Today, the Michigan Wolverines (2-3) hosted the Penn State Nittany Lions (0-5) at home in the Big House. Michigan lost. Jim Harbaugh had never lost at home to James Franklin until today, and against Franklin’s worst Penn State team yet. This is simply the latest failure in a long line of failures for Harbaugh’s program. After a very strong start in 2015 and 2016, Michigan had a bit of a down year in 2017, plagued by injuries and being forced to play a lot of young players. Understandably, they struggled and quickly bounced back in 2018, looking like Big Ten favorites for much of the season. But then, things came apart fast. Michigan was blown out by Ohio State in horrific fashion, losing 39-62 as the Buckeyes tore apart Michigan’s defense. Since then, Michigan has struggled mightily, going just 11-9 since that day, including a second blowout to Ohio State in 2019.
While I do not expect Michigan to move on from Jim Harbaugh, given their stubborness, this may be an exercise in futility, even if it is the right path. If Michigan wants to reclaim their standing as a Big Ten power, and specifically one who can compete with top teams like Ohio State, then they need to move on Harbaugh and replace him with Iowa State’s head coach, Matt Campbell.
Iowa State historically has been the worst program in the Big 12, narrowly below Kansas State in win percentage (.453%). In a modern season of 12 games, this equates to being a measly 5-7 every single year. However, the Cyclones currently sit atop the Big 12 standings, poised to head to the Big 12 Championship Game for the first time in program history, with an opportunity to win their first conference title since 1912. How exactly has this program reversed their fortunes? A head coach named Matt Campbell.
A 40-year old head coach from Massillon, Ohio, Campbell played at D-III Mount Union, a powerhouse in its own right under legendary head coach Larry Kehres. He then got his start in D-I football as a graduate assistant at Bowling Green, before eventually becoming the head coach of the Toledo Rockets in the Mid American Conference. Taking over for Tim Beckman (21-16 at Toledo), Campbell pushed them even further, propelling the program to 3 9-win seasons, something Beckman had not done.
His success at the smaller Midwestern program caught the attention of Iowa State, and they promptly hired him prior to the 2016 season, taking over for Paul Rhodes, who had won a whopping total of 8 games over the previous three seasons (8-28 record). Campbell’s first season was what many call rebuilding years, as they too won just 3 games once again. However, things quickly turned around for Campbell and Iowa State, winning 8 games in each of the next two seasons.
And as impressive as it is to take a historically mediocre program and turn them into a good team, what is more impressive is some of the opponents that they knocked off on their way to decency. On October 7th, 2017, the Cyclones pulled off a massive upset, beating the #3-ranked Oklahoma Sooners 38-31 in Norman, Oklahoma. That was not the end of it, though, as they also proceeded to knock off another top-5 opponent in the same year, beating then #4-ranked Texas Christian three weeks later. They also came just one score short of upsetting another Big 12 power, nearly taking down #12 Oklahoma State as well.
In 2018, the Cyclones once again went toe-to-toe with the toughest teams their conference had to offer, losing a close game to Oklahoma (again ranked in the top-5). Mostly impressive, however, was another big upset, as the Cyclones defeated the #6 West Virginia Mountaineers, just a week after beating another top-25 opponent in Oklahoma State. They lost to Oklahoma again in 2019, though it came by one single point, a 41-42 loss, but did take down #19 Texas.
And in this chaotic year, Campbell’s program is poised to make history. They have already defeated the traditional Big 12 heavy weights, downing #18 Oklahoma once again and also #17 Texas on the road. They also came just a field goal shy of knocking off #6 Oklahoma State on the road as well. Regardless, should they finish business against a 5-3 West Virginia program, the Cyclones will head to the Big 12 Championship Game to likely rematch with Oklahoma for the conference title.
Regardless, Campbell needs to be Michigan’s priority should Jim Harbaugh no longer be their head coach in 2021. While Jim Harbaugh has struggled to even compete with the Buckeyes on the field, Campbell has consistently elevated the play of a lesser program to matchup with the big boys. For some context, the budget for Michigan’s athletic department is estimated to be just shy of $200 million each season, ranking fourth in the nation. Ohio State’s budget is just a shade above that, coming in third nationally with $210 million. A very small gap in terms of resources, and yet the gap on the field could not be wider. Ohio State is ruthlessly efficient, dominant. Michigan struggles to even show up to play for the first half of every game, almost always failing to respond to the most basic challenges presented to them.
Contrast to Iowa State, where the Cyclones and Matt Campbell have a budget of about $95 million, less than half of what the Wolverines possess. And while the Wolverines continue to bring in top-15 recruiting classes, the Cyclones have found a way to maximize the resources available to them, squeezing every ounce out of what they have. To quote Cyclones star RB Breece Hall after a win over the historic heavyweight Texas Longhorns, “It’s five star culture vs. five star players.” For all his talents and experience as a head coach, Jim Harbaugh has failed to install this type of culture at Michigan.
For Michigan to succeed in knocking off the Buckeyes, they face several deficits. The Buckeyes are a recruiting monster, consistently landing some of the top players coming out of high school to play for them. While Michigan recruits well, they have not been able to match that level. And when you cannot match that level in recruiting, you need a coaching advantage, but Michigan lacks that as well. Michigan’s current defensive coordinator, Don Brown, has been consistently unable to even slow some of the brightest offensive minds like Ryan Day and Joe Moorhead. With Harbaugh and Brown in town, they will not hold a schematic advantage over the Buckeyes either.
Thus, the imperative to land Matt Campbell. He has proven experience in strategizing and matching up well with the more talented, better resourced teams in his conference. He has made the most of what he has available and has grown a winning mentality in a place that is really only known for growing corn. Michigan needs this kind of leadership if they hope to achieve anything more than a 9-4 season with heart-crushing results against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Matt Campbell for Michigan.