Commentary

Numbers the major point in Harbaugh-Michigan crossfire

Originally Published: August 8, 2007
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

In the rhetorical crossfire that has turned Michigan vs. Harbaugh into the (endless) spat of the summer in college football, the first casualty has been the facts.

Squabbling over whether former Wolverines quarterback Jim Harbaugh should have said what he said about his alma mater's academic standards for football players is to be expected. Attacks on Harbaugh's lifetime status as a "Michigan man" -- they love that phrase in maize-and-blue territory -- have been excessive but are not shocking. The Stanford coach's hurt feelings in response are predictable.

But here's what nobody is discussing: whether Harbaugh spoke the truth when he called out Michigan for admitting "borderline guys" and for steering athletes toward softer majors than the general student population.

Jim Harbaugh
Kevork Djansezian/AP PhotoJim Harbaugh's started a firestorm when he questioned Michigan's academic standards for football players.
The hard numbers seem to be on Joltin' Jim's side.

All it takes to see that is a scan of the 2007 Michigan media guide. Only 30 players have listed majors, and 19 of them are pursuing degrees in something called "general studies." That's 20 percent of the team, and 63 percent of the players who have declared a major.

Yet a university spokesman said this week that less than 1 percent of the undergraduate student body is in the general studies degree program. The spokesman said there are fewer than 200 general studies students out of an undergrad population of nearly 25,000.

And that's not all. The other declared degree programs on the football team are: movement science (three players); sports management and communications (two); economics (two); P.E. (one); psychology (one); English (one); and American culture (one). There appears to be one undeclared player enrolled in the business school and another in the college of engineering.

Only one junior has declared a major, according to the guide (in movement science). In 18 years of covering college athletics, I've never seen virtually an entire junior class without a major.

Michigan's take

After this story was posted on Wednesday afternoon, Michigan football spokesman Dave Ablauf sent an e-mail which said, in part, that Michigan students "don't declare majors until their junior year." He also sent along a university-generated "Academic Success Program" document which says that 20 of 25 Michigan seniors graduated last year.
-- ESPN.com

So you look at those numbers and wonder whether Michigan doth protest too much. Especially without addressing the substance of Harbaugh's assertions.

"Everything I said," Harbaugh told me this week, "is supported by fact."

For the first time since Harbaugh cleared his throat on this matter, way back in May, Michigan has gone mute on the issue. Attempts this week to get comment from the Wolverines' football program and/or athletic department were met with silence. No returned calls, no returned e-mails (until after the story was posted...see box at right).

Back in the spring, former running back great Jamie Morris took the former quarterback to task, and he bashed Harbaugh again last week by calling a Detroit radio show. That time, Morris was following up on the Big Ten media day comments Aug. 1 from coach Lloyd Carr and star running back Mike Hart.

Lloyd Carr
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioLloyd Carr criticized Jim Harbaugh's comments.
Carr had his say, which should be expected from the head coach, but the eye-opening thing was his strong choice of words for a former player. In response to a question, he called Harbaugh's comments "elitist," "arrogant" and "self serving."

But that was pure diplomacy compared with the fusillade from Hart.

"That's a guy I have no respect for," Hart said. "You graduate from the University of Michigan, and you're going to talk about your school like that, a great university like we have? To say that we're not true student-athletes? I don't know if maybe he wants to coach here and he's mad because he didn't get a job. … He's not a Michigan man. I wish he'd never played here."

How often, in the history of major-college athletics, has a current player just shredded a former hero from the same school? A guy who took Michigan to a Rose Bowl and was a first-round NFL draft pick, who grew up in Ann Arbor and whose dad was a Wolverines assistant under Bo Schembechler, is thrown out of the Michigan man club by a guy still in college?

The combination of criticisms from players past and present, not to mention the current coach, is why Harbaugh is one angry alum right about now.

"It seemed very orchestrated and organized, especially coming two months after my comments were made," said Harbaugh, who came to Michigan in 1983 wanting to study history but was advised to major in communications instead. "I'm not going to allow those comments to define who I am. … Mike Hart and Jamie Morris are not the makers of the Michigan man list. I put in the blood, sweat and tears to prove I belong on that list.

My motivation was positive. I see how it's done now at Stanford, and I see no reason to believe it can't be the same there. I have a great love for Michigan and what it's done for me.

Jim Harbaugh

"I learned from a great man named Bo Schembechler that you speak the truth as you know it. It may not be the popular thing, but you speak your mind. Everything I said is supported by fact, but the thing that has come back is the personal attack on me, not looking at the issue whatsoever."

The most bothersome personal attack to Harbaugh came from Hart. Even more bothersome was the fact that nobody within the Michigan hierarchy has publicly reined in Hart for blasting a well-decorated alum.

"Mike Hart is just repeating their messages," Harbaugh said. "When I was a player, there would have been nobody saying anything like what Mike Hart said about me. We would have been too afraid of the consequences. That wouldn't have happened while Bo was there. I'm glad as the head coach of Stanford I don't have to deal with those repercussions."

Instead, Harbaugh is dealing with the repercussions of his own words, which prompted a question: Why did he bring up the issue of Michigan's academic standards to begin with?

"My motivation was positive," he said. "I see how it's done now at Stanford, and I see no reason to believe it can't be the same there. I have a great love for Michigan and what it's done for me. Bo Schembechler was like a second father. Michigan is a great school and always has been, and I don't see why they can't hold themselves to a higher standard.

Mike Hart
AP Photo/Jerry LaiMichigan RB Mike Hart's harsh criticism bothered Jim Harbaugh.
"Most avid college football fans, unfortunately, just think about how exciting it is to watch college players play and not about what happens when the football comes to a screeching halt. They need to get a degree -- a quality degree -- and develop a skill set that helps you for the next 60-70 years.

"There is no general studies at Stanford. In my opinion, that major does not give you the skill set to compete [in the working world]."

Cathy Conway-Perrin, director of academic standards and academic opportunities in Michigan's College of Literature, Science and the Arts, wouldn't agree with that opinion.

"BGS [Bachelor of General Studies] can be more demanding in some ways," Conway-Perrin wrote in an e-mail asking for an explanation of the degree. "For example, students are required to take at least 60 credits of upper-level courses (courses numbered 300 and above, which are generally more intensive courses aimed at juniors and seniors). Since students need 120 credits to graduate, that means that at least half of a BGS student's coursework is upper-level. This allows them to develop intensive knowledge in several areas of study. So while juniors and seniors who are pursuing a BA or a BS may continue to take introductory courses in areas in which they have a peripheral interest, BGS students tend to study their areas of interest in depth and take more upper-level courses.

"The BGS degree does not have a foreign language requirement, and the BA and BS do. Otherwise most of the degree requirements are the same: students must complete first-year writing, upper-level writing, quantitative reasoning, and race & ethnicity requirements for all three degrees.

"In our experience, the BGS is most attractive to students who want flexibility and who find the constraints of a traditional major limiting. The BGS degree allows students more latitude to explore and then develop expertise in multiple areas."

Michigan athletes fare well by most academic yardsticks, at least in comparison to their peers. The football team has the third-highest academic progress rate in the Big Ten and ranks above the national average. The graduation rate ranks third in the Big Ten, as well -- although it dips to 38 percent (seventh in the 11-team league) for African-American players.

But you wonder how the vast majority of a senior class could wind up clustered in an obscure major such as general studies unless players were being guided that way -- just as Jim Harbaugh suggested. And you wonder why the football program would be so bellicose in response to anyone questioning such a thing, especially a former player of significant stature.

It seems as though folks in Ann Arbor are defensive for a reason these days. Even to the point of devouring one of their own.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.