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Free Press sports writers Orion Sang and Rainer Sabin break down what could come next for Michigan football during a tumultuous season:
Sang: This is an uncertain time for Michigan football. The Wolverines are in the midst of a three-game losing streak and just took a historic beatdown at the hands of Wisconsin last weekend. The on-field product is greatly diminished. Meanwhile, coach Jim Harbaugh still has only one year left on his contract. It feels like things are approaching a tipping point in Ann Arbor here — if they haven’t already.
Sabin: The program does appear to be at a crossroads and there is a feeling it could go down the wrong path if the leadership doesn’t act in some capacity. Michigan is on a downswing and there are problems with recruiting, development, performance and even culture. Many wonder what the Wolverines’ identity is right now. And I’m not sure Jim Harbaugh can provide an answer, which is alarming.
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Sang: Let’s debate this, then. Do we think there should be a coaching change? A large portion of the fanbase has been clamoring for one. And there are still four weeks left in the season, which could change this situation. But as it stands, I think it is in Michigan’s best interests to run it back with Harbaugh. I think it would be premature to blow this whole thing up and start anew, and I think, based on his previous track record, he should get at least one more chance to turn this around — and that this weird COVID-19 season shouldn’t dictate whether he stays or goes.
Sabin: While I think the issues go far beyond COVID with Michigan, I am not totally convinced Michigan should dump Harbaugh. Getting rid of a coach won’t necessarily fix the Wolverines’ problems, and that’s especially true if the administration hasn’t identified a capable replacement. The Wolverines could easily find themselves back where they were at the end of 2007 — before Rich Rodriguez came aboard. It was clear there were factions within Michigan and its network of stakeholders that wouldn’t support an outsider — dooming his regime before it ever really launched. This is a tricky situation because, while Harbaugh’s program appears to be trending in the wrong direction, it would be foolish to get rid of him if there isn’t a better alternative or a succession plan that makes sense.
Sang: Big-time football programs have become increasingly impatient with coaches in recent years, and I just don’t agree with that strategy. Notre Dame could have canned Brian Kelly after a 4-8 season in 2016. Instead, the Fighting Irish gave him a chance to rebound — and they have gone 41-6 since, with this season’s team poised to make the CFP. Meanwhile, look at Texas and Florida State, which gave Charlie Strong and Willie Taggart a combined five years before moving on. Those two blue-blood programs have since learned that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side. Aside from this disastrous season, the Wolverines have been relatively stable under Harbaugh. Have they won a Big Ten title, beaten Ohio State or reached the playoff? No. But they haven’t been as bad as Texas and Florida State, either. Simply being good, I think, is somewhat underrated in this day and age. Every team wants to be elite — but if you don’t play your cards right, you could find yourself even worse off than before.
Sabin: True. But I don’t think the situations at Notre Dame, Texas and Florida State are analogous to what Michigan is facing right now. Kelly took Notre Dame to a BCS title game in this third season, so there was evidence he could win at a championship level. Strong and Taggart followed coaches who had won national titles and took their programs to the pinnacle of the sport. So, the expectations were very high at each of those traditional powers. Harbaugh came in to repair Michigan’s brand, which he did. But he hasn’t achieved greatness. The question boils down to this: What does Michigan want to be?
Sang: I think Michigan — and all those programs we’ve mentioned — want to compete for national titles. And I think the Wolverines envisioned Harbaugh could be that type of coach, and he hasn’t been. At the same time, if Michigan moved on from Harbaugh, would it find a candidate close to as qualified as Harbaugh was when he accepted the job in 2014? And would that hypothetical candidate elevate the Wolverines to a level where they compete with Ohio State? Because if you make a change, you’d have to believe in your ability to unearth that type of successor. Harbaugh has already resurrected this program and placed Michigan solidly in the tier of programs that are just outside of college football’s elite.
Sabin: The elephant in the room is Ohio State. The gap between the Wolverines and Buckeyes appears to grow wider by the month. Ohio State is dominating recruiting, stockpiling talent that frankly overwhelms Michigan. The chasm that has developed has become greater on Harbaugh’s watch. Does he have it in him to close it? How does he plan to go about it? If I were Warde Manuel, I’d want firm answers from Harbaugh before deciding his fate. If Harbaugh can provide good answers, then I’d consider giving him another chance. But Michigan can’t afford to allow Ohio State to build on its lead in this race.
Sang: I think a lot could depend on the next few weeks, too. Michigan has been outplayed and out-coached in the past three games. If Harbaugh is able to jolt this team to life and win a few games down the stretch, that could help him on the recruiting trail. If the Wolverines continue to play uninspired football, there will only be more questions. Either way, Michigan basically has two options at the end of this season: Retain Harbaugh by signing him to an extension, or move on. Both parties can’t afford to enter next season with Harbaugh coaching on his current deal. It would completely crater recruiting and, in the case that there was a change after next season, just make the situation even more difficult for the next coach.
Sabin: Agreed. Timing is everything in college football and that’s especially with a coaching change. Michigan has to proceed cautiously while juggling a lot of pins because of the predicament it created for itself with Harbaugh’s dangling contract situation. This is why guys like Manuel get paid the big bucks. They get paid to steer the program toward a better place.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football: Who could replace Jim Harbaugh as coach?