Opinion: If the time comes, how do you part ways with the face of the program?


There is a story unfolding in New York City that is interesting if looked at through Maize and Blue colored glasses. The comparisons between what’s happening in the Big Apple and in Ann Arbor have obvious differences but it’s the similarities that are somewhat intriguing – at least to me.

Let’s get this straight before we rewind the clock. This isn’t about comparing St. John’s basketball to Michigan football. It’s about how much time do you give someone who starred as a player and is associated so deeply with your university before you admit it’s not working. Who does St. John’s replace Chris Mullin with? Who does Michigan replace Jim Harbaugh with? And … will it have to come to that?

In 1984, in his first collegiate start at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a 22–14 upset victory over the University of Miami, the 1983 national championship and No. 1 ranked team in the country. The next season he led the Wolverines to a 10-1-1 record and a win in the Fiesta Bowl and followed that up with an 11-2 record, including wins over Ohio State and Notre Dame.

As a player, Jim Harbaugh earned a certain standing in the community. Let’s just say he probably doesn’t have to pay for a beer very often in Ann Arbor.

His style as a coach is similar to the way he played the game and his love for Michigan is unparalleled. When he returned to coach the Wolverines three years ago the Michigan community erupted with euphoria and confidence – the swagger was back…bring on the Buckeyes and Sparty.

In 1984, the college basketball world was focused on the Big East – Syracuse, Georgetown, Villanova and the St. Johns Redman. Chris Mullin, born in Brooklyn, was one of the top high school basketball players in the country in 1980 but decided to stay home and play for St. Johns. That, alone, gets you legend status.

But Mullin did more than just play for St. Johns. He took the school to the top of college basketball’s elite programs. As a senior during the 1984-85 season, Mullin averaged 19.8 points per game and led St. John’s to the 1985 Final Four and its first No. 1 ranking since 1951.

Mullin was a three-time Big East Player of the Year and was a member of the 1984 U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball team. He would return to the Olympics as a member of the Dream Team in 1992.

If you follow college basketball, you can see the headlights coming through the Holland Tunnel right about now. Yeah, it’s quite obvious where I’m heading.

Mullin is in his third season as head coach of his alma mater. The hero player coming home to rescue his school and guide the now Red Storm back to the promised land.

It hasn’t gone as planned.

St. Johns is 32-53 and just 8-36 in the Big East with Mullin as coach.

Harbaugh is 28-11 in three seasons in Ann Arbor. But he’s 1-7 against Top 10 opponents and 4-11 against Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin.

And there have been some whispers from UM faithful about whether or not Harbaugh can turn this thing around. Remember, just whispers.

Unlike Mullin, who is experiencing the head coaching gig for the first time in his career, Harbaugh has an impressive record on the sidelines – which also was part of the reason for the euphoria in Ann Arbor.

In 2007, Harbaugh inherited a 1-11 Stanford team and took them into the national spotlight in just three years.

In the NFL, he took the 49ers from 6-10 to 13-3 and a trip to the 2012 NFC Conference championship game in his first season. Harbaugh is the first NFL head coach to have reached a conference championship game in each of his first three seasons.

Harbaugh left the NFL after an 8-8 record in 2014 and, like Mullin, came home with sky-high expectations. In his first season, Harbaugh led the Wolverines to 10 wins and a blowout of Florida in the 2016 Citrus Bowl.

Game on.

But Michigan went 10-3 again in 2016, losing in the Orange Bowl. And losing to Michigan State and Ohio State.

This past season was an 8-5 record with losses again to Ohio State and Michigan State. And the whispers began getting a little louder after losing to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl – the only Big Ten team to lose a bowl game.

Harbaugh has a little more time than Mullin because of his previous coaching success. And there are plenty of positives to look forward to next year – along with a brutal schedule. Michigan plays at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State in 2018 and faces Penn State and Wisconsin at home.

There are no excuses though when it comes to Michigan football. And Harbaugh will be the first one to admit that – another reason why he’s so popular. It’s all on him and no one knows that more than him.

It won’t be pretty if the Wolverines go 8-5 next year. Those whispers will get much louder – even for a legend.

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