SportsMonday Column: Jim Harbaugh protested Mark Schlissel on Saturday. It's time to wonder what that means.

Sunday, September 6, 2020 - 1:27pm

University president Mark Schlissel and football coach Jim Harbaugh are publicly at odds over the Big Ten's postponement of the season.

University president Mark Schlissel and football coach Jim Harbaugh are publicly at odds over the Big Ten's postponement of the season. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

It’s too bad we couldn’t see Jim Harbaugh’s face underneath his mask on Saturday. It might have been revealing.

Speaking to reporters while participating in a parent-led protest on the Big Ten’s postponement of football season, Harbaugh was asked six times in seven minutes about University president Mark Schlissel. He did his best not to publicly criticize a man who’s technically his boss, but the subtext wasn’t hard to see, even without the benefit of Harbaugh’s facial expressions.

His conversations with Schlissel?

“I have had none,” he said.

Does that upset him?

“You think maybe I’ve got some inside information or something. I really don’t,” he said.

He said later that he’s texted and emailed Schlissel to show him the football team’s COVID-19 testing results. Has Schlissel responded?

“Talk to Warde (Manuel). Warde talks directly to President Schlissel,” Harbaugh said.

You don’t need me to explain what that means. The very reason Harbaugh was there on Saturday was to protest a decision that Schlissel helped make.

“Free the Big Ten,” Harbaugh said. You know, because Schlissel and 10 other University presidents shackled it.

So let’s stop here for a minute. The football coach, whose salary and public profile dwarfs the University president’s, publicly protested a major decision that the University president helped make. 

That’s a huge deal in a vacuum. But let’s add in some context. Harbaugh is in the last year of his contract and extension talks got tabled because of the pandemic. Harbaugh also left his last job in large part because he clashed with people in the San Francisco 49ers’ front office, a pattern that’s followed him throughout his career. 

So, forget the 2020 season. Michigan football might have a bigger issue on its hands if this doesn’t get sorted out.

Schlissel’s transparency, in all aspects — be it the football season or the fall semester writ large — has been embarrassingly poor. As it relates to this column, his only comment on the season was a statement on Twitter in support of the Big Ten’s decision last month. The Daily requested to speak with him this week and was told questions on the Big Ten and football season are being referred to Manuel, the athletic director.

That’s fine — and it’s worth noting that Manuel, not Schlissel, is Harbaugh’s direct superior. (He also declined an interview request through a spokesman). But Manuel didn’t have a vote in the decision to postpone the season. Manuel won’t have a vote in whether to play later in the fall or during the spring. Jim Harbaugh didn’t protest Warde Manuel’s decision on Saturday. He protested Mark Schlissel’s.

It’s one thing for Schlissel to duck questions from reporters. It’s another for him to duck questions from his own football coach.

Players at the protest on Saturday said Schlissel hasn’t shown up at Schembechler Hall and hasn’t seen Michigan’s protocols at work. It’s unlikely that Schlissel, an immunologist, would be convinced to change his mind by seeing some football players in masks, but it says something that he hasn’t shown up to explain what’s going on, why the decision was made, or even just to tell the team the decision was made.

Schlissel has bigger things on his mind than football right now, namely getting the University’s COVID response in order before it derails the fall semester. But it’s not asking much for him to explain why he voted to postpone the season, to the people whose season he voted to postpone. Whether you agree with the decision or not, that’s a courtesy they’re owed.

“We were getting our information from Twitter,” senior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey said. “And we’re the ones it’s directly affecting, unfortunately.”

Speculating on the relationship between Schlissel and the football program would be unfair, but at this point, it’s not speculation to say it’s not good. And it’s not unfair to start asking what that means for the relationship between Schlissel and Harbaugh.

For all the criticism Harbaugh gets as a football coach, he’s gotten Michigan to a level it hasn’t seen since Lloyd Carr was coaching. He’s got a five-star quarterback coming next year and, quietly, built a team this year that was poised to surprise some people. It’s hard to see the Wolverines getting an upgrade if he were to leave. More than that, it’s hard to see him wanting to leave.

He grew up here. His family is here and his kids are in the schools. His parents are here, and his dad even showed up to protest on Saturday. He’s built Michigan up, but leaving without a win over Ohio State, a Big Ten title or a New Year’s Six bowl — if not a Rose Bowl — would leave a bad taste. In July, he said a contract extension was “right there,” prior to the pandemic.

As for Schlissel, he signed a five-year contract extension in September 2018. Barring some kind of disastrous fallout of this school year, it’s hard to see him going anywhere.

That puts Manuel between the two of them, in an impossible position of trying to appease Harbaugh, Schlissel, donors and everyone else on down.

I don’t know where that leaves everything, but my mind is landing on this quote from a 2016 profile on HBO’s Real Sports, when Andrea Kremer asked Harbaugh about his propensity to alienate people.

“That must be true,” Harbaugh said. “Cause I’d wear out my welcome. … People just don’t want to be around you after a while.”

On Saturday, asked about the details of the season he wants to play — number of games, College Football Playoff consideration — Harbaugh would only say this: “We want to play.”

His mouth moved underneath the mask, in either a smile or a grimace. It would’ve been nice to know which.

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