t like about this game. First and foremost it leaves season ticketholders with a weak slate of game at the Big House this season. Secondly, Dallas err Arlington (the home of Cowboys Stadium) is one of my least favorite destinations and honestly I would have preferred playing an away in a collegiate stadium.

But those reasons aside, if you’re Dave Brandon you make this deal in a heartbeat.

For the 6 month run up to this game Michigan will receive unprecedented media coverage.  They get the opportunity to play a high profile game in the heart of prime recruiting territory and within driving distance of tons Michigan alumni.  They have locked in a high profile opponent, something that even a BCS bowl bid (Virginia Tech) can’t guarantee. The game is early enough in the season that the Wolverines can easily recovery from a loss, and if QB Denard Robinson pulls of the victory he and the Wolverines could be on the way to very special season.

And stay tuned because rumors of more special event games have been swirling for years. Visits to the New York area and the west coast (anybody up for a Nike/Adidas showdown?) have obvious appeal.

The only mistake in this saga was shortchanging the band.

And now with the minor details resolved we only have to wait for the actual game to be played.

I’m so excited I’ll even go to Dallas.

Go Blue!

12/1/99- Saban Shows Disrespect to MSU

On Tuesday, November 30 Nick Saban re-affirmed the nagging fear that every Spartan fan has in the back of their mind.

“At Michigan State we were never No. 1…That was always Michigan. It was always U-M this or that.”

For as much as Wolverines take great glee in reminding Spartans of their inherent inferiority it’s a different matter when it comes from the former Spartan Head Football Coach.

Nick Saban not only left the Spartans, stabbing them in the back at the end of their best season since 1965, but took a verbal swipe at the institution on the way out.

The message is clear. MSU is second rate school only worthy as a stepping stone to real job elsewhere. Much is made of the salary increase at LSU.

Saban has said that he needed to listen to offers “…for the good of his family…”

Well, last I checked Saban was making $700K at MSU, he was already taking care of his family pretty well. When an athlete makes a decision to sign a contract it’s one thing. An athlete may only get a or two chances to sign a big contract since their careers are relatively short. But a coach? Saban is only 48 years old. He can conceivably coach for another 25 years. 25 years times $700K= $17.5 million.

MSU had just rewarded basketball coach Tom Izzo with a new million dollar contract. It was possible that if Saban replicated his success again next year he could have been rewarded with a lucrative contract as well. So what happened? Nick Saban obviously got tired of being in the shadow of the University of Michigan. It’s one thing to be second in the Big Ten but another thing to be second in your state. Rather than dig in for the long haul and make a commitment to building up the Spartan program to be consistently on par with UM he bailed out.

Believe it or not there was a time in the State of Michigan when MSU was the dominant football power. The 1960’s (the dark days) were owned by the Spartans.

It took Bo Schembechler’s great career to move the State of Michigan firmly into the grasp of UM. Spartans may have hoped that Saban would be such a figure to restore MSU glory.

But he left. It’s one thing to leave a job but it’s another thing to show disrespect to the university that has treated you well. Saban also disappointed his team and recruits that he brought to MSU. They made a commitment to Nick Saban. Unfortunately, his commitment to them was for sale to highest bidder.