This is not going to be a popular opinion among those looking for a scapegoat following Jim Harbaugh’s departure from Michigan football, but it needs to be said.
Jim Harbaugh told The Detroit News’ Angelique Chengelis that “there is no villain” in Ann Arbor when it comes to his leaving for the NFL. Yet, all of the ire has continued to target athletic director Warde Manuel. That’s simple, but in my view misguided.
When Harbaugh was hired in December 2014, if you had told any Michigan football fan that he’d be around for nine years and his tenure would culminate in a national championship, with three straight Big Ten Championships and concurrent wins over rival Ohio State, every single fan of the maize and blue would have taken it and wished him well, regardless of the subsequent staff plunder.
You see, this is uncharted territory for the Wolverines. In the modern era of college football, never has the program’s head coach departed of his own accord for another job. Thus, the image of Michigan as a destination job has been shattered somewhat.
But Harbaugh was going to leave — he strongly covets a Super Bowl win, and that’s becoming more evident as the days pass.
Not only did Harbaugh flirt with the NFL for three straight years, but he also departed for those same professional ranks. On Sunday, he appeared on CBS Sports and told you exactly why he left:
“I love Michigan, but I love the NFL, too,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no Lombardi Trophy in college football.”
No matter what Manuel could have offered Harbaugh, there was no matching that — figuratively, nor literally. You can argue that he could have been more proactive, but it isn’t solely up to the athletic director to meet the terms Harbaugh was asking for when it came to his contractual demands. Those goalposts kept shifting as time went on, and Harbaugh was intent on testing the NFL waters — again, obvious due to his objections to not seeking an NFL job this cycle, further evidenced by his desire to have a potential new contract start after this NFL carousel had concluded.
Since last week, we’ve seen other departures: defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. The chances of Michigan retaining Minter, regardless of Harbaugh staying or going, were slim.
Herbert leaving isn’t as cut and dried. The Wolverines hoped to retain him and all signs pointed to that being the case. But, again, Michigan usually doesn’t have to compete against the person who hired a staff member for his retention, and the NFL is — no matter a fan’s perception — a step up in terms of career advancement. As Maize & Blue Review’s Josh Henschke and Trevor McCue point out, when Harbaugh left Stanford for the San Francisco 49ers, he took defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and strength and conditioning coach Kevin Tolbert with him. It stands to reason that in his attempt to win the Lombardi Trophy, Harbaugh would want to continue to roll with as much of the staff that helped him succeed at the college level, and it’s hard for the Wolverines to compete with that — monetarily or even personally.
Herbert’s career was rejuvenated when he came to Ann Arbor from Arkansas. His career was marred by the lack of success under Bret Bielema in his SEC tenure, and in Ann Arbor, he had not only a resurgence, but he found himself nationally celebrated. That’s rare for a college strength and conditioning coach. So then the question becomes: To whom does Herbert’s loyalty lie? To Michigan or to the man who brought him there? And if we learn he got a pay raise beyond having reportedly been the top-paid strength coach at the college level, then the rest makes sense.
At this juncture, the Sherrone Moore staff has not been set. There have been no announcements of retained coaches and the tug-of-war between Michigan and Harbaugh continues. These are certainly losses, make no mistake about it, but to blame Manuel for Harbaugh’s plunder is misguided, in our opinion.
These may be unprecedented waters for this university, but it’s par for the course in football — coaches tend to take the staff they hired when they move jobs, and there’s very little an administrator can do to change that.
Certainly, if you’re a Michigan fan, it makes sense if you have problems with Manuel. The Juwan Howard hire is looking worse as his tenure goes on. However, John Beilein’s departure for the NBA was similar to Harbaugh’s for the NFL: They had higher machinations from a career standpoint.
But Moore was the right hire for Michigan in this instance, and though there appears to be less continuity than hoped for among the staff, there is still continuity. It’s still Michigan’s best chance at pushing forward with a vision that helped the Wolverines win a national championship. When Harbaugh left Stanford, he plundered the staff pretty thoroughly, yet the Cardinal kept winning under his protege, David Shaw. Shaw led Stanford to six top 25 finishes in the seven years following Harbaugh’s departure including three top 10 finishes and one in the top five. He had three Pac-12 titles in the first five years, to boot.
So let Moore figure it out. It’s on him to recruit his staff, whether they’ve been part of Harbaugh’s crew or not. But when it comes to blaming anyone for staff members who leave to be part of Harbaugh’s NFL staff, that blame belongs more to Harbaugh than to Manuel. Even then, the Wolverines’ situation may still be just fine.