| The Detroit News
If Michigan is to fix its football woes, it needs a fully engaged, motivated coach with a singular focus. That’s who the program hired six years ago. That’s the Jim Harbaugh the program hopes it can resurrect.
Harbaugh’s return with a 50% pay cut on a four-year contract extension isn’t an endorsement by the school, nor a rebuke. It’s a message, delivered by an athletic department pounded financially by the pandemic — and competitively by Ohio State — that Harbaugh’s fabled “meritocracy” includes him. You get what you earn.
It’s a fair message and a balanced agreement, laden with incentives that theoretically could make up the salary difference. Will it work? I’m skeptical. But I’m also skeptical Michigan could’ve landed a coveted (pricey) coach in its current state. Harbaugh has done many of the things he was hired to do, but not the biggest things.
Restore Michigan to a respectable status after seven rough years under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke? Yep. He’s 49-22 and recruiting well.
Maintain a clean and relatively trouble-free program? Yep.
Generate significant attention and money for the school? Yep.
Win a majority of big games and bowls? Nope, nope.
Develop a franchise-type quarterback? Nope.
Beat Ohio State? Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.
Some fans wanted Harbaugh to move on, and in the right circumstance, he probably would have. I maintained he should leave unless he was willing to make major changes, and he did fire defensive coordinator Don Brown and is putting together a younger, new-look staff. Harbaugh might have poked around about NFL openings but made no contacts, as far as we know. With the NFL no longer clamoring for a guy who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl eight years ago, his last piece of leverage was gone.
Athletic director Warde Manuel handled this about as well as he could, quietly navigating delicate issues. He didn’t want to fire Harbaugh but wanted to maintain flexibility. He eliminated the “expiring contract” narrative without binding Michigan long term. He reduced the annual salary from $8 million to $4 million and added low buyouts to keep options open. Michigan’s buyout drops from $4 million to $1 million by the next-to-last year of the contract, and the numbers for Harbaugh to exit are even lower.
If all incentives are reached, Harbaugh would earn an extra $3.475 million each year. Among them: $500,000 for winning the Big Ten East (outright); $1 million for winning the Big Ten; $200,000 for going to a New Year’s Six bowl; $500,000 for reaching the playoff semifinal; $1 million for winning the national championship. It’s not a coincidence the Wolverines probably have to beat Ohio State to achieve those.
Something to prove
So Harbaugh is back in the physical sense, and he should be wildly determined to prove he’s back in the competitive sense. This was the expected conclusion, but that doesn’t make it the ideal one. It’s a practical one that buys both sides time to see if the 2-4 season was just a bizarre, COVID-tinged mess, or another sign of what the program is becoming. The Wolverines are 11-10 since late 2018, after winning 10 games in three of his first four seasons.
The protracted wait raised questions about how committed Harbaugh and Michigan were to each other. While being fiscally responsible, Manuel also likely was bruising an ego. For this to succeed, Harbaugh can’t be a reluctant returnee. They tried to allay those concerns with Friday’s announcement.
“Our program didn’t achieve at a level that anyone expected this year, but I know those setbacks will drive the coaches, players and staff moving forward,” Manuel said in a statement. “Jim is a tireless worker and competitor. Following the completion of the season, we talked for many hours on what it will take for Jim to lead and get us back on the right trajectory.”
If the apparent reticence was damaging perception-wise, it seemingly didn’t harm Michigan’s top-12 recruiting class. There’s only one way for Harbaugh to stem that perception slide — build a team and a staff that’s organized, energized and capable of winning big games.
“Over the past few weeks, Warde and I had discussions that have been honest, open, insightful and constructive in moving our football program forward,” Harbaugh said in the statement. “Discussions that I look forward to continuing over the months and years ahead. We have a plan.”
Harbaugh has told people he’s betting on himself. Michigan is betting on him betting on himself. And both are somewhat hedging their bets with the contract terms.
Not that Harbaugh and the Wolverines needed more incentive, but it’s piled so high now, it’s hard to see the field. Shortly after The Detroit News reported Thursday night that Harbaugh was nearing a deal, the jabs started coming. Ohio State and Michigan State fans took to social media to mockingly welcome him back. Ohio State’s official Twitter account did the same, “liking” reports of his return.
Some Michigan fans have angrily renounced their devotion because of Harbaugh’s return, but they’re also fibbing to themselves. They’ll be back, if Harbaugh gets to back to the acclaimed coach he has been. Those crazy early days when he was sniping at other programs on Twitter, stirring up national attention, setting up satellite camps in SEC territory, seem a long way away.
This isn’t about bringing back some of his celebrated recruiting antics, though. This is about bringing back his competitive sneer. It’s about motivating a team that plays listlessly at times, and it begins with Harbaugh motivating himself.
Can he do it? The odds are stacked against it. Ohio State is such a machine, it’s difficult for any program to chip away. But Michigan has to chip much harder, after 62-39 and 56-27 losses. This year’s game was canceled by COVID, which spurred another round of derision.
Once-dormant Big Ten programs are rising — Northwestern, Indiana, Minnesota — and traditional contenders such as Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State are lurking. The Wolverines’ 2021 recruiting class ranks second in the Big Ten, but the star-quality difference between them and the Buckeyes (No. 2 in the country) is still huge. Michigan’s current roster is young but talented, at least offensively, and will add five-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy.
Perhaps the Wolverines can gain ground with a younger staff and more dynamic recruiters. Compiling a staff was part of the holdup, as assistants on other teams were participating in bowl games or the NFL playoffs. The guy rumored to be the new defensive coordinator is Mike Macdonald, linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens, led by Harbaugh’s brother, John.
Jim Harbaugh made excellent moves early in his tenure here. But lately, too many miscalculations and ambiguities, from the quarterback, to the type of offense to run, to how firmly Brown should be pushed. Harbaugh has churned through 24 assistants in five years, and now he has to catch up on the transfer portal, where programs are snatching players daily. And speaking of delays, how different would this be if he’d gone ahead and signed an extension back in the spring before COVID tore everything apart?
This deal smacks of a compromise — more years, less guaranteed money — and that can be tricky. I believe Harbaugh wanted to return but rightly sensed ambivalence from others. He’s back in, but more important, he needs to be thoroughly all in, because his reputation and Michigan’s football future depend on it.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com