Could the Jim Harbaugh Extension Paralyze Michigan?

Credit: Mike Mulhouland

Could the Harbaugh Extension Paralyze Michigan?

Going Into Year 7 of Harbaugh Era, Michigan Football Still Sucks

The third millennium has not been kind to Michigan Football. Once one of college football’s elites, way back in the nineties, Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004. They haven’t sniffed a Rose Bowl since 2006. The iPhone didn’t exist then. Jim Harbaugh, billed as the program’s savior, has failed to alter that course in any meaningful way. Indeed, it has been a pretty crummy couple of decades for Wolverines fans. 

We’ve lost, like, fifteen straight to our archrival. Actually, it’s fifteen out of the last sixteen — and eight straight — but keeping track, at this point, seems akin to reading old love letters from an ex-girlfriend. In the college football world, that kind of streak is just depression personified. Only Tennessee fans, who have watched their Vols lose 15 of their last 16 games to Florida, can possibly understand the psychological ramifications of such repeated heartbreak, such a fall from prominence. 

2006: A Turn for the Worse

In 2006, Michigan went into Ohio State weekend 11-0. Ohio State and Michigan were ranked #1 and #2, respectively, in national polls, meaning a ticket to the national championship was on the line. The media dubbed it “The Game of the Century.” That Friday, Bo Schembechler died, and approximately twenty-four hours later, Michigan lost a nail-biter at The Horseshoe on a controversial late hit flag. 

Subsequently, the program imploded. The next fall, we endured — somehow — the ignominy of Appalachian State. The year after that, we went 3-8 in Rich Rodriguez’s first year at the helm; it qualified as the worst season in Michigan history. Denard Robinson was cool, but Rich Rod wasn’t so much. We ran him out of town. Brady Hoke showed up, after that. We fell out of national relevance while our two main rivals prospered to heights previously unimaginable.

Is Michigan a Basketball School, Now?

Jim Harbaugh was supposed to salvage Michigan fans from such disgrace. In his first season, Michigan  had “trouble with the snap”. 97.1 The Ticket, Detroit’s primary sports radio station, still plays the audio clip from that blocked punt ad nauseam. Worse, Michigan lost again to Ohio State, who subsequently beat Alabama and Oregon in the Playoff to win the National Championship. 2016 was supposed to be the year we finally enacted revenge. With a Rose Bowl berth on the line, Michigan took the Buckeyes to double overtime, despite some questionable home-cooked officiating, only to lose on a rotten spot. 

To date, Harbaugh still hasn’t beaten Ohio State. He is 0-5 against them and must have felt pretty lucky to avoid playing them in 2020.  Cumulatively, it all adds up to a never-ending hangover for the fanbase. Almost twenty years of woe has sucked the joy out of the experience; being a modern Michigan Football fan feels more like kissing a toilet seat.

Hey, it’s okay, we’re a basketball school now. For real, though, this time.  

In his second season as Michigan’s head basketball coach, Juwan Howard has demonstrated that he is the best coach in Ann Arbor. Nevertheless, Michigan’s payroll says otherwise. At present, Howard makes a base salary of only $2 million annually. Despite a 1-4 record in bowl games and a 1-8 record against top ten teams, Jim Harbaugh signed a four-year extension with his alma mater in January; the new contract will see him earn $4 million annually.

The Road to Apostasy

Harbaugh’s extension can’t paralyze Michigan Football. Michigan Football is already paralyzed. We’re talking James Joyce Dubliners levels of paralysis. 

On December 30, 2014, Jim Harbaugh received a savior’s welcome at Michigan. Support for him has been gradually waning ever since. Most fans have experienced the epiphany — that he’s mortal, after all — at some point. For some, it was his third, fourth, or fifth loss to Ohio State. The last one, a 56-27 thrashing at The Big House in 2019, demonstrated the enormity of the talent gap between the two programs in year five of the Harbaugh regime. 

For many, including this fan, it was the 2020 Michigan State game, a game in which Michigan was a three-touchdown favorite. First-year Michigan State coach Mel Tucker outcoached Harbaugh outright. The loss to the Spartans illustrated, moreover, that Harbaugh teams still play with a country club mentality that has dogged the program for decades. In that regard, it exposed cultural deficiencies. Specifically, the loss proved the football team lacks the “all-in” program culture that Juwan Howard has been so successful in cultivating at Crisler Center

Disconcertingly, many have pointed out that Harbaugh himself showed signs of apathy following the close loss to Ohio State in 2016. His enthusiasm and sideline antics noticeably mellowed, in 2017, suggesting the program’s malignancy is all-permeating.

Harbaugh: the “Quarterback Whisperer”

Glaringly, Harbaugh teams also exhibit a lack of player development. His quarterbacks, in particular, have consistently fizzled out. Wilton Speight, a Brady Hoke recruit, led the Wolverines to a ten-win season in 2016, but got injured early in the 2017 season and ultimately transferred to UCLA. Harbaugh recruits Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffery both underwhelmed in brief appearances before transferring out. His most successful quarterbacks, Jake Rudock (Iowa) and Shea Patterson (Ole Miss) were incoming transfers; the latter actually appeared to regress in Ann Arbor.

In some instances, it seemed apparent even to casual observers that Harbaugh picked the wrong guy to start. This past year, for instance, Harbaugh recruit Joe Milton struggled mightily, prompting many to wonder why Dylan McCaffery hadn’t been the season’s starting QB; in fact, McCaffery wasn’t even available as a backup, as he’d opted out of the season and announced his intent to transfer. It is rumored that Harbaugh’s handling of the offseason battle between Milton and McCaffery irked the McCaffery family, prompting the transfer.

A disturbing trend, Milton recently announced that he’s transferring, too. Going into Harbaugh’s seventh season in 2021, Michigan is still looking for a quality starting quarterback. Ask Brandon Peters, Wilton Speight, John O’Korn, Shea Patterson, Dylan McCaffery, or Joe Milton if he’s a “quarterback whisperer”.

Reaction to the Harbaugh Extension

Yet the same fans who have tired of Harbaugh feel, in large part, apathetic about Harbaugh’s 2021 extension. Who else can we get? The covid-shortened season and related restrictions certainly limited Michigan’s options, in that regard. Moreover, if Jim Harbaugh can’t build a contender at Michigan, who can? Does any of it really matter in the grand scheme of the cosmos? (Indeed, following particularly heart-wrenching losses, we’ve sunk to referencing Carl Sagan’s “The Pale Blue Dot” and pondering its nihilistic undertones). 

Perhaps, in part, that apathy is a sign of the times. In the context of a global pandemic, the triviality of sports seems more readily apparent. Maybe it’s also the inevitable evolution of a sports fan, in terms of maturity. 

Or maybe that’s only the case at Michigan, where football just doesn’t seem to matter as much as it once did. For the sake of his or her mental health, even the staunchest optimists must accept reality, eventually (read: after losing 15 of 16 to Ohio State). We’ve grown complacent, apathetic, dispassionate, jaded, stoic.

Is Harbaugh Still a Good Coach?

Mediocrity and apathy notwithstanding, Jim Harbaugh may still be a good college football coach. Undisputedly, he thrived at Stanford — though skeptics claim his success there boiled down to the good fortune of recruiting Andrew Luck — before taking the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII. He brought a semblance of stability and notoriety back to Michigan following the turbulent Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras, even if he’s failed to beat Ohio State or win a Big Ten title. 

Perhaps, too, Michigan’s dismal 2-6 2020 season was a fluke. Chalk it up to injuries and opt-outs. If that is the case, Michigan’s agreement to extend Harbaugh provides him ample time to demonstrate as much. Unlike many other college football coaches, these days — including Rich Rod and Brady Hoke — he won’t be able to say he wasn’t given enough time to implement change.

Reasons for Optimism

Five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy, a 6’3 quarterback from La Grange Park, Illinois, enrolled early at Michigan this January. The fourth-ranked quarterback in his recruiting class, McCarthy played his senior year of high school football at the prestigious IMG Prep Academy in Florida; he led them to an undefeated season and a #1 ranking, nationally.

Many expect him to be Harbaugh’s saving grace, the quarterback recruit that finally pans out, long-term. Sports Illustrated is already speculating that he will be the 2021 starter. Others are clamoring for as much. McCarthy’s only been on campus a few weeks, but some have even wondered if he is the savior Michigan desperately needs.

Of course, Michigan fans have heard as much before (see: Shea Patterson, Brandon Peters, Joe Milton). But the hype surrounding McCarthy sounds different. Michigan.rivals.com alluded to McCarthy as “the chosen one” and compared him to Johnny Manziel, sans baggage. Recruiting profiles describe him as a charismatic leader and a tireless worker. 

McCarthy’s potential alone sounds like a good enough reason to give Harbaugh another season. But there are other reasons for optimism. Harbaugh overhauled his staff, this offseason. Don Brown is out as defensive coordinator. Mike Macdonald, previously the linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens, fills that vacancy. Harbaugh also poached Ravens assistant Matt Weiss, who will coach the quarterbacks for Michigan. In that sense, McCarthy’s development will be in experienced hands. Changing up the recipe certainly can’t hurt. 

Harbaugh’s Buy-Out Clause

If nothing works, Harbaugh’s new contract also provides Michigan a way out. One of the hidden details within the new contract pertains to Harbaugh’s buy-out clause. Under his first contract, Michigan would have had to pay Harbaugh about $10 million had they fired him during the 2020 season. The new contract reduces that number by more than half. Michigan can buy out the contract for $4 million in 2021. By 2022, that figure is reduced to $3 million; in 2023, it’s $2 million, and, in 2024, it’s only $1 million. 

In that sense, there is an acknowledgment by both parties that Harbaugh didn’t live up to the expectations underlying his first contract. His base salary, reduced from more than $8 million in 2020 to $4 million for 2021, demonstrates as much. Incentives provide him the opportunity to earn an additional $1 million for winning a Big Ten title and $500,000 for making the College Football Playoff, among other bonuses.

A Purgatory of Perpetual Nostalgia

Jim Harbaugh’s lackluster career at Michigan has made Michigan fans less rabid, but that doesn’t mean they’ll tolerate him forever. In fact, his extension only makes it easier for the university to part ways with its prototypical “Michigan Man”. In that scenario, Luke Fickell and Matt Campbell represent viable options to replace him.  

Likely Harbaugh will be coaching for his job next season, though critics said the same thing about the 2020 season, a failure by any measure. The hype surrounding J.J. McCarthy suggests his emergence as the starting quarterback has the potential to salvage it. At the same time, a sixth loss to Ohio State might be the final nail in the coffin. Michigan hired Harbaugh for the specific purpose of beating Ohio State, and losing six of six to the Buckeyes could permanently stain his legacy. Hell, even Brady Hoke beat the Buckeyes once.

The recent success of Ryan Day at Ohio State epitomizes an increasing talent disparity between college football’s elite (see: Clemson, Bama, and Ohio State) and its pretenders. That, coupled with Harbaugh’s inability to institute cultural change within the program, heretofore, suggests that saving his job will be a tall task. Until Harbaugh can reverse those trends, or until Michigan determines he never will, Michigan fans are confined to a purgatory of perpetual nostalgia.

Zachary Steffes
About Zachary Steffes 3 Articles
Zac is the author of "Visions of Yzerman," a yet unpublished memoir of the Detroit Red Wings dynasty (1988-2013).
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