ALTERNATE UNIVERSE POST: Michigan After Jim Harbaugh Can Be Almost Anything
Warde Manuel's hiring process would've told us whether Michigan is truly serious about being an elite football program.
JIM HARBAUGH DIDN’T LEAVE, OBVIOUSLY. INSTEAD, WE GOT THIS.
BUT I ALREADY WROTE THIS.
In the spirit of this week’s podcast, I’m gonna let y’all in on the alternate universe in which reports of Jim Harbaugh leaving for the Minnesota Vikings were, in fact, correct.
Also, to celebrate not having to go through an off-cycle coaching search, new subscribers to the site will get 20% off for a year for both the monthly and annual plans. I’ll have a football mailbag that’s more in line with the current reality posted soon.
Another year, another fork in the road.
Last offseason, athletic director Warde Manuel reworked Jim Harbaugh’s contract and had him overhaul his coaching staff after an ugly 2-4 season put him squarely on the hot seat. This offseason, Harbaugh will reportedly leave for the Minnesota Vikings after taking Michigan to its first-ever College Football Playoff appearance.
Whether or not Harbaugh was upset by Manuel restructuring his deal, it’d only make sense that he’d consider a future beyond Michigan regardless of how the 2021 season went. After all, Michigan was clearly considering a future beyond Harbaugh.
Manuel should be prepared for this moment. Last offseason’s détente was a short-term solution; if Harbaugh performed poorly, he’d be fired, and if he did well, Michigan would need to redo his contract again while fighting off renewed interest from the NFL. While Harbaugh has made his love for U-M apparent, he’s on the record from early in his coaching career saying his ultimate ambition lies elsewhere:
"I've always said my dream is to coach an NFL team to the Super Bowl," he said.
Harbaugh rescued the program from the depths of the Brady Hoke era. While it took longer than anyone hoped or expected, he broke Ohio State’s winning streak and won a Big Ten title. He leaves the team in much better shape than the one he inherited.
Where the program goes from here depends not just on what Manuel values in a football coach but in a Michigan Football Coach. The distinction between the two, if there is much of one, will determine the success of the next tenure.
Warde Manuel is a Michigan Man™. He played defensive tackle for the Wolverines from 1986-89 under Bo Schembechler, returned to U-M to get his master’s and MBA, and spent a decade in the athletic department before his first AD gig in Buffalo.
Michigan athletics, and particularly the football program, has long considered the Michigan Man™ factor to be paramount in hiring coaches. They’ve also twisted the definition since the origin of the phrase, when Schembechler said “a Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man” while dismissing basketball coach Bill Frieder, who’d agreed to leave for ASU after the 1988-89 season.
Steve Fisher famously took over as interim coach and won the national championship, earning the full-time job that he’d hold until the Ed Martin scandal came to light in 1997. Fisher’s only connection to U-M was that he’d been Frieder’s top assistant. In the time since, “Michigan Man™” has come to mean a person with deep ties to the school, particularly as a former coach or athlete.
Despite Schembechler’s disgraceful role in the Robert Anderson scandal, the department has taken the twisting of his words to heart. The football program has departed from Michigan’s coaching tree only once since Schembechler — a Miami (OH) and Ohio State man before he came to Ann Arbor, it should be noted.
The outlier, Rich Rodriguez, was treated as an unwelcome outsider by much of the old guard. He faced obstacles to fielding a good team, such as U-M not ponying up a relatively paltry sum for Rodriguez to bring along his preferred defensive coordinator. When he failed, U-M overcorrected course and negotiated against themselves to hire Brady Hoke, the defensive line coach of the 1997 title team.
Manuel, meanwhile, has made two major hires since coming back to Ann Arbor. When legendary hockey coach Red Berenson retired, he brought back Mel Pearson, who’d been Berenson’s longtime top assistant in Ann Arbor before a successful tenure leading Michigan Tech. Faced with the sudden departure of John Beilein, Manuel used the draw of the alma mater to lure Fab Fiver Juwan Howard to the college ranks.
Those hires were both preordained to a certain extent. Pearson had long been expected to follow Berenson and the unusual timing of Beilein’s departure left Manuel with limited choices for men’s basketball. In those circumstances, it made sense to hire people already familiar with the school.
A change this long after most college coach openings have been filled may again limit the pool of candidates. That said, how Manuel approaches this search, the institutional support given to the new coach, and the freedom the program is given to operate will be instructive regardless of the actual hire.
In news so bad it’s good, the Schembechler/Moeller/Carr coaching tree is so barren that a Hoke redux is exceedingly unlikely. Michigan would be better off hiring Literally Brady Hoke Again than Scot Loeffler or Nick Sheridan.
There are two internal promotion candidates who’ve been rumored to be under serious consideration. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis would seem like the obvious choice if that’s the route after winning the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant. It’s rare for a Broyles winner to not take a head job soon thereafter; recent success stories include Gus Malzahn, Kirby Smart, and Lincoln Riley.
Running backs coach — and, yes, former record-setting U-M running back — Mike Hart is the other. While he’s never been a coordinator, he had an associate head coach title his last couple years at Indiana, and there’s some precedent for skipping from longtime position coach to head coach. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney is the canonical example of such a move working out.
Either one could work out. What I want to see from Manuel, though, is the ambition to take some home run shots first. Baylor’s Dave Aranda is a highly regarded young defensive mastermind who just performed an impressive one-year turnaround and is familiar with the conference.
Matt Campbell is an Ohio guy who’s still easily the most successful Iowa State coach since World War I despite falling short of lofty expectations in 2021. Even if Aranda, in particular, is a longshot, Michigan is a program that should be taking those shots.
We won’t be able to judge other important aspects of this coaching search for a while. Concerns about taking full advantage of Name, Image, and Likeness rules, among other issues of institutional support, repeatedly arose during this latest Harbaugh news cycle.
A godfather offer could move someone like Aranda who may not otherwise seriously consider Michigan. I’m concerned the school may find such an offer uncouth even though it’s absolutely affordable for a program with this much revenue and booster support.
This is a school that’s long been hung up on optics, often to its detriment. There’s a great thirst for success in both the athletic department and the fanbase that’s at odds with the fashion many people in both camps want the program to run.
I’m ready to hear that JJ McCarthy is enrolled only in online classes and lives in an apartment adjacent to the practice field while earning seven figures to rep the TB12 brand. I’m not sure that’s what Manuel or even many fans want. If they don’t, they’d better get used to losing the vast majority of Ohio State games.
If the athletic department and university leaders are too concerned with acting The Michigan Way instead of fielding the best football team, the next hire won’t matter much. The program will underperform relative to its potential, just as it has for the majority of the post-Schembechler years.