SportsMonday Column: Here's the first thing that has to change with Jim Harbaugh's new contract

Sunday, January 10, 2021 - 11:03pm

Jim Harbaugh's wait to sign his contract spoke volumes.

Jim Harbaugh's wait to sign his contract spoke volumes. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

On May 13, 2019, the day John Beilein announced he would leave Michigan basketball for the Cleveland Cavaliers, athletic director Warde Manuel was asked if he had discussed a contract extension with Jim Harbaugh.

“I’m not going to announce any conversations I’ve had with Jim about his contract or whatever,” Manuel said that day.

Back then, Harbaugh was going into the fifth year of his seven-year contract, a point when the vast majority of coaches would sign an extension. It took until the afternoon of Jan. 8, 2021 — three days before that same contract would have entered its seventh year — for Harbaugh to put pen to paper on a four-year, $20 million extension.

And that unto itself is just the problem. He never should have been allowed to delay signing that long, putting recruits, coaching staffs and Michigan’s athletic department in limbo as they waited to learn whether they still had a head coach.

For six years, Harbaugh has been given an unlimited leash. He’s used it to walk all over the athletic department and Michigan’s administration.

Here’s an example:

Back in August, when Big Ten athletics were postponed, Michigan athletics released a statement at 3:37 p.m.:..

“The University has suspended all athletic activities, including practices, effective immediately, until further notice,” it said. “This includes team practices for all fall, winter, and spring sports.”

‘“Further notice’” evidently lasted less than an hour.

“We are practicing at this time,” a spokesman for the football team told The Daily at 4:30 p.m.

If that doesn’t constitute the kind of disrespect which an administrator should step in to combat, what does?

And before you say, ‘marching against the University president,’ Harbaugh did that, too.

It’s one thing to give Harbaugh an extension with a salary cut and a lower buyout. But it’s another to keep letting him act like an unchecked child. And University President Mark Schlissel’s lack of involvement with athletics doesn’t stop that from being the case.

His record, it should be said, is somewhat beside the point. All of this would be true even if Harbaugh had come to Ann Arbor, won a national title, beaten Ohio State five times, forced the Big Ten to put Michigan in the championship game this year even if it hadn’t played enough games, then won it.

That he’s instead lost to Ohio State five times, gotten Michigan nowhere near a Big Ten title and went 2-4 last year, though, does put a bit of an exclamation mark on this

When he came to Michigan, Harbaugh was the hottest commodity in football. He had coached in a Super Bowl just two years earlier, turned Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers into winners, turned Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick into stars. 

Right now, he’s a coach who went 2-4 last season. So treat him as such.

It’s not especially hard to do that, by the way. No one is suggesting that people start nitpicking how Harbaugh runs his practices, hires his coaches or calls his plays. 

But should he get to run over public decrees from his boss? Should he get to hold Michigan hostage over a contract extension?

No. If that happens again, Harbaugh should be treated the same as any other underperforming employee who treats his bosses with disrespect and disregard. Which is to say, fired.

Manuel and Michigan’s administration have shown more respect and deference to Harbaugh than most people could reasonably tolerate. It’s time to get some in return.

“Over the past few weeks, Warde and I had discussions that have been honest, open, insightful and constructive in moving our football program forward,” Harbaugh said in Friday’s statement announcing his extension. “Discussions that I look forward to continuing in the years and months ahead.”

The priority should obviously be Michigan’s on-field performance. But this issue should have come up in those conversations.

The excuse that Harbaugh used last July — that the extension was close before the pandemic — shouldn’t hold water with anyone serious. Nowhere else in college football would that contract have been allowed to get as far as February 2020 without an extension. That Harbaugh got to add uncertainty to Michigan’s situation for a calendar year with no apparent gain for anyone should not go unnoticed because of a budget crunch.

Fact is, the Wolverines should be counting their lucky stars that 20 recruits waded into that uncertainty and signed National Letters of Intent in December. They’re even luckier that those recruits will, in fact, get to play for the coach to whom they’ve committed.

Maybe that speaks to Harbaugh’s recruiting ability or toward the conclusion that he never had any intention to leave. 

“I’m gonna let my actions speak loudly,” he said on Nov. 9, when pressed on the extension. “You know me. My actions have been consistent.”

Signing an extension before 2020 would have been the action that spoke loudest.

That there still wasn’t one signed until Friday tells a story of its own.

Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu, or on Twitter @ethan_sears.