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Michigan, Jim Harbaugh recommit to each other, but only wins will truly lock in the future

This is stability only on paper.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Illinois Michael Allio-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines athletic department and Jim Harbaugh renewed their vows officially on Friday afternoon, but that does not mean the divorce papers are off the table. Now the attempt at healing begins, but that just means a potential breakup is a little further off than some people thought it might be.

The two sides officially came to a deal on Friday with Harbaugh signing a five-year, $21 million extension that ties him to the football program through the 2025 season. The deal features a lower base salary of $4 million per season with incentives that could bump his pay up to around $8 million. The buyout is low at only $4 million after 2021 and is $1 million less each additional year through the end of the contract.

Much was made about the timeline of the decision and how Michigan allowed things to get this far without a resolution. That led to several click-driven theories and vague reports.

The longer the two sides went without a deal, the more it lent credence to the idea that the two sides might ultimately part ways. Many believed that if this negotiation dragged into the NFL’s coaching interview cycle that it meant Harbaugh was poking around for a return to the pro level.

What some of the generic NFL rumors left out this time around was the idea that Harbaugh’s salary was being slashed in half. Any attempt at procuring a better deal — and we’re told that there were some overtures made — was to better his negotiating stance with the university.

Whether you think he deserves to remain at Michigan or not, it is naive to think someone taking a 50 percent pay cut is not going to at least try to strengthen his side of the negotiation. There was merit to the NFL talk this time, but a team and a destination never materialized.

(Note: A league source informed MnB on Friday evening there were never serious discussions about Harbaugh for the Detroit Lions job.)

Harbaugh wanted his actions to speak for where he stood on returning to Michigan. He said on the record and on the recruiting trail he wanted to be back. Michigan told him if you want to come back, the terms that were laid out above was its proposal. NFL offers didn’t materialize, so the terms of the deal are what they are. There was little to negotiate, though they did go from a reported three years to five, which is ultimately irrelevant because the buyout is low.

This is where things get a little dumbfounding. I’ve written about how I believed it was time for the Harbaugh era to come to an end and my stance on that has not changed. This is not a five-year deal. This is a set of five one-year deals. This does not create the stability most extensions do and kicks the can down the road on having a tough decision on Harbaugh and his future.

Michigan was not willing to commit and put all of its eggs in the Harbaugh basket. Harbaugh sought answers on where he stood as an NFL candidate and came back with nothing. Is either side sure that it wants to keep doing this?

The optics of all of this suggest otherwise.

There are a lot of really tough decisions, big hires, and additions via the transfer portal to work out this offseason. Michigan bottomed out in 2020 and did not look competitive in most games it played. It then had the final three weeks of the season wiped out due to a COVID-19 outbreak to go along with whispers that the culture inside of that building is not all that great right now.

It is going to take a massive all-in effort to right this ship. Even with news of a deal being done, anyone who follows college football closely sees a situation that is only stable on paper. That will have an impact in bringing in the best people and players this offseason. One could argue it already has, as Michigan has gone off the board to reportedly hire a 33-year-old first-time defensive coordinator. That’s not to say Mike Macdonald won’t work, but it is far from a safe hire when things feel like they are teetering. But, we have to withhold judgment until we see the entire staff come together.

At the end of the day, this is Harbaugh’s mess. We want him to be able to hit home runs with every hire he makes, but there has been plenty of talk about betting on himself. He’ll have his fingerprints over more aspects of the team than the last few years and that means he will have to dig out of the hole that currently exists. Michigan is 11-10 in the last 21 games it has taken the field for, a run that was kicked off with the now-infamous 62-39 loss in Columbus in 2018.

If Harbaugh can’t fix it in 2021, he won’t be here. For the first time since he came home to coach his alma mater, he no longer sets the terms on what his future is. The only way out is to win. This is the first time he has faced serious, legitimate pressure from the administration and his future taken out of his own hands.

We might be right back here next year. To be frank, it feels more likely than not that we are. Six years is a long time for a coach, especially the further removed we get from the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Running a coaching search in a pandemic is far from ideal, so this buys Warde Manuel time and it will no doubt cost less to move on after next season if it comes to that. It’s disappointing and disheartening that we are even having that conversation.

If the argument is that this was a true bottoming out this year and there is nowhere to go but up from here, running it back with Harbaugh at half the price with a revamped staff might be worth rolling the dice on. It might even be a more financially prudent decision. But if the financial situation is what it is all about at the expense of positioning yourself to be competitive, that is pretty disappointing.

The decision is made and the lane has been picked. Harbaugh and his program should continue to be criticized and held accountable for falling short, but we have reached the point of the offseason where screaming about his status is irrelevant because this deal is done. It’s over. Time to move on.

Put the staff together, get the players ready for the fall and the actions and performances will speak for themselves when it’s time to make the decision.

But it’s understandably frustrating when the endpoint feels so clear.