Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as head coach at Michigan could hardly be called conventional. However, announcing that he is, in fact, planning on returning to Michigan — after National Signing Day was in the books — was something of a head scratcher, even for him.
Who knows if Josh Gattis and Mike Macdonald would have stuck around even if Harbaugh wasn’t debating a move to the NFL — Macdonald left before his boss interviewed with the Vikings, while Gattis left after. Both are talented coordinators fairly early in their careers and both have tremendous upsides when it comes to their coaching aspirations. However, working for a head coach whose status is in limbo apparently made sticking around Ann Arbor a risky situation.
In some ways, it seems like Harbaugh is deliberately trying to put Michigan back in rebuilding mode. Perhaps he’s a masochist, or perhaps he just prefers the “rebuilding head coach” role and the rewards it entails compared to the pressures of being a “sustaining head coach.”
Harbaugh did all the things he was supposed to do last season — after a long, long wait that tested the patience even of Michigan’s most loyal fans, including a putrid 2-4 outing in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. He finally beat Ohio State and won a Big Ten title. He put together an elite coaching staff and a top-10 recruiting class.
It’s no use pretending like the 2021 Michigan Wolverines were anything less than the best team in the conference, but with the offseason changes we’ve seen, it’s hard to imagine that the Wolverines will be favored to repeat the feat in 2022 — and many of those factors are Harbaugh’s fault.
It would seem that Harbaugh’s flirtation with the NFL, however brief, could drive Michigan back to mediocrity (or at least in relation to their rivals from Columbus). At a minimum, it’s a disruption and distraction to the remaining coaching staff and the Wolverine contingent that will take the field this fall — the next in a line of increasingly massive distractions that Harbaugh has brought with his tenure in Ann Arbor.
In the short term, it has put spring ball in jeopardy at Michigan. Already, the 2022 offseason is a strong contrast to the lead-up of the 2021 campaign when Michigan’s back was against the wall. Harbaugh was deliberate in the offseason in his steps to make the Wolverines contenders a year ago.
When things seemed particularly dire for him, it felt like Harbaugh was finally taking things seriously. He took a pay cut after a clearly serious discussion about his future with the Wolverines and he invested in assistants who could take Michigan to the next level.
Now, questions on his staff and roster — following a high number of departures for the NFL and transfer portal — mean that much of the momentum that the Wolverines built throughout 2021 is quickly dissolving. The Wolverines’ offseason leader heading into 2022 is a quarterback who’s job as a starter is in jeopardy. Aidan Hutchinson and Hassan Haskins, the 2021 leaders on both sides of the ball, are gone. The schedule features road trips to Ohio State and Iowa, with the last win for the Maize and Blue in either location dates all the way back to a 2005 overtime victory in Iowa City.
Not helping matters, the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes were both embarrassed by the Wolverines to close their respective 2021 conference campaigns, meaning that both will be exceptionally motivated this when they host UM this fall. And you know Greg Schiano’s Scarlet Knights — losers of two straight games to Michigan by single scores — have their early November bout with the Wolverines circled on the calendar as a potential marquee win.
The necessary rebuild is further hampered by a delayed coaching search to fill vacant coordinator roles. At this point in the year, Harbaugh will have more limited options for his coordinator roles. The candidates from the college ranks have been picked over as the more proactive teams (including Ohio State, which we’ll get to in a minute) have already made staffing changes. Further, the best talent at this stage of the coaching carousel will be expensive.
(Note: As of the time of this writing, sources are reporting that Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Jesse Minter — who also spent time working for Harbaugh’s more successful brother Jon and the Baltimore Ravens — was expected to be named to the same position for the Wolverines.)
At first glance, Harbaugh’s hemming and hawing didn’t put the Wolverines out any worse for this year’s recruiting class: Michigan ended up with the No. 9 class after National Signing Day. They pulled in one five-star recruit in cornerback Will Johnson, however, the Wolverines are still the third-ranked class in the Big Ten (and the Big Ten East) behind Ohio State and Penn State.
Contrast how that class played out with Ohio State, who is heading into the offseason with a defined way forward. National Signing Day wasn’t dramatic for Ryan Day and Co., which pulled in the fourth-ranked class nationally.
Moreover, Day solidified his coaching staff shortly after the Rose Bowl. That meant that Day got the staff that he wanted in place and with enough lead time to eliminate any discussion of drama. Even the rumor of Day heading to the Chicago Bears laughingly lasted just a second. On the field, C.J. Stroud — the B1G’s Quarterback and Offensive Player of the Year — is firmly established as the team’s leader on offense heading into spring ball.
Harbaugh took his shot at Ryan Day after Michigan’s win over Ohio State in November, stating “Sometimes people that are standing on third base think they hit a triple, but they didn’t.”
However, Ryan Day has won more Big Ten titles over a shorter tenure with a much more consistent approach — and one which has never questioned Day’s role as the head coach.
Of course, it could all come down to a difference in philosophies. We can all admit that Day obviously inherited a team in a “sustaining success” situation. But, clearly sustain it he has.
What does it mean to be a coach who thrives in rebuilding situations — like the one Harbaugh inherited from Brady Hoke? Is Harbaugh afraid of needing to sustain success? Is he only confident in slowly rebuilding?
Regardless, Michigan’s head coach forced them to take a few steps back this offseason, which is great for Ohio State. Instead of building a dynasty, Harbaugh chose to tumble what turned out to be his house of cards.