It seems like ages ago. But in mid-September Jim Harbaugh was brimming with optimism.
“Stay positive. Test negative. Let’s play football,” he said in an enthusiastic statement.
Exactly 75 days later, at the conclusion of Harbaugh’s weekly news conference Monday, the vibe surrounding his sinking program was negative. Multiple people within the team were presumed to have tested positive for COVID-19 and no football was being played or practiced because of the potential outbreak of cases.
It was the latest gut punch for the Wolverines, who have slogged through a miserable season while stumbling to a 2-4 record.
The sad state of Michigan football was captured in Harbaugh’s 18-minute session with the media Monday, when reporters showed him no mercy. They questioned whether Michigan had been forced to pause activities because of lax adherence to protocols while wondering aloud if the spike in possible infections was caused by Thanksgiving Day travel, improper mask usage or some combination of both.
Harbaugh refuted those suppositions.
Then, he was asked if he could do a better job of covering his face.
It was sort of absurd, which is what this season has become here in Ann Arbor.
Since Harbaugh rejoiced upon learning Michigan would have the chance to compete in 2020, the Wolverines have lost to a Michigan State team they were favored to beat by 24 points, endured a marathon battle to overcome Rutgers in three overtimes and fell to a Penn State squad that was 0-5 for the first time in the program’s 134-year history.
Up until Monday, the only hook Michigan could hang its hat on was the disciplined approach it took to avoid the wrath of the coronavirus. As other programs, including rival Ohio State, were sidelined by the virus, Michigan kept lining up each Saturday to play.
Harbaugh touted the program’s diligence in following the guidelines, saying he was told by the athletic department’s chief health officer that what Michigan had implemented was a “real model for everybody.”
“It’s a testament to the players and to the staff,” he added.
Harbaugh made those comments in early September as he marched in the streets of Ann Arbor, campaigning for the season to go on after it had been postponed the previous month.
In retrospect, Harbaugh’s eagerness to play appears regrettable. His team has foundered and faced some prominent injuries along with precautionary player absences.
“It’s been challenging,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner said last week. “We’ve had a lot of guys miss a lot of time because of contact tracing because of this or that. You get the sniffles you miss two days because they’re checking to see and double-checking to see, which is the right thing to do whether or not you have COVID, so you’re out a practice. And then all of a sudden you miss the two work days of practice and you’re back in and are you really ready to go when you miss the two bulk days of practice, who knows? We’ve had all kinds of things going on that have interrupted continuity in training.”
Come game time, the Wolverines have looked out of sorts and disorganized, which has led to poor results that have chipped away at Harbaugh’s reputation and placed the university he loves in an uncomfortable position.
Michigan leadership’s must soon resolve the dilemma related to his contract. With one year left on Harbaugh’s deal following this season, athletic director Warde Manuel and the program’s chief stakeholders will need to decide whether offering Harbaugh an extension in the middle of a budget crisis makes more sense than cutting ties with one of the school’s sacred figures.
Yet Harbaugh has no misgivings about his thirst for football in this year of heartache and disappointment.
“I believe it has been worth it,” he said. “There are challenges in football and there are challenges in life. Responding and rising up to that challenge is something I believe in very strongly. That’s how I feel about it.”
Seconds later, the inquisition ended and Harbaugh went back to tending to a team paralyzed by the positive results from preliminary tests.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Jim Harbaugh: 2020 season has been ‘worth it’ for Michigan football