As a part of the current "sky is falling/future so bright" conversations, I decided to look at how Harbaugh's performance (and projected performance) stacks up to that of other highly regarded coaches. I chose 10 coaches across four conferences (Big 10, SEC, ACC and Pac-12), as well as Brian Kelley at Notre Dame. Most I chose because they are widely considered elite; a couple others I chose because the programs have faced challenges in the past that remind me of Michigan's.
Among those 11 coaches, 5/11 (Meyer at UF, Dantonio, Nick Saban at LSU, Dabo Swinney at Clemson, Brian Kelley at ND) replaced their predecessors due to poor performance. Among the remainder, 2/11 (Meyer at OSU*, Saban at Alabama**) replaced their predecessors because of minimal-impact scadals, 2/11 because their predecessors left for another job (James Franklin at PSU and Chris Petersen at Washington) and 2/11 because their predecessors retired (Chip Kelly at Oregon, Jimbo Fisher at FSU).
*Counting Fickell as an interim coach, so Meyer was replacing Tressel not Fickell.
**In both cases, I do not recognize the NCAA's decision to vacate wins. Wins are wins.
Given the small sample size and lack of randomness, you can't generalize from anything I write here. But it still points to some interesting patterns that potentially have some interesting implications for our program.
Here is what I found.
1. Not all situations are analogous
The mean wins of all coaches in their first two years is 9.11 wins/season. The mean wins for their third year is 10.05 wins/season. However, if we look narrowly at coaches hired to replace poor performers (like Harbaugh), mean wins in the first two years is 8.88, while mean wins in the third year is 8.20.
By contrast, elite coaches hired for reasons other than the poor performance of their predecessors won an average of 9.15 wins/season in their first two years, and 11.59 in their third. That is an average of +3.39 wins/season in their third year versus coaches hired to replace poor performers, though only +0.27 wins/season more during their first two years.
Thus we see that coaches hired to replace poor performers win less in their first 3 seasons than coaches hired for other reasons.
This is almost certainly tied to how the previous regime ended. Poor performing predecessors won -2.04 games/year during their final two years as compared with coaches who left for other reasons.
2. Coaches hired to replace poor performers generally win less in their third year than in their first and second
Elite coaches hired to replace poor performers average +2.46 wins/season in their first two years relative to the last two years of the preceding regime. However, they also average -0.68 wins/season in their third year relative to their first two. By contrast, elite coaches hired for other reasons average +2.44 wins/season relative to their first two years.
As it happens, only 1/5 coaches hired to replace poor performers (Brian Kelly) won more in their third year than they averaged across their first two years. All the others declined. Win totals for Meyer at UF and Dantonio declined by15% relative to their first two seasons. Nick Saban at LSU: 10%; and Dabo Swinney: 16%.
To me this suggests recruiting problems. Specifically, it suggests that the poor performance by and transition from the previous regime impacts recruiting over a two-year cycle, as has been the experience at Michigan—a down year prior to their final season and then a transition year. By contrast, coaches who take jobs for other reasons appear to benefit from continuity. Notably, Meyer did appreciably better in his third year at OSU, where he replaced a successful coach because of a minimal-impact scandals, than he did at UF, where he replaced Ron Zook.
3. How Harbaugh Fits in
Harbaugh averaged 10.00 wins/season during his first two, which is +0.89 wins/season relative to the mean for all elite coaches and +1.12 wins/season relative to coaches hired to replace poor performers. This despite the fact that Hoke’s win total during his final two seasons ranks 10/11 on our list, beating only Jerry Dinardo at LSU. Notably, these two preceding coaches are also the only ones on our list to win fewer than 50% of games during their final two seasons.
We do not yet know what Michigan’s win total will be for 2017, but 8 wins seems like a reasonable bet at this point. If that projection stands, then it would put Harbaugh at -2.05 wins/season relative to the mean for the whole field, but only -0.20 wins/season relative to the mean for other coaches hired to replace poor performers. In terms of rank, Harbaugh would be tied for 3/6: under Kelly (12.00) and Meyer at UF (9.00) but equal to Saban at LSU (8.00) and ahead of Dantonio (6.00) and Swinney (6.00).
4. Fourth Seasons
The 9 coaches who have completed their fourth seasons recorded an average of 11.56 wins/season, which is +1.68 wins/season relative to the average for their third season. Those hired to replace poor performers recorded an average of 11.20 wins/season, which is a whopping +3.00 wins/season relative to their third season average.
And 4/5 coaches in this category improved in their fourth year relative to their third year—the sole exception being Brian Kelley, who was the only coach to improve in his third year relative to his first two.
Harbaugh’s performance in his first two years was above average for both elite coaches as a whole and those specifically hired to replace poor performers. A projected 8-5 finish would be significantly below the average for elite coaches as a whole but fairly average for those replacing poor performers, a group that includes both Urban Meyer at UF and Nick Saban at LSU.
It is impossible to know what the future brings, but if one considers Harbaugh to be an elite coach, then one can hypothesize—from these other examples and our 16+ returning starters—that in 2018 we will improve our win total by a significant margin.
This is why I’m not ready to press the panic button, and why--regardless of our current offensive ineptitude--I’m still bullish on our program. Even Dantonio and Swinney, who only won 6 games apiece in their third years, won 10 or more in their fourth. And in both cases, that success was sustainable. MSU, one notes, has won at least 10 games in 5/7 years since his third; Clemson has done so in all 6/6. In fact, of our 5 coaches hired to replace poor performers, only Kelley has failed to win 10 games in a majority of seasons after his third.
If Harbaugh is not, in fact, an elite coach, then there is more reason to worry. But given his track record and how we are recruiting, I think it's more reasonable to assume he is. In that case, truly sustained success begins when we can field an experienced team and also have credible depth at all or nearly all positions. Even better, when we start replacing outgoing seniors and juniors with incoming seniors and juniors, year in and year out (particularly on the offensive line, where we have struggled since 2011). In that case, we'd look a bit like Wisconsin, but with better talent.
That's a good recipe.