In 12 short days, the University of Michigan's football team takes the field against Hawaii, a game expected to be played in front of over 100,000 raucous fans delighted at the subscript number 7 next to Michigan's name. Two months later, the basketball team plays their first exhibition game against Armstrong State, a Division II school presumably with 5,000 people in attendance. One team is coached by Jim Harbaugh, the other John Beilein, and their differences in language, style and demeanor, among other things, put them at polar opposite ends of the spectrum of the college athletics world in 2016.
To understand the pulse of college football, it's hard not to immediately start with Harbaugh. He's a braggadocio, but it's hard to fault him given the success he's had at every level he's coached. Harbaugh definitely falls under the perfectionist category, a man so in love with every minute detail and enraptured by football that he wishes he could still throw on a helmet and pads for the maize and blue. His quotes picked up by sports media outlets generate massive buzz, and his attitude toward the university, college football and student-athletes is contagious, if not overwhelming.
On the other end of the spectrum is Beilein, a mild-mannered 63 year-old from upstate New York who has as much joy coaching as Harbaugh does. But Beilein shies away from the media spotlight, always complimenting the effort and talent of the opposing team even if he just whooped them by 40 points. He's thoughtful, respectful and very much a man by the book. His two-fouls-auto-bench rule has never changed, even in the National Championship game with Trey Burke as the culprit, and his recruiting strategies are more concerned with character and academic standing than basketball talent alone.
These two men, in summary, could not be more different. One, however, is leading the revival of Michigan football, one of the most storied traditions and fanbases in college athletics. The other is holding on for dear life, hoping his old school habits will ultimately win out in comparison to coaches trying to become "cool" with the times on the recruiting trail and social media.
Harbaugh's larger-than-life personality, however, might be directly detrimental to the basketball team. While the move to Jordan brand across all sports seems like a no-brainer, it's mostly giving Harbaugh another platform to sell his brand first and the University of Michigan football team second. John Beilein has no such brand.
This has the very dangerous effect of turning Michigan into a football school, a school that has had far more success in basketball than football over the last five years. Most schools of this athletic caliber generally have one dominant sport, like Kentucky's basketball program and Alabama's football program. Oklahoma's basketball success was a blip on the radar last season, as the team had the extremely good fortune of having Buddy Hield, arguably the greatest scorer in Oklahoma basketball history, to propel them to the Final Four. To find the most recent success on both the gridiron and hardwood simultaneously, look no further than 60 miles down the road in East Lansing.
Since his arrival, Tom Izzo has created a powerhouse, with every four-year class except for last year's making at least one Final Four. Izzo has achieved his success with gritty, tough kids usually from the state of Michigan, with Denzel Valentine and Draymond Green as two great examples that come to mind. Michigan definitely had a shot at recruiting them, but Beilein's insistence on finding a "system player" left both Green and Valentine off his wish list.
While the Spartan basketball team has been consistently great, the football team has made a recent surge under defensive mastermind Mark Dantonio. The Spartans have had at least 11 wins in five of the last six seasons, and were the epitome of mediocrity before Dantonio arrived. But the Spartans found a recipe for success, and Michigan has the opportunity to drive results in football and basketball simultaneously as well.
But for results to change, maybe John Beilein has to adapt. His inability to recruit even somewhat troubled kids has made Michigan teams soft in the past. Jordan Morgan, a Detroit kid who graduated from Michigan with a degree in engineering, is the lone in-state exception to this rule, and Zack Novak was the only other true bruiser in recent memory under Beilein.
So this begs the question: Is Jim Harbaugh's honest, brutish style holding back Michigan basketball if their leader doesn't follow the same conventions as the ol' ball coach? It's more complicated than yes or no, but it certainly doesn't help the basketball team. Michigan's second place finish in 2013 was built off of three NBA-caliber freshmen (Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III), a gutsy player in Tim Hardaway and the best player in the country starting at point guard in Trey Burke. A year later, the team's success came off the backs of Stauskas having an unbelievable second half of the season and lights-out shooting to propel Michigan to one game away from the Final Four. But it remains to be consistent.
Perhaps that's the most important lesson to be learned from the changing of the guard for Michigan football. Brady Hoke didn't have the personality and firepower necessary to appease the Michigan fan base, and the poor performance on the field followed his happy-to-be-here attitude. John Beilein definitely gets a pass for now, but at some point questions need to be asked whether Michigan needs to move in a different direction and toughen up. For the next few months, we get to watch Harbaugh parade around the sideline, give colorful quotes and attempt to bring Michigan back to relevancy. Your move, Coach Beilein.