The line between cement and quicksand in coaching college football is a thin one. Nowhere is that more clear at the moment than in the state of Michigan.
The reputations of Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh each made moves toward the mean following the Spartans’ 14-10 victory in Ann Arbor on Saturday. Dantonio’s reputation is climbing again after legitimate doubts were cast on his ability to resurrect a program that had temporarily careened off the rails in 2016. Harbaugh’s reputation is sliding back down toward Earth -- even among the Wolverines faithful now -- after an uninspiring offensive performance that should create legitimate cause for concern with three top-10 teams still looming on the schedule.
There are plenty of numbers to toss around to support these two trajectories. The coaches stuck to their win-loss records in the aftermath of their third meeting. Dantonio pointed out that no one should be shocked by Saturday’s result because his team has done the same thing eight times in the past decade. Unless he somehow manages to win a national title in East Lansing, Dantonio's record against Michigan will be at the top of his list of accomplishments when his time as head coach is over.
Harbaugh’s coaching obituary, if they wrote it now, would read very much the opposite. His staff is 1-4 against Michigan State and Ohio State to date -- a fact that the coach says he’s very much aware.
“The record is what the record is,” he said Monday. “Against Michigan State and Ohio State, we’re 1-4. The record against all other opponents is 23-3. We know what the records are. We want to win those games.”
Dantonio said this week that he tries to get his players to rise to the level of a big stage in rivalry games without playing with the fear of tripping in the spotlight. Michigan players said they aim to strike a similar balance when preparing for the same type of games.
They take different public-facing approaches to getting there. So should Harbaugh be stealing a page from Dantonio’s notes when it comes to stoking the flames of a rivalry, compared to the next-game-is-the-biggest-game attitude?
Well, no, it really doesn’t matter what they say in front of a microphone. But there are some other places that Harbaugh ought to be peeking at his neighbor’s work.
Rivalry records will always cause the utmost grumbling, but let’s take a look at their record in close games rather than big games. That’s the more interesting, and more telling, difference between Harbaugh and Dantonio’s status among football fans in the Mitten State and beyond.
Harbaugh, as he noted Monday, has lost a total of seven games in his two-plus seasons at Michigan. Sure, four of them have come against teams that the Wolverines like to beat. But six of the seven have come by a touchdown or less.
Harbaugh’s track record in close games is not great. He’s 3-6 in one-possession games as the Michigan coach, with two of those wins coming against Indiana and Minnesota in his first season. The third was against a solid Wisconsin team last fall.
Shield your eyes, Michigan fans: Here’s a rundown of the final play from each of your team's last four tight games:
Iowa freshman Keith Duncan hits a 33-yard field goal as time expires to end the Wolverines’ undefeated season last November.
Curtis Samuel leaps into the end zone at Ohio Stadium in double overtime, two drives after a controversial fourth-down conversion from J.T. Barrett leads to a last-second, game-tying field goal.
The least exciting of the bunch is a Florida State kneel-down in the Orange Bowl after scoring a game-winning touchdown 36 seconds earlier.
A Hail Mary drops innocently to the turf Saturday night, just like the previous pass that would’ve put Michigan’s offense within 30 yards of the end zone, had it not been dropped.
That is a serious dose of heartbreak without even mentioning the most gut-wrenching final play in Michigan football history – the punt gone wrong that handed Harbaugh his first Big Ten loss at his alma mater.
How does that compare to Dantonio? Well, starting with the wildly entertaining Cotton Bowl comeback against Baylor (which came days after Harbaugh was introduced as the new coach in Ann Arbor), his teams are 10-4 in one-possession games during the same stretch. Three of those four losses came a year ago during what is looking more and more like an aberration of a football season.
The Spartans' list of memorable endings during that time include an interception to cap a 21-point comeback against Baylor, Jalen Watts-Jackson’s punt return against Michigan, Michael Geiger’s windmill field goal against Ohio State and L.J. Scott’s stretch for the end zone to win a Big Ten championship.
Science has yet to provide us with any definitive reason why some teams make the big play as the clock winds down more consistently than others. Turnovers have played a role in those outcomes, but that’s no different than most games. Maybe it’s just a coin flip that keeps coming up the same way for these two programs.
Dantonio likes to talk about “finding the inches” when he’s asked about his program’s knack for pulling out close ones. Then again, coaches have been talking about measuring that slim margin since Vince Lombardi. Harbaugh hosts four-hour practices rife with minutiae to try to find the microscopic edges that add up to inches. He has yet to string those together consistently in Michigan’s close games.
The rivalry outcomes are nice talking points, but the ability to pull out the tight ones is the biggest thing that separates these two coaches right now. Another one for Dantonio was a significant step toward resurrecting his program. Another loss for Harbaugh has put a chip into the cloak of infallibility he’s enjoyed to date at Michigan. If he’s going to learn anything from his counterpart in East Lansing, it ought to start with dissecting his ability to eke out the close ones.