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Both Warde Manuel, Jim Harbaugh culpable in growing questions over Michigan’s future

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It should have never come to this.

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 29 Michigan at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the early signing period nears for the Michigan Wolverines football program, there still is not much clarity surrounding the future as it pertains to head coach Jim Harbaugh. Some of that (maybe a lot of it?) is on him for having the tunnel vision to not talk about a new deal until the season is over, but he is far from the only reason a deal is not done yet.

Both Harbaugh and athletic director Warde Manuel have said over the last week or so that they will sit down to discuss the future of the program at the end of the season like they always do. The problem with that is this is no ordinary season with the end being pushed back three weeks due to the COVID-19 impacted campaign. Now, we are on the eve of the early signing day — one that by all accounts seems like it should go pretty well for the program — without a resolution. Not one that is reported yet, anyway.

(Of course, now that I sit down to write this, watch them lead signing day coverage off with news of a new deal or something.)

Even if that parenthetical bit above was to come true, it simply did not have to be this way for Michigan. It seems pretty likely given the tone of both Harbaugh and Manuel that they have never really been all that interested in parting ways. If that is the case, and Michigan was always going to offer to extend, why is now the time to sit down and hash this out?

What we do know — whether it be the offer on the table to be signed or what Michigan is going to pitch to its head coach — is that we are looking at a three-year deal with big incentives and a low buyout. Michigan has been competent throughout much of his tenure but has not accomplished what it set out to when he was hired. The athletic department is well within its right to put an offer like this on the table.

Simply put, it seems like Harbaugh is going to have to take a pay cut to stick around.

Harbaugh would be within his right to want more of a commitment from his alma mater. You can argue the merits of whether he deserves it or not, but some critical changes need to be made if he sticks around. If I were him, I’d want to be assured I have the chance to be here long enough to see it through.

Once again, you can argue whether he should be allowed that chance or not amongst yourselves. This is simply what could on the table with both parties. That’s why you sit down and negotiate.

There are plenty of comments on the record of a deal being in place before the coronavirus pandemic and if there was not a deal agreed to by then, it’s understandable. Athletic departments across the country are dealing with a budget crunch the likes of which we have never seen and there were more pertinent issues at play. But again, if Michigan was always going to offer to extend, a deal should have been agreed to much sooner than that, even.

Harbaugh came into this season as the only Power 5 head coach with less than two years left on his deal. This narrative has been beaten into the ground at this point, but that just is not typical for how things work. When you know you have “your guy,” which we have never seen or been told Manuel does not view Harbaugh as such, you can’t just kick the can down the road.

Manuel can downplay negative recruiting all he wants, but he has a football coach that has been the subject of NFL rumors around this time every year and teams have been using that against Michigan. Harbaugh and his staff have done a commendable job in working through that. But a perceived lack of stability, especially when things have not gone so well, has inherently been a part of Harbaugh’s tenure.

Extensions simply get done sooner than this in college football. While not a direct apples-to-apples comparison to what Michigan is going through with Harbaugh, PJ Fleck — who was in his third season at Minnesota and still had three years left on his original contract — was extended through 2026 last fall.

A lot of other programs do business that way, too. You have to. It keeps continuity on the recruiting trail. It makes your vision for a program easier to sell for prospective assistants you may need to hire. It quiets the very loud whispers that you may not be long for the job.

Harbaugh has to wear this, too. He does not have an agent, so the brunt of the negotiation process falls on him and his camp directly. Securing your future sooner than this does not seem like it should be a distraction. If anything, one would think it provides more peace of mind.

If Harbaugh is the guy, which again, there is no reason to believe that Manuel believes he is not, an extension had to be inked sooner than this. Maybe it was after a pretty humbling end to the 2018 season. Maybe it was a massive philosophical change to the offense that necessitated the hiring of Josh Gattis. Maybe it was as soon as they got off the plane from the Citrus Bowl last year.

Their inactivity has led to instability. And that’s not okay.

The facts are that this is a program that is 11-10 in its last 21 games played. If you want to take out the 2-4 stinker that this year has been, they are still 9-6 in the 15 games that were played before that. It took them half a season to get going last year. They never got going this year and only got worse the further a roster that was not all that deep to begin with was depleted. The offense had what appeared to be a one-week mirage before losing its identity. The defense never had one. The lack of player retention and development at key positions in year six continues to be alarming. There seems to be a real divide inside the building on who’s all-in and who isn’t.

Things are not great.

By letting it get to this point, it says you were willing to wait out the results to decide on what the future would hold. The results are in, and they are not pretty. Reupping on that and doubling down on it could be a decision that winds up costing both Harbaugh and Manuel their jobs.

If Michigan is unhappy with Harbaugh, then they should rip the bandaid off and part ways. If they want to keep him, they might need to step up with what amounts to little more than a three-year deal that works out to be three one-year deals.

If he’s the guy, it never should have gotten here.

It still seems more likely than not that Harbaugh will be back with a nuking of the staff taking place. Outside of that, it’s really hard to get a read on where this is heading.

One way or another, make a commitment to what your future is and put a stamp on it like you are asking recruits to do this week.