Michigan football dodges disaster by keeping Jim Harbaugh; the ‘why’ doesn’t matter

Harbaugh returns to Michigan after first College Football Playoff appearance

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh gives encouragement to quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) before the true freshman takes his first career snap in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against Western Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (Tony Ding, The Associated Press 2021)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It doesn’t matter why Jim Harbaugh elected to return as the head coach of Michigan football. What matters is that a program with the momentum of a Big Ten title and playoff appearance avoided the inevitable attrition that comes with a coaching change.

Over the past month, Michigan quickly went from signing one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, participating on the sport’s grandest stage and poaching an excellent defensive line coach from Notre Dame to nearly losing the man who pieced that all together.

But with the reports that Harbaugh will return to Michigan for the long haul, the program seems to have dodged what would have been a damaging blow.

Building momentum

College football is all about momentum. Just look at Clemson. After decades of mediocrity, Dabo Swinney hoisted the Tigers over the hump in the early 2010s and parlayed that into elite recruiting classes, four national championship appearances and two titles.

Now, Clemson is one of the top programs in the sport, and it’s because Swinney capitalized on a rare opportunity to make the jump. Those chances don’t come along often, and even when they do, going from “very good” to “elite” is no guarantee.

That’s what separates the powerhouse programs -- Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia -- from the rest of the sport.

This year felt like Michigan’s first real chance to close the gap with that top tier. Not only did the Wolverines dominate Ohio State in a top-five matchup, they pulverized Iowa to win the conference and became just the third Big Ten team to make the playoff.

The aftermath was rewarding. Michigan closed on a number of elite recruits in the early signing period, including four-stars Derrick Moore, Darrius Clemons and Keon Sabb. The departure of Shaun Nua allowed the defensive staff to upgrade with Mike Elston.

A top-three finish, a great recruiting class, a manageable schedule and a talented roster returning for 2022? At the end of December, Michigan was sitting in a really, really good spot.

Harbaugh’s NFL courtship

Then, the Harbaugh rumors began to resurface. The last month has been a constant whirlwind of reports and counter-reports. First, he was linked to the Las Vegas Raiders. Then, the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants joined the fray. Finally, out of nowhere, the Minnesota Vikings sprang to the forefront.

At a time when Michigan should have been reaping the rewards of its accomplishments, coaching uncertainty became the all-consuming storyline. Fans were faced with the dark possibility that 2021 would be remembered as a peak, not a bridge to greener pastures.

No matter what anyone thinks of how Harbaugh handled the situation -- he’s certainly earned the right to choose his own path -- there’s no denying the impact this would have had on the program. The Wolverines, in essence, were held hostage by the NFL’s offseason clock, forced to wait before they could react.

Nobody believes it was Harbaugh’s intent to harm Michigan. It’s clear he loves the university where he played and coached.

But the harsh reality is that regardless of intent, Michigan football would have suffered from having to make such an untimely hire this late in the offseason.

Likely aftermath

Harbaugh’s departure almost certainly would have triggered transfers from both the 2022 class and the returning roster. The staff would have been in jeopardy -- some assistants leaving with Harbaugh and others considering programs with more stable coaching situations.

That’s just how college football works these days. Ask Oklahoma, a program that’s been to the playoff four times and hasn’t lost more than two games in eight years. Lincoln Riley’s departure still sparked an exodus from the Sooners’ roster.

On top of attrition, think about the timing. Michigan would have been searching for a head coach in February, months after the likes of USC, Oklahoma, Florida and others already picked through the best candidates.

Athletic director Warde Manuel might have been tempted to promote from within, elevating an assistant who almost surely isn’t ready to handle the job of head football coach at the University of Michigan. Or he could have chosen to scrape the bottom of the barrel with what’s left of the external coaching candidates.

A February coaching hire effectively would have been a roll of the dice, with Michigan hoping that person could keep the staff and roster together as much as possible.

Going forward

Michigan fans don’t need to be reminded of the seven seasons before Harbaugh arrived. Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke were disastrous hires that set the program back for years.

Wednesday night marked a pivotal moment for Michigan football. Maybe, just maybe, the right replacement could have kept the ball rolling, but there’s always a greater danger of the opposite -- Florida post-Urban Meyer, Texas after Mack Brown, USC without Pete Carroll.

It’s much more common for those types of coaching changes to set programs back than elevate them.

There are inherent disadvantages baked into the Michigan job. This isn’t one of the richest recruiting grounds in the nation. The university isn’t going to make academic concessions for the football program. Bending (and outright breaking) the written and unwritten rules of the sport won’t be accepted like it is at other schools, even if that’s what it might take to win.

Harbaugh has a strong understanding of how to navigate those roadblocks, something that would have been much more difficult for a new coach.

He said after the Ohio State win that this was “just the beginning” for Michigan football.

The beginning of what, exactly? Now, we’ll actually get a chance to find out.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.