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Column: One more reason to keep Jim Harbaugh around

Good for Ohio State, good for the Big Ten.

Michigan v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

As Ohio State fans, it’s easy to get behind Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh taking an effective pay cut to keep his job in Ann Arbor this year. Harbaugh is 0-5 against his rivals down south, but there are few signs of the Michigan athletic department giving up on their chosen coach.

Yes, it’s easy to want to keep Harbaugh around as long as Ohio State keeps beating him, but there are even more broad reasons that benefit Ohio State, Michigan and the rest of the Big Ten for keeping a head coach in place.

While every other conference was handing out pink slips early on in the season, the Big Ten’s athletic department was giving extensions. Already this season, we’ve seen numerous coaches get new deals to stick around:

  • Tuesday, Penn State extended James Franklin’s contract with a 10-year deal worth $75 million
  • Last week, Michigan State’s Mel Tucker was reportedly offered a 10-year, $95 million extension
  • Earlier this month, PJ Fleck signed a seven-year, $35 million extension with Minnesota
  • Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst got a $1 million annual raise just before the season began

It’s certainly a different vibe than what we’ve seen in the rest of the college football universe. Other conferences are signaling that coaches are commodities and can be traded up, but the Big Ten is sending an entirely different message: Coaches are anchors worth investing in.

That attitude stands in stark contrast to what’s happening in every other major conference, where we’ve already seen turnover in head coaches before the regular season is even wrapped up.

Earlier this week, Florida fired Dan Mullen, who was just the latest of the more than a dozen FBS coaches who have already been canned before the end of the regular season. This is a coach who made the SEC Championship game last year and came close to beating Alabama this season. His predecessor, Jim McElwein, won the SEC East twice in his three year tenure, but got the boot when he didn’t achieve such spectacular results in his third season.

Also within the SEC, LSU announced earlier this season that Ed Orgeron would no longer be the Tigers’ coach at the end of the year, though Orgeron, as a friendly reminder, won a national title as recently as 2019, is sticking out the remainder of the 2021 season.

In the Pac-12, we’ve seen shakeups at USC and Washington for performance, and Washington State due to COVID-19 vaccination non-compliance. These off-the-field distractions only add to the conference’s dysfunction, and with Oregon’s loss to Utah last weekend effectively eliminating the Pac-12 from a College Football Playoff opportunity, there’s really not much in the way of positives for the conference as they wrap up 2021.

And do we even need to get into the Big 12? In addition to TCU firing Gary Patterson and Texas Tech Matt Wells halfway through the season, the conference is a model of instability, with its two most historic programs opting to leave for the SEC.

Even the ACC couldn’t stay out of the mix, with Virginia Tech firing Justin Fuente last week.

In a football ecosystem where every other Power Five conference (and a lot of other conferences, too) have seen instability in the coaching ranks, the Big Ten is a beacon of the undramatic. Even Scott Frost, who many predicted would get the axe during the season with his Nebraska team losing in heartbreaking fashion week-in and week-out, got a restructured contract and the opportunity to coach for another year.

The Big Ten’s relative stability in the head coaching ranks could prove to be a boon for the conference in coming years. There’s also the benefit that the conference’s athletic departments have remained consistent, and there’s been similar stability in conference leadership (Jim Delany had been commissioner of the Big Ten since 1989 before his retirement in 2020, when he handed the reins over to Kevin Warren).

It goes beyond the contract extensions, though. The Big Ten boasts two of the four longest-tenured head coaches in the FBS in Kirk Ferentz, who has been at Iowa since 1999, and Pat Fitzgerald, who’s led Northwestern since 2006. Neither would appear to be leaving anytime soon, barring Ferentz retiring.

This commitment to stability has reaped rewards. For a long time, the SEC was largely untouchable. This season (and last year, to a degree), we’ve seen the script starting to flip, with more and better teams in the Big Ten. Even Jeff Brohm and Purdue have been making waves.

From a recruiting perspective, the immediate futures of the Big Ten’s programs are not in question, and their stability should serve to attract high school recruits who know what they’re getting into. In other words, it’s a lot easier to commit to Michigan State when a player knows Mel Tucker will be there for the long haul, than Florida where who knows who’ll be the coach come next year, or the year after?

Meanwhile, Big Ten programs reap the benefits of transfer portals for many of the same reasons. While high profile recruits a la Justin Fields will always be sought after, the “average” transfer, who may have left their previous program due to coaching challenges, will be more likely to head to a stable program.

While some might call it “settling” for suboptimal coaches, the Big Ten is playing the long game. Coaches will grow into their programs and, as they get more and more of their recruits in the ranks and developed, those programs allowed to nurture will begin to thrive.

Further, speaking as a Browns fan, I can say that coaching instability benefits no one. Consistency in the coaching ranks means the ability to build a program over time, establish recruiting relationships and bring continuity to a sport that, by definition, flips its roster every four years.