B1G debate: If Michigan doesn’t extend Jim Harbaugh, who should it hire?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: If Michigan doesn’t extend Jim Harbaugh, who should it hire?
CONNOR: So just a little disclaimer here. We’re not definitively saying that Jim Harbaugh is going to be fired at season’s end. For all we know, Warde Manuel will give him a 1-year extension and hope that Michigan’s 2020 mess was more pandemic-induced than Harbaugh running out of steam.
But as you know, it’s never too early to start talking about potential replacements at Michigan. It’s a unique job that might entertain a unique list of candidates. It’s been a minute since we’ve seen one of the top-tier jobs in the B1G truly open up (Ryan Day replacing Urban Meyer doesn’t count). I think that makes the list that much more intriguing.
If I’m Michigan, the first call I’m making is to Joe Brady. You know, the wunderkind offensive mind who engineered the best season in college football history in 2019. Yes, he’s with the Carolina Panthers right now. No, he doesn’t have college head coaching experience, and no, he’s not going to be Michigan fans’ first choice. In all likelihood, running a college program isn’t Brady’s first choice. He’s got the NFL mold, and he doesn’t have deep roots as a recruiter.
I’m still making him say no. I’m throwing the allure of Michigan at him and telling him that he gets a blank check to hire coordinators who do love to recruit, and I’m telling him to bring that offensive prowess to Michigan. He’s not a traditional hire. Last I checked, traditional hires haven’t worked at Michigan.
This is 2020. Look around the sport. You need an elite offensive mind to have a prayer. Even Nick Saban is saying offense wins championships. Give me the guy who has proven he can do that at an elite level, and let him hire a couple of experienced coordinators who can show him the ropes of being a head coach. That’s what Ohio State did. That’s what Oklahoma did. Shoot, once upon a time, that’s what Clemson did.
Again, I don’t think Brady would say yes. But I’m making him hang up the phone, not the other way around.
Who would be your first call?
RYAN: My first call is to USC athletic director Mike Bohn—to remind him what an outstanding job Clay Helton is doing. My second call is to Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal.
I’m convinced Cristobal is one of the premier coaches in college football. And given the way he has revived the Oregon program, I’m confident he could do the same for Michigan. My biggest concern would be that Bohn would beat me to the punch and tab Cristobal to take over USC, which is why Michigan should be rooting for USC’s continued success. Cristobal would be terrific at USC and restore it to its former glory.
Right now, Michigan would be in a class of its own when searching for a new coach. USC is (barely) 3-0 and Texas has a chance to make the Big 12 Championship Game, and it doesn’t look like any other blueblood will be in the market for a new coach. Michigan could go after whoever it wants, and it should swing for the fences with Cristobal, who is 24-6 over the last 3 seasons. Oregon went 11-14 in the 2 seasons prior.
There’s been a misguided theory that Michigan needs a “Michigan man,” a sentiment expressed by legendary coach Bo Schembechler that has morphed into an unofficial job requirement. Cristobal isn’t a “Michigan man,” and as far as I know, he has no ties to Michigan at all. But who cares? All that should matter is that he is a great program builder, a great recruiter and a great coach.
Cristobal’s roots are all over the map. He played on 2 Miami national championship teams in 1989 and 1991, and he’s been an assistant at Miami, Alabama and Oregon, among other stops. Notably, he was 247’s Recruiter of the Year for the work he did for Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. He has continued that at Oregon (his 2021 class ranks 4th nationally).
As for coming into B1G country, it wouldn’t be an issue. It’s not like Harbaugh is recruiting in the Midwest, anyways. The Wolverines had just 4 of their 23 recruits in the 2020 class hail from Michigan or Ohio, while 12 came from the Northeast (Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland or New York). I think Michigan could survive without the Northeastern pipeline.
Cristobal hasn’t been paid by Oregon yet, either. He is currently the 57th-highest paid coach in FBS and 11th out of 12 coaches in the Pac 12. Oregon will be handing him a fat extension soon enough, so now is the perfect time to strike.
Who else would you consider?
CONNOR: I love Cristobal. In fact, if I’m picking today, he might be my favorite bet to take over for Nick Saban at Alabama one day. That’s how good I think he is at his job. If Michigan gave him the same sort of “make him say no” treatment that Harbaugh got, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.
But what about a guy who is on Cristobal’s staff right now? Yeah, I’m talking about Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. That’s a guy who B1G fans should know well after the job he did revolutionizing that Penn State offense. Go figure that Brady actually worked under Moorhead at Penn State. He was fired at MSU because he wasn’t deemed a culture fit, but it came down to them not accepting him for being as good as Dan Mullen. They didn’t give him the time of day despite the fact that he won consecutive rivalry games and he went to bowl games in his only 2 years in Starkville. But he’s still one of the top offensive minds in the sport who has recruiting ties all over.
That wouldn’t necessarily excite Michigan fans, though that shouldn’t matter. Michigan’s biggest concern isn’t selling tickets, it’s winning football games.
In terms of the splashy candidates, Cristobal would certainly be one. I’d be fascinated to see Luke Fickell and Matt Campbell get the full-court press from Michigan. Both would be poach jobs, which Michigan has the money for. Fickell would be perfect because of his Ohio State ties, and because he’s totally overcome his lone season as Ohio State’s head coach by building a winner at Cincinnati.
We know that Fickell turned down Michigan State, which I can’t blame him for considering how messy of a rebuild that looked like with what Mark Dantonio left. Earmuff if you’re an MSU fan. Michigan is a different type of appeal for a head coaching candidate. It just is. The resources, the facilities and the support are just different.
Want a wild card? P.J. Fleck. New energy, totally different vision of selling the program, great recruiter and appears destined for a bigger job. He already won big in that state, too.
I might’ve just upset every Gopher fan with that one. Consider that my Irish goodbye for this debate.
RYAN: I’m almost shocked you didn’t mention the Big Ten coach that makes even more sense: Indiana’s Tom Allen. Every Michigan fan who watched their game against the Hoosiers know what I’m talking about, because it was painfully obvious just how much more Indiana was that day than Michigan. This is 2 years that Allen has Indiana punching above its weight. Once may be a fluke, but twice? Hard to argue with that.
And if Michigan really, really wanted to go for it, why not Pat Fitzgerald? I think there’s a 99 percent chance Fitzgerald says no, because if he hasn’t left Northwestern by now, why would he for a program in which the expectations will be insanely high and the current level of play is insanely low? But if you’re Michigan, it doesn’t hurt to try.
I think Fleck is a great coach, but I just think he’d be an odd fit at Michigan, at least right now. I have no way of quantifying this, but it feels like he has the same sort of energy that Harbaugh has—and Michigan may be in need of someone with a completely different personality.
Moorhead probably needs to prove himself as an assistant for a few years before he gets another chance at a head coaching job, like how Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and others bided their time.
Fickell and Campbell, meanwhile, would be excellent hires. There’s no doubt they are maxing out the potential for their respective programs. I know Fickell’s Ohio State ties run deep, so I’m not sure if that would be an option for him.
Everyone agrees at this point that the Michigan situation is getting worse, not better. It’s hard to imagine 4 years from now saying, wow, Harbaugh really got this thing figured out. Maybe the solution is a 1-year extension while the Michigan leadership plots its next move. They need to find a successor.
It’s strange to think about now, but as of 2014, Lincoln Riley was the offensive coordinator at East Carolina. Three years later, he was the head coach at Oklahoma and is now one of the premier coaches in college football. In 2016, Ryan Day was the quarterbacks coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and now he’s one of the best coaches in college football, too. Oklahoma and Ohio State found lesser-known coaches and groomed them to take over for legends.
Michigan needs to be thinking ahead and not caught flat-footed if and when they decide this Harbaugh situation has become untenable.