Michigan football: Possible contract extension for Jim Harbaugh is a tricky situation
There won’t be “The Game” against Ohio State this season. On Tuesday, Michigan announced that it was canceling its annual matchup with the Buckeyes due to a severe COVID-19 outbreak, reaching as many as 45 players — not counting staffers — and completely decimating the Wolverines’ already thinned-out roster.
The news has spread like no other, causing many to come to their own conclusions. Some suggest that Michigan is surrendering the season — due to it still having enough active players to play a game — while some are simply viewing the choice as a wellness matter for the program at-large.
“The number of positive tests has continued to trend in an upward direction over the last seven days,” Michigan AD Warde Manuel said during a Zoom conference Tuesday. “We have not been cleared to participate in practice at this time. Unfortunately, we will not be able to field a team due to COVID-19 positives and the associated quarantining required of close-contact individuals.”
"This decision is disappointing for our team and coaches but their health and safety is paramount, and it will always come first in our decision-making.” pic.twitter.com/IHXOD6lXyj
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) December 8, 2020
If you think that was a bombshell, then get a load of this …
This past Sunday, New York Times best-seller and renowned Wolverines historian John U. Bacon — he actually taught a class at UM about that very subject — released a couple of tweets that were certainly met with mixed reviews by the general public.
Nonetheless, if JUB says there’s something to it, the smart money is on it being incredibly likely.
Harbaugh can now accept, negotiate, or decline. At least five NFL teams have expressed an interest in hiring him – per usual – though not clear if any have made firm offers yet. (2/2)
— John U. Bacon (@Johnubacon) December 8, 2020
The anti-extension crowd cites all of the awful numbers against ranked teams, the bowl losses, the continual embarrassment during the past 3 seasons and, of course, that dreaded Ohio State topic.
You know, the team that’s wiped the floor with Michigan during the past 2 seasons and has only lost 3 times since 2000.
Yeah, those Buckeyes.
The pro-extension people believe that Harbaugh has done the best job possible, given the constraints applied by the university’s non-athletic administration. It’s no secret that Harbaugh has gone back-and-forth in a fight to play this season — but he’s also been “proactive,” as he’s described it, when dealing with a recent COVID-19 outbreak within his program that’s impacted at least 23 members of the team.
The numbers weren’t broken down, in reference to players vs. staff cases — but the saturation of the virus was enough to cancel last weekend’s game vs. Maryland — UM is now winless at home for the first time in program history — and the numbers were bad enough to cancel this Saturday’s annual installment of “The Game” vs. 5-0 Ohio State, which just put a massive 52-12 beatdown on Michigan State while the Wolverines sat at home, not playing the Terps.
According to sources, an extension was discussed prior to the pandemic. Then Harbaugh took a cut in salary from his annual $8 million payout in order to help Michigan absorb some of the financial hardships caused by the worldwide issue. Bacon reports that Harbaugh’s extension will be incentive-laden, rewarding him for winning titles, certain amounts of wins and other milestones.
But here’s where it gets sticky: He’s yet to do any of that. And while he loves Michigan through-and-through, at this point, it seems almost counterproductive to offer a coach more time to do what he was supposed to have already done through 6 years.
We’re talking a couple of Big Ten championships and at least 1 appearance in the College Football Playoff. He almost did that in 2016 but hasn’t even approached the same territory during the past 4 years.
What makes Manuel so confident that a reduced salary laced with all kinds of bonuses would result in any other outcome besides the ones the Wolverines have produced since Harbaugh had his best UM squad in 2016? That’s the several-million-dollar question, right?
Winning takes time, though.
That’s what they say.
But that’s not always the case.
Dabo Swinney isn’t the best example of “give it time” for coaches.
While he struggled his first season at Clemson, going 4-3 in relief of former coach Tommy Bowden, he quickly pushed the Tigers to contention, winning the ACC Atlantic Division in Year 2 before hitting a roadblock in Year 3 (6-7). However, Swinney regained momentum and has had the Tigers humming along ever since 2010 – they’ve won 10 games every season since then, including a pair of national titles in 2016 and 2018.
Swinney has regularly finished with a 1- or 2-loss season, with 4 losses being the most since 2010 – that happened in 2011 when the Tigers lost in the Orange Bowl.
Brian Kelly needed just 3 seasons at Notre Dame to push the Irish into national championship contention. He lost the 2013 BCS title game – vacating 12 wins from 2012 and 9 from 2013 – but still had ND as a force to be appreciated and feared.
In 2016, he went 4-8 but has won 10 games every since then. Today, the Irish are a CFP contender.
Former Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio needed 3 years before really getting the Spartans into the mix for Big Ten titles and national recognition. Dantonio put the Spartans into the 2015 College Football Playoff, won a Rose Bowl in 2013 and was typically in the hunt for a Big Ten title and New Year’s Day bowl game each season for the better part of a decade before leaving abruptly this past spring.
Thanks to Tom Allen, Indiana has reached a level never before seen in program history. Now in his 5th season, Allen rebounded from 4-8 and 5-7 finishes and has the Hoosiers on pace to play in the Big Ten Championship Game – assuming they win out and Ohio State isn’t allowed to fight for a conference title.
Harbaugh has had 6 years to do this. Entering Michigan, he was widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the game, leaving the San Francisco 49ers – who saw massive success and a Super Bowl appearance – in favor of his alma mater.
Extended Harbaugh’s contract doesn’t make a lot of sense at this juncture, other than the fact that he loves the Wolverines more than anyone imaginable. But love for a program is one thing. Winning with the team is another.
Bacon doesn’t report rumors. He has sources and credibility that spans decades on the UM beat – so if he says Manuel has talked about an extension with Harbaugh, it’s true.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s the correct move. At this point, Michigan’s future seems to be up in the air. Other than 2016, Harbaugh hasn’t had the Wolverines in the national spotlight – at least not for good reasons.
A 3-year extension could be tricky and lead to more heartache. But then again, the alternative is hitting the reset button and giving another coach 3-4 years to reinvigorate the once-proud Michigan program.
Michigan can’t wait another 3-4 years for something to happen, so it may feel better about retaining Harbaugh and seeing where things go from this point: Hoping for the best and hoping that Harbaugh really turns things around in Ann Arbor.
That’s the best-case scenario.
The worst-case scenario is that Michigan plays itself, things fall apart with Harbaugh – and then it’s back to the drawing board in 2024.