Free Press sports writers Orion Sang and Rainer Sabin break down Michigan football’s current situation:
Sang: We should be talking about ‘The Game’ right now … but these are not normal times in Ann Arbor. For the first time in over 100 years, Michigan and Ohio State will not be playing. That still feels weird to say.
Sabin: It’s definitely strange. This whole season has been peculiar from Michigan’s standpoint, and it’s been off beat from the very beginning. In some ways, though, it was predictable, in the sense that the coronavirus pandemic was expected to get worse around this time and keeping Ohio State-Michigan at the end of the season endangered the possibility that “The Game” would actually be played.
Sang: I think the most disappointing part of all of this is that it could’ve been played earlier in the season. But it wasn’t, and now here we are. This has been a surreal week for Michigan: Obviously, one of the bigger headlines was the cancellation of the Ohio State game, but we are also less than a week from the beginning of the early signing period and there has still been no clarification of Jim Harbaugh’s contract status.
Sabin: It’s another bizarre element in this season. It seemed strange that a contract extension wasn’t worked out months ago. Harbaugh entered the first game as the only Power Five football coach with less than two years left on his contract, which is due to expire three days after 2021's final game. That he isn’t locked in beyond next year creates a lot of uncertainty for recruits, as well as coaches who may consider joining Harbaugh’s staff, if he decides to make some changes there. This really needs to be resolved, given the timing of everything.
Sang: I don’t think anyone could have anticipated this dragging out so long. Theoretically, this should impact Michigan’s ability to retain commitments in the 2021 class. We’ve seen some potential movement already, as four-star receiver Xavier Worthy — the third highest-ranked prospect in U-M’s class — visited Alabama for the Iron Bowl and is now set to make a final decision between the Wolverines and Crimson Tide on Dec. 16. I think the most surprising thing, though, is that there aren’t really other recruits who are publicly wavering about their pledge. We’ve seen several commitments reaffirm their commitment to Michigan on social media. Nothing is for certain until pen meets paper, but even with all the uncertainty, the Wolverines’ recruiting class remains intact.
Sabin: I wonder if some of Michigan’s commitments will wait until National Signing Day in February, if Harbaugh’s future hasn’t been determined by early next week. That would give those recruits time to assess the situation in Ann Arbor. I found it strange that athletic director Warde Manuel was adamant about waiting until after the season to visit with Harbaugh about his status. If there were plans to finalize an extension, it would make sense to do so and announce the terms before the early signing period. At the same time, if the plan is to move on from Harbaugh, it wouldn’t be fair to the class of prospects to announce that decision after they sign.
Sang: I wasn’t sure what to make of Wednesday’s presser. Our colleague, David Jesse, reported this week that Manuel and Harbaugh have spoken recently about an extension, and Manuel acknowledged he and Harbaugh speak all the time — this isn’t a situation where the two are simply putting off a much-needed conversation. At the same time, if this concludes with an extension, then there will have been no reason to wait this long. The longer this goes on, the more ammo other teams have — and, as you mentioned, it would be no surprise if some recruits who were previously solid decide to wait past the early signing period to assess their options.
If this is leading to a parting of the ways down the road, there’s nothing that Michigan can do to salvage the recruiting class, anyway. The Wolverines’ two worst recruiting classes of the modern recruiting rankings era were the 2015 class — which featured the transition to Harbaugh in late December 2014 — and the 2011 class — which was the transition class between Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. If there is a coaching change, things will get ugly. That is the nature of these things. But if there isn’t a change, we will look back and wonder why Michigan hurt itself with all the uncertainty. And it will have made Harbaugh’s job harder.
Sabin: And that would be a shame because this roster needs an infusion of talent. I think that was one of the revelations this season. Decreased depth and and the absence of playmakers were big reasons why Michigan has sputtered to a 2-4 record while suffering losses that were embarrassing and historic. It’s all about recruiting in college football, and programs that don’t consistently reel in top-end talent will quickly fall behind, which is what seems to be happening at Michigan. In a lot of ways, it can’t afford to miss out on the next batch of good prospects because of uncertainty surrounding the leadership of the program.
Sang: All eyes will be on Harbaugh’s situation as we enter the next few days. Worthy will announce his final college choice on Wednesday, as will four-star West Bloomfield running back Donovan Edwards. Worthy and Edwards are the type of difference-makers that Michigan needs. I guess we’ll see whether all of this uncertainty will cost the Wolverines in both recruitments — and in more.
Sabin: This weekend could still have some suspense, filling the void created by the cancellation of the Michigan-Ohio State game. Stay tuned.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football hurting recruiting with Jim Harbaugh contract limbo