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Jim Harbaugh donating bonuses is refreshing compared to Brian Kelly, Lincoln Riley abruptly leaving for big paydays

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Actions matter. Words matter. And this is where Harbaugh has succeeded the most during his tenure at Michigan.

Notre Dame v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Jim Harbaugh and his wife Sarah have decided to do a stand-up thing with his incentive money — they won’t be keeping it.

“Sarah and I were talking about it last night, we decided that any bonus money that I am to receive through this season will be redirected to reimburse U-M athletic department employees who have stayed while taking a voluntarily or mandatory pay reduction during the last 18 months during the pandemic,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh took a pay decrease of about 50% this off-season compared to his last contract, a move not often seen from a coach as established as Harbaugh. However, egos didn’t get in the way and Harbaugh and Michigan got a deal done. Harbaugh’s new contract became incentive-heavy, and he’s already cashed in on some of those parameters — Harbaugh earned $500,000 for Michigan winning the Big Ten East outright, and he can earn $1 million winning the Big Ten championship, $500,000 for winning the College Football Playoff semifinals, and $1 million for winning the National Championship. The more Michigan accomplishes this season, the more money the athletic department staffers will receive.

Elsewhere in the college football landscape are two high profile, big time coaches at big programs who didn’t do right by their players or their staff — their exits shocked many in the orbits of South Bend, Indiana and Norman, Oklahoma.

Harbaugh says when you compare one thing to another, someone usually gets diminished — this is true. And that’s precisely what I’m about to do here.

Oklahoma will be dealing with the fallout of Lincoln Riley leaving for USC for quite some time — they’re already losing top recruits, including their top four ranked recruits from the 2022 and 2023 classes. Riley is taking a good chunk of his staff with him, the private jet departed in the early morning hours on Monday.

It’s hard to fault Riley, he’s going to make over $100 million at USC with some more favorable terms yet to be officially disclosed. However, it’s the way in which he left, a manner that angered the Oklahoma locker room and administrators. A day before Riley took the USC job he told reporters “I’m not going to be the next coach at LSU” while knowing he would indeed be leaving Oklahoma nonetheless. It’s simple, he took the money and ran. It’s his life, his choice, but those choices have ripple effects, impact other people who are high and low on the totem pole.

The same thing happened at Notre Dame. Last week Brian Kelly told reporters there’s basically no way he’d leave the Fighting Irish. “I think Mike Tomlin had the best line — unless that fairy godmother comes by with that $250 million check, my wife would want to take a look at it first,” Kelly said. “I’d have to run it by her.”

A week later Kelly is gone and players, staff, and the athletic department are all shocked. Kelly took that check, one that will reportedly pay him $100 and change over ten years. Kelly didn’t meet with his players before the news leaked (the same as Riley), instead texting them that his love for them is limitless. Love has a price, it seems. The Athletic’s Matt Fortuna reported that Kelly didn’t notify staff or players of his intentions, instead opting to ‘ghost them’. They all found out on Twitter. One Notre Dame assistant’s explanation to Fortuna says it all. “The news broke when I walked out of the house, so I look like a f----- a—hole,” the coach said. Recruiting at Notre Dame will take a hit, the same way Oklahoma’s will as well — the same way Florida State’s did when Jimbo Fisher jetted for Texas A&M.

On December 1st of 2017 I wrote the article “Michigan’s fortunate stability as Florida State and Tennessee implode”. Ever since Jim Harbaugh arrived on campus in Ann Arbor to become Michigan’s head coach he’s been linked to more than a dozen NFL head coaching vacancies. It’s something that comes up every off-season. ‘

Harbaugh addressed these types of rumors in an informal letter to parents back in 2019, and his words remain tried and true to this day.

  • “I am reaching out to let you know that the recent claims that I am “pursuing an exit strategy” are total crap. It’s an annual strategy driven by our enemies to cause disruption to our program and to negatively recruit.”
  • “I am committed to your sons, to their education and to their development as football players and people.”

Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan has had its ups and downs, with no greater high to this point than last Saturday’s win over Ohio State — but what’s remained steady is his loyalty to players, staff, and recruits. The fact that he took a pay cut and stuck around, the fact that he is giving all of his incentive money to those who could use it more than him — those facts are nothing short of fascinating.

Harbaugh once used a Sir Walter Scott quote that I think is fitting in this editorial — “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!”

No deception from Harbaugh. He loves Michigan, he just beat Ohio State, and money isn’t what drives him or becomes the deciding factor in his decision making. Unconventional, sure. Unorthodox, yes. It’s refreshing to see a coach donate money to people who deserve it after these folks took mandatory and voluntary paycuts because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Friends and foes of the Michigan program should be tipping their cap to Jim Harbaugh.

For Harbaugh and his wife, though — the donation is just an act of goodwill, they aren’t looking for pats on the back. “Really just our family contribution to those who have had some financial strain through the last 18 months,” Harbaugh said.