We have all been in relationships that have gone sour before despite our best intentions to make it work.
The courtship is the most exciting part, followed by the honeymoon phase where your partner can seemingly do no wrong. But the true test of any relationship is what happens when adversity hits and there are some things you might have to put some serious effort into fixing at its foundation.
Jim Harbaugh, a hire that was a match made in heaven for both he and the Michigan Wolverines, has been tested more than anyone expected through almost six seasons at the helm of the football program. There are several well-documented chapters in his story that have stood in the way of the Wolverines taking that next step as a program, but this has now regressed to something that is speeding toward its expiration date.
Despite the expectations that this should be a football team that competes for Big Ten and national championships, there are plenty of Michigan fans and people who follow the program that could stay on board with a staff that won 9-10 games a year with a chance to break through now and then. Something Harbaugh supporters have always been able to hang their hats on was the idea that no matter how many crushing rivalry game and underdog losses Michigan endured, it took care of business in games it was favored to do so in.
Once that stops happening, you really have to ask yourself what the heck you’re doing here.
It’s not just that Michigan is 2-4. It’s that from top to bottom — coaching staff down to scout teamers — this operation has no idea what it is or what it wants to be. The body language is terrible. According to The Michigan Daily, Harbaugh apparently had to instruct his team on the bench to cheer when wide receiver AJ Henning made one of the only highlight plays of the day for the Wolverines in the 27-17 loss to Penn State.
Even prominent alums are voicing their opinions.
This team is just over two years removed from going into Columbus at 10-1 and favored to win and advance to the Big Ten Championship. We know how that one ended, and that might be a game this regime never fully recovers from, as they are 11-10 in their last 21 games.
Any fastball this program had is gone. If the sideline demeanor is any indication, it is not coming back with this coaching staff in place.
This has been such a crazy year for everyone, not just college sports. We knew the potential was there for the Big Ten to be turned on its head this season. Nobody expected Penn State to be winless through five weeks, just as nobody expected Michigan to struggle with the likes of Michigan State and Rutgers. But Saturday’s game proved which program between Michigan and Penn State was currently experiencing a flukey bad season and who had some real problems to deal with.
The Nittany Lions aren’t good, but they were flying around the field and played with a purpose. They were excited when things went their way. They are not particularly well-coached, but their guy has taken them to Indianapolis and also has had his team playing competitive games this year. PSU certainly kept it closer against Ohio State than Michigan likely will.
Harbaugh’s program is simply nearing the end of something that has been bubbling and festering for a few seasons now.
I will never question Harbaugh’s desire to coach a winner and do so at his alma mater. He has been forthright about that. He is (mostly) self-aware and despite what he says, most everyone knows the program is a mess. To his credit, he has pulled a lot of strings to put Michigan back to where it feels it should be, including coaching staff changes and getting involved in the transfer quarterback carousel, but they just aren’t there.
Harbaugh is a loyal guy and wants to do right by people who are loyal to him, perhaps to a fault. That’s what makes this such a tough pill to swallow with his offensive and defensive coordinators.
Neither Josh Gattis nor Don Brown are living up to their end of the bargain. Brown in particular was someone who should have been on the hot seat after 2019, and some will argue earlier. On offense, Harbaugh turned the keys over to someone who has never had experience calling plays, and despite the “Speed in Space” mantra, they lack an identity. At least you knew what Harbaugh, Jedd Fisch, Tim Drevno and Pep Hamilton were trying to be.
Harbaugh has left almost no stone unturned in his quest to return Michigan to national prominence. For a while there, he had returned them to respectability. Now, we’re right back where we started with a few weeks to go and an even more grim outlook going into the 2021 season.
Harbaugh is a good man, and when things are going well he is a competent football coach. Things are not going well here anymore, though. He is at the top of the pyramid on a team that does not look like it cares anymore and a coaching staff that is either teaching the wrong things or no longer reaching its players. Even his most staunch defenders have started to turn and level-headed optimists — myself included, though level-headed is debatable — feel it is time for a change.
Coming into this season, Harbaugh was the only Power Five head coach in the country without more than two years left on his contract. Pandemic or not, that is not normal for anyone, and going into 2021 coming off this season without a new deal would be a disaster. Michigan has to either do the deal or move on. After six years with no Big Ten Championships, no wins over Ohio State or as an underdog, and numerous other failed marks, they should choose to move on.
If Harbaugh stays, extension or not, it is hard to think of any assistants that are proven or on the career upswing who would hitch their wagon to him. Simply nuking the staff and hoping for what Notre Dame has become in the four seasons since its 4-8 campaign does not apply to this situation. If you plan to give him a seventh year, you are probably doing so in hopes it goes beyond that. How much longer can either side really afford to wait to see if this can click?
Whether it be a mutual parting of the ways, a “retirement,” or simply walking away to make the jump back to the NFL, both Michigan and Harbaugh should be exploring that. It does not have to be ugly or with bridges being burnt. This arrangement has not worked out and is rapidly deteriorating. Whatever PR spin athletic director Warde Manuel and Michigan want to put on it is up to them, but it makes more sense now than it ever has to break it off even if there was a contract extension waiting to be signed back in February.
Some real challenges would come with a coaching search, especially given the financial impact of the pandemic and the potential for COVID-19 to wipe out another year of spring football. And there is no guarantee any coach who comes in can help Michigan win its first Big Ten title in almost two decades or slay the beast to the south, but fear of the unknown is no reason to sit on your hands. This might not be an elite job anymore, but it sure as hell is a desirable one that will mostly give you what you need to at least make a push to contend now and again. Heck, Michigan has made the push a few times with the guy they still have.
Manuel has made good hires at Michigan — namely Mel Pearson with hockey and Juwan Howard with men’s basketball. His coaching search chops and sticking to a criteria is not something I question, but he’s got to make the first move.
The hardest thing to do is to move on from a person and/or place you love dearly, especially in this case when it is one of your own. But when the writing is on the wall, it’s time to separate and do what’s best for your future.
Harbaugh is no longer the future of this program and the quicker Michigan realizes that, the quicker they can move forward and once again try to find someone who can be.