Warde Manuel’s program-friendly investment in Jim Harbaugh is paying off
It’s common practice to rip administrators and head coaches in college football. Those are the folks who cash the big checks and make the decisions, after all. But in the spirit of fairness, it’s important to recognize when they make good decisions. So, here I go.
Warde Manuel made the right decision.
The Michigan athletic director could have fired Jim Harbaugh after last year’s 2-4 disaster. Instead, he gave him an extension through 2025 that puts him in the bottom of the Big Ten in terms of head coaching salaries, with low buyout numbers that will enable Michigan to move on if the bottom falls out.
Right now, though, Manuel looks like a genius. Michigan is 6-0 and ranked No. 8 in the country after starting the season unranked and with minimal expectations outside of going to a bowl game. And I don’t think Michigan would’ve been 6-0 if it brought in a new coach. Of the 7 Power 5 programs that made a coaching change, only No. 25 Texas is in the AP poll this week. Only Texas and maybe Tennessee have seen a tangible difference in the quality of play. That’s to say, the grass isn’t always greener. (Ask Florida State.) Plus, this isn’t the year to be breaking in a new head coach, at least in the loaded Big Ten East where there are currently 4 top-10 teams.
A lot has changed since that extension was announced. At the time, Michigan was 2-6 in its last 8 games. Sure, there was a pandemic during the 2020 season, and the Wolverines had a few opt-outs from top players, but those were the same circumstances every program had to deal with. Michigan quit last season, and that falls on the head coach. The only reason Michigan’s bowl losing streak didn’t reach 5 is because the Wolverines didn’t play in one.
That’s why Manuel would’ve had public sentiment on his side in firing Harbaugh, who at the time had 1 season left on his initial contract. It just felt like this era had run its course. There was none of the momentum or excitement that was there in those early years of Harbaugh. Michigan peaked in 2016 and again in 2018. Entering this season, the Wolverines had lost 6 of 8.
Enough is enough! pic.twitter.com/5DHEmmwLPm
— Brian Griese (@briangriese) November 29, 2020
There’s always a rush in college football to burn it all down and start over. The SEC seems to do this quite often. Gene Chizik won a national title in Year 2 at Auburn and got fired after Year 4. The same thing feels like it’s about to happen to Ed Orgeron at LSU, though he won his national title in Year 3 and could get fired after Year 5 (or sooner). As soon as a program is perceived as taking a step back, the fan base clamors for a coaching change. It’s an easy way to give a program a jolt and its fans some reason for optimism. Sticking with the status quo doesn’t do that, especially when the status quo doesn’t seem very good.
But it’s important to consider who the potential replacements are and whether they could do any better. Change for the sake of change isn’t a solution. It’s caving to the mob, and Manuel stood his ground with a fan base that would’ve been fine with Harbaugh moving on.
So, Manuel had to walk the tricky line of being seen as rewarding a head coach after a dismal season while also looking out for what is best in the long term.
These athletic directors are in a tough spot whenever there are only a few years left on a contract, because there is so much pressure to extend them or fire the coach. It’s difficult to recruit the later you get into a contract because recruits don’t know if the coach is still going to be there in a year or 2. So the common practice is to either fire the guy and pay a hefty buyout or extend him (and pay the hefty buyout later).
I don’t know if what Manuel did — cutting Harbaugh’s salary from $8 million to $4 million, with the opportunity to make it back in incentives — is a trend we’ll see in the future. How many coaches are willing to take a pay cut? Michigan also lowered Harbaugh’s buyout, basically putting him on 1-year deals.
Here’s what Manuel and Michigan had working in their favor: Harbaugh seemed to genuinely wanted to be there and make it work. It is, after all, his alma mater. There were some reports of a possible jump to the NFL, but it’s not like he was eyeing other college programs.
So as long as Harbaugh was committed to making it work (and overhauling his staff) and agreed to the program-friendly extension, why start all over when you don’t have to? That should be the lesson here. I know there are times when it is absolutely necessary, but this wasn’t one of them, not when Michigan has its highest floor since the end of the Lloyd Carr era. Is it really that bad to be a Michigan fan? The Wolverines, 2020 aside, beat the teams they are supposed to beat. The problem is their rival is just so dang good.
Speaking of Ohio State, will Michigan beat the Buckeyes this season? Probably not, but that’s OK. There aren’t many teams in the country that can.
The most important thing is, Michigan is back on track. It is a top-10 team with a chance at a Big Ten title and at the bare minimum, a New Years Six bowl game.
That didn’t seem possible last December, when Michigan was searching for answers and pondering tearing this whole thing down. It’s been a fun season for Michigan fans, and Manuel deserves some credit.