Analysis: What Jim Harbaugh's contract extension means for Michigan

Friday, January 8, 2021 - 5:28pm

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Allison Engkvist/Daily

Jim Harbaugh, for now, put an end to rumors of his imminent departure. A month after Michigan’s season officially ended, Harbaugh put pen to paper on a four-year, $20 million contract extension on Friday that will see him remain in Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future.

During the season, when asked about signing an extension, Harbaugh declined to address it beyond saying: “I always like letting the action speak for what you have to say,” in November. For much of the weeks leading up to the extension, though, it was his inaction that spoke volumes.

Following a 2-4 season that had some within Michigan’s administration questioning the viability of retaining Harbaugh for the first time, he waited to sign an extension. Then waited some more. That last Monday — the day following the last games of the NFL regular season, when most coaching firings are made — passed without an extension should not go unnoticed.

It’s easy to view this extension as the solution to the prisoner’s dilemma that Harbaugh and athletic director Warde Manuel found themselves in. That is to say, neither side should come out of this feeling particularly good. Harbaugh is locked into a lower salary, lower buyout and more scrutiny at a job in which his record reached a nadir in 2020. Manuel locked himself into a coach that’s firmly unpopular amongst the fan base who coached the Wolverines to an abysmal 2-4 record last season. And yet, it’s not at all hard to argue this was better than any alternative either man had at their disposal.

Had Manuel let Harbaugh walk, he would have gone into a high-profile coaching search at a time when Michigan’s budgets are crunched due to COVID-19, after 20 recruits had signed Letters of Intent on the assumption that Harbaugh would be there, at a time when transfers are more empowered than ever in college athletics. To do that for the promise of Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, one of the names thrown around as a potential replacement, would have been both putting a massive amount of faith in Campbell’s ability and in Michigan’s ability to land Campbell. 

Had Harbaugh walked, he would have been leaving Michigan with his tenure cast as a failure at his alma mater, and likely taking an NFL job in which his power over the team would be far less in comparison to that which he wields in Ann Arbor. Exactly which NFL job is a different question unto itself — and for that matter, one without answer, at least publicly — which is yet another point in favor of staying.

Playing into the logic as well: Michigan’s season could have gone different if not for COVID-19 and injuries. Wide receiver Nico Collins, cornerback Ambry Thomas, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, linebacker Cameron McGrone, tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes and defensive end Kwity Paye all either opted out or missed time with injury this season. Quarterback Dylan McCaffrey wouldn’t have started, but he opted out as well, which might have made a difference once Joe Milton started to struggle. That’s no small deal. 

If Harbaugh can get Michigan back to where it was before 2020 — 8-10 wins yearly, competing for the Big Ten in a good season with a few trips to New Year’s Six bowls, complaints about his performance will be largely relegated to the fan base. All the better if he beats Ohio State, wins a conference title or gets to the College Football Playoff, but failure to hit those benchmarks hasn’t mattered to decision-makers in the athletic department before. The gulf between them and some segments of the fan base is notable, and it’s on display with this extension.

As for Manuel — if his tenure has proven anything, it’s that he wants stability. As early as 2018, he said he wanted both Harbaugh and then-basketball coach John Beilein to retire at Michigan. When then-hockey coach Red Berenson met with Manuel in 2017 to tell him he would be retiring, Manuel asked him about signing a long-term extension at age 77. Berenson was heavily involved in the search for his replacement, former Michigan assistant Mel Pearson, just as longtime Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun was when Manuel ran the search that eventually yielded then-UConn assistant Kevin Ollie.

Within that context, extending Harbaugh is a fairly predictable move.

Still, there will likely be changes on the coaching staff beyond defensive coordinator Don Brown, who was fired before Christmas. Six assistants — offensive line coach Ed Warinner, running backs coach and special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh, tight ends coach Sherrone Moore, cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich, quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels and defensive line coach Shaun Nua — have contracts that expire as of Monday. All six may not leave, but it would border on shocking to see all six return. Reports have already indicated that McDaniels won’t be retained.

The lower buyout and lower salary for Harbaugh also indicate he won’t be afforded the same leash as in the past, when he ran his program with impunity and zero interference from anyone in the athletic department. 

Whether any changes there mean much in the long run, at least when it comes to Michigan’s record on the football field, could be a different story.

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