What energy, in those places, at those moments. Each epitomized how the promise of serial victories at an oddity called college football could make Americans’ blood vessels churn and dance with hope. Each showed the power of the infusion of one person. A 51-year-old Jim Harbaugh set to debut at Michigan. Then a 42-year-old Tom Herman set to debut at Texas. Then a 43-year-old Scott Frost set to debut at Nebraska.
Three kingdoms awaited trophied restorations.
Now you might hear their postgame remarks and wince. You might note the continuing sameness. You might even wonder at the whole concept of the news conference minuet after the same awkward questions and the same strained answers. Harbaugh stands 49-22 (2-4 this year) at a Michigan that doesn’t see itself as the 49-22 type, Herman 30-18 (5-3 this year) at a Texas that doesn’t see itself as the 30-18 type and Frost 10-19 (1-4 this year) at a Nebraska that doesn’t see itself as the 10-19 type.
Michigan just appeared on the same Ann Arbor field where Penn State exited its 0-5 schneid against a defense still looking strangely toothless. Texas just lost to ambitious Iowa State at home and heard its coach speak as “proud of the way that we held that vaunted rushing attack to what we did.” (That’s a legit point in 2020, just not a point Texas fans enjoy hearing.) Nebraska just lost a knotty one at Iowa and complained its center struggled with snaps because of clapping from the Iowa sideline.
Regarding Michigan six seasons in, a former Michigan quarterback and ESPN broadcaster (Brian Griese) tweeted a meme of sagging Harbaugh stats and added, “Enough is enough!” (He kindly kept it to one exclamation point.) Regarding Texas four seasons in, the WiFi percolates with lists of replacements, a momentum that doesn’t tend to curtail. Regarding Nebraska three seasons in, well, Frost still sounds a tad fresher than the others even as Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald noted the ongoing sameness by peppering his column Friday with the chorus, “This is a recording.”
These were three obvious, thrilling hires worthy of rarefied certainty.
Maybe they change how we view obvious, thrilling hires worthy of rarefied certainty.
Harbaugh did wonders at the University of San Diego and Stanford and coached in a Super Bowl, seldom a CV detail of any college coach. Herman led Houston to visions of playoff glory and routed Florida State in a New Year’s Six game anyway. Frost and Central Florida finished 13-0 and mastered Auburn in a New Year’s Six game.
What in the hells have happened?
It may take decades of reporting and sociology to untangle, provided anyone can stomach the untangling.
Travel back to Ann Arbor in 2015 and look. Store windows boasted “Ann Arbaugh” T-shirts and the No. 4 jerseys of someone (Harbaugh) who hadn’t played for Michigan since 1986. Fans wore khakis to viewing parties. In the first three home games, the parking lot at the high school across from the stadium — one parking lot — saw revenue jump by an aggregate $45,000.
“It’s this anticipation,” said Andrei S. Markovits, a Michigan professor of comparative politics and German studies and the author of books about sports culture. “It’s known. It’s happening. Everyone talks about it. And it’s more identified with him. The language is amazing. It’s almost not, ‘How will Michigan do,’ or, ‘How will our team do.’ It’s, ‘How will Harbaugh do?’ So Harbaugh has become almost the emblem.”
Travel back to Austin in 2017 and try to ignore the hellish heat because it’s Austin and one is always lucky to alight in Austin. Here’s a preseason banquet in the basketball arena. Here’s royalty in the presence of Edith Royal, the widow of iconic coach Darrell Royal. Here’s a feeling in the air of a city you could sense even if you traipsed through the late-afternoon crowds on the shores of Barton Creek and inhaled a bit too much of the air. Here came a charismatic coach coveted enough that Ed Orgeron, present-day owner of a national championship, had to wait at LSU just to make sure Herman didn’t go there and wreck his daydreams.
“There is an electricity,” Texas play-by-play man Craig Way said at the banquet. “There is an excitement. This vibe. This energy.” He was right — and right and right and right.
Travel back to Lincoln in 2018 and then over to Wood River, where Frost grew up and where he stars in the yearbooks of the early 1990s in the library and where Bill Walsh — Bill Walsh! — once came to town recruiting and said, “You guys did a hell of a job” with Frost.
Hear Wood River Coach Jeff Ashby, who said, “I think the biggest thing of anything — wins, losses — I think that his coming back has united the whole state.”
Listen nowadays. Harbaugh’s voice has reached the back end of wearied, Herman’s the middle of heartbroken, Frost’s the front edge of sameness.
“Effort is high, and critical situations, you know, we weren’t able to get the stop or sustain the drive today.”
That’s Harbaugh, who, as Griese’s tweet alerted, has gone 0-5 against Ohio State, 3-3 against Michigan State, 11-16 against ranked teams, 2-12 against top 10 teams and 0 for 6 in getting Big Ten championships.
“We didn’t do enough in this game to win it, and Iowa State did just enough to do that.”
That’s Herman, and then he spoke of maybe getting to a .700 winning percentage, “much like the .714 winning percentage we had in ’18.” Austin 2017 didn’t feel like .714.
“We’ve got to button things up and do the little things right all the time so that the two or three plays that cost us that game don’t happen.”
That’s Frost, who told of going “toe-to-toe with those guys [Iowa]” and “toe-to-toe with Northwestern” and of “just doing the little stuff that gets ourselves beat” and of “having young players” and of needing “time to get ’em buttoned-up.” Newer at this, he also said: “But I was proud of the team today. Sooner or later ‘woulda, shoulda, couldas’ need to turn into wins, but I don’t doubt it for a second.”
Two of the songs have grown old, and the other is edging toward the same, all unforeseeable for songs that once gave goose bumps.