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Bielema vs. Harbaugh



In watching the NFL lo these many years, I always admired the way Jim Harbaugh played the quarterback position. He was the scrappy overachiever sort, tough and quick on his feet, with a slight edge to him. In 1995, he had a woefully undermanned Colts team on the precipice of the AFC championship.

Harbaugh's carried that chip on the shoulder into the coaching ranks, and I guess it's sort of abscessed at this point, because that once-virtuous spunk now looks like petulance and cockiness. He's been indisputably successful as a college frontman, but as he cruised out of Stanford a few years back to take the San Francisco job, two things were generally expected: the Cardinal would return to Earth as the Pac-12's also-ran, and the 49ers would experience long-term resurgence. Neither of those things occurred.

In fact, the cerebral and more polished successor at Palo Alto, David Shaw, handsomely outdid Harbaugh and has now established that program as the power program in California. He's won 54 games in five seasons, including two Rose Bowls, and is 36-9 in conference play; Harbaugh had to reconstruct the program, in fairness, but his first two of four campaigns were losing ones, and he ended up only 29-21 overall there after a dramatic surge to an Orange Bowl win and a final No. 2 ranking in 2010.

Harbaugh went to San Fran, and after initial successes there, his abrasiveness and affinity for bold personnel decisions started to wear thin, particularly on upper management, which undoubtedly didn't feel compelled to stroke his ego when the team fell off badly after a narrow Super Bowl defeat three seasons ago. He was able to resign timely, and move on to Michigan, his alma mater, which proudly snatched him up.

From there, Harbaugh started the feather-ruffling all over again, goosing Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer, making "satellite camps" part of the football lexicon, and most recently, jettisoning the Arkansas Razorbacks from a planned home-and-home tilt in 2018-19 in favor of renewing Michigan's barely-iced rivalry with Notre Dame. Michigan will reportedly eat a multimillion-dollar loss in breaking the deal.

It's a regional decision for Harbaugh. The Arkansas-Michigan rivalry is an oxymoron (Hogs played the Wolverines in the 1999 Citrus Bowl and got plowed over in the fourth quarter by Tom Brady and Co.), and fans there have assuredly clamored for another shot at Notre Dame. But Bret Bielema expressed his disappointment with the decision, and why not? He's argued that Big Ten teams and SEC teams need to square off more often so the conferences' respective clout can be better assessed.

What makes Bielema likable while Harbaugh is seen as bristling is this distinction: While Harbaugh is rapidly tweeting jabs at foes and putting his chiseled chin and felonious stares in front of the cameras, Bielema seems content to be a bit more subtle, and maybe even reserved after the Hogs laid two memorable eggs against presumptive underdogs Toledo and Texas Tech last September. He's chided Gus Malzahn and Co. for their methods, and said that he felt Harbaugh's satellite camp tomfoolery would be cracked down on by the NCAA soon enough, none of which is offensive per se, but can have the effect of fueling a rivalry that might not otherwise have flourished.

Malzahn's on a hot seat of late, and Harbaugh could be, too, if all these theatrics don't satiate a hungry fan base that turned sharply on predecessor Brady Hoke and never really got comfortable with Rich Rodriguez, who preceded Hoke. Coaches are progressively getting more audacious in words and deeds. Sometimes it works, but in many cases the payoff is time-limited.

When Bielema arrived here, he did so with a somewhat confusing and counterintuitive stance: He wanted to test the SEC waters that he had previously lightly ridiculed as being overblown. Now that he's in them, he's curtailed a bit of the bravado, managed the players' expectations, taken on the accountability for the tough defeats that have transpired through the overall maturation, and he's not trying to send his team to tropical locations for exposure.

There's a steadiness to this that some people find maddening. Probably a good portion of surveyed Razorback fans would take Harbaugh as head coach right now over Bielema, conjecture that really stems from the fact that Hog fans have always embraced not "winners" but "personalities." Houston Nutt was pardoned for mediocrity for years because of his self-professed adoration of the program, one of the many exaggerations or falsehoods he spun here for a solid decade, the last six or seven years of which he didn't deserve. Bobby Petrino was seen as a cutthroat offensive genius, and he was that to a fault.

Bielema won at Wisconsin, and did it consistently and impressively, but Hog fans weren't nearly as apt to embrace it. Why? Well, he wore a windbreaker everywhere, seemed to be kind of a dim bulb on the sidelines, and didn't cash in on big-game opportunities. But beneath all of that, there's a fire that burns just as hot as the one in Harbaugh, whose competitive spirit has never been questioned while his general sanity has. It would be a mistake to think that the surface reading is what is of consequence.

There's also probably a tacit admission in Michigan ditching this game: The Wolverines improved greatly last year, but still got pounded by Ohio State and still don't know quite how well this will work long-term. They also know that Arkansas is on the rise, and that under Bielema's leadership, the team they would theoretically be facing in 2018 might have presented a far stiffer challenge than the one Touchdown Jesus generally puts forth.

And if causing a power program to turn away from a contractual opportunity to face an 8-5 Liberty Bowl champion says anything about Arkansas, it says there's a degree of respect for the Hogs now that hasn't been there since Lou Holtz reigned.

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