Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Michigan fans — including this alumnus — find themselves sad and suddenly starved for gratitude. It’s hard to be grateful about much when losing to your bitter rival 15 of 16 seasons.
Jim Harbaugh was supposed to change that. Somehow, he’s made the Wolverines’ Ohio State problem worse as the coach paid $8 million per year to lead his alma mater’s all-time winningest football program.
But he finally caught a break this year with the Big Ten’s delayed and shortened schedule: Ohio State was pushed off the holiday menu to Dec. 12, and Penn State, an even match throughout Harbaugh’s tenure, was slotted in the Buckeyes’ place. Nobody could have imagined that the Nittany Lions would be 0-5 coming into Ann Arbor — never mind that Michigan would be 2-3 — but of course Harbaugh’s Wolverines couldn’t take advantage of such surprisingly easy prey.
Penn State won college football’s Misery Bowl, 27-17, on Saturday. Six years into the Harbaugh era, Michigan is 2-4 and 0-3 at an empty Big House that should be buzzing with boos.
Well, what to make of it? What to make of anything that happens in this crazy season? This is the question that athletic directors like Michigan’s Warde Manuel will have to answer in the coming weeks. If this were a normal November, Michigan, Penn State (1-5), Nebraska (1-4), Tennessee (2-5), Virginia Tech (4-5) and even Texas and Auburn, with their 5-3 records that show minimal progress, would have big decisions to make about the direction of their programs.
How many millionaire coaches will receive a pandemic pardon?
South Carolina already sent Will Muschamp packing, putting aside the financial crunch brought on by the coronavirus to pay a reported $13.2-million buyout. Some college athletic departments are broke until the exact moment their donors can’t stomach looking at the same football coach on the sideline any longer. Others will feel more pressure to show restraint because of the uncertain moment we’re all trudging through.
Harbaugh has by far the most fascinating scenario because he’s in the sixth year of a seven-year contract and has yet to receive an extension. This is practically unheard of among Power Five schools, which routinely hand out extensions — see Helton, Clay — the moment anything goes right to send a message to recruits that the coach has the confidence of his employer for years to come.
Michigan always likes to do things a little differently than the rest — it didn’t put the phrase “leaders and best” in the fight song for nothing — and so as Harbaugh put together three 10-win seasons in his first four, there was no extension.
A fan at a Southeastern Conference powerhouse probably would guess that is because he went 0-4 against Ohio State. But, knowing Michigan and Harbaugh, it was more likely a foregone conclusion from each side and they just didn’t get around to it because the assumption was so obvious that they’d continue to work together until he got the Wolverines over the hump against the Buckeyes.
Entering last season, there was still reason for hope. Michigan returned a senior quarterback in Shea Patterson, featured a two-deep full of future draft picks and would get Ohio State at home. Plus, the Buckeyes would be breaking in rookie coach Ryan Day. The Wolverines were the preseason pick to win the conference despite their recent history.
But Ohio State got even better under Day with Justin Fields at quarterback and ran it up on Michigan in the Big House, 56-27. The year before, the Buckeyes put up 62 on the Wolverines, but Harbaugh, stubbornly loyal, stuck by defensive coordinator Don Brown.
A year later, Michigan’s defense is so inadequate it harkens to the Rich Rodriguez years. This is a program going nowhere with way more efficiency than it can execute a two-minute drill, and so now Harbaugh will be counting on Michigan to show stubborn loyalty to its eccentric former quarterback.
COVID times have hurt Michigan’s deep pockets, with more than 700,000 tickets going unused this fall, but here’s the thing: Football is still football during a pandemic, and Michigan stinks. There is no reason to think that would change in a seventh season, much less an eighth, ninth or 10th. And the school has no shortage of donors who would ante up to buy out Harbaugh and chart a new course.
Compared to Harbaugh, other coaches who’ve had a rough year have either: more concrete accomplishments at their school (Penn State’s James Franklin, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn), less time to provide evidence of ineptitude (Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt, Nebraska’s Scott Frost, Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente and Texas’ Tom Herman) or less obscene salaries (all of the aforementioned).
There is a case to be made for holding on to each — especially with the pandemic excuse handy.
With Harbaugh, it’s simply time. An extension now translates to Michigan admitting it no longer cares to compete with Ohio State for Big Ten and national championships, that running a clean program that graduates its players and nurtures many of them to the NFL is enough. Hey, maybe the school is willing to admit that. If so, it should ask Harbaugh back at half the salary.
The man credited with developing Andrew Luck at Stanford and Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick with the San Francisco 49ers has not developed a quarterback recruit at Michigan, has been too slow to change on both sides of the ball and — most troubling — seems to have lost his trademark competitiveness.
This has to hurt Harbaugh, but this version of him would never show it.
He was hired to be the savior. Now, the Wolverines need a new hero, and preferably one who can figure out how to wear a mask and a headset at the same time. (Jim, it’s not that hard.)
For Michigan, it’s a good thing that bad NFL franchises stay bad in a pandemic too. One of them should rescue Harbaugh and his alma mater from an embarrassing public parting of ways.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.