Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh new deal removes facade that has been crumbling for years

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Rainer Sabin, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read
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When Jim Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor in December 2014 to restore his alma mater’s decaying football program, many believed he embodied the lyrics of the university’s famous fight song.

He was a victor, a conquering hero, a leader and certainly among the best in his profession.

At his introductory news conference, a reporter revealed to Harbaugh that others had called him a savior, and yes, even a messiah.

[ Harbaugh extension: Michigan finally acknowledges it's nowhere near elite ]

But more than six years later, the Michigan football coach is seen as something else entirely.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh at the Citrus Bowl vs. Alabama, Jan. 1, 2020 in Orlando.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh at the Citrus Bowl vs. Alabama, Jan. 1, 2020 in Orlando.

He’s a disappointment, a fallen star, a flawed manager and a man no longer among the vanguard in his field.

The decline of Harbaugh’s status has been protracted and bizarre — much like the contract imbroglio that finally ended after months and months of speculation when he signed a new five-year deal Friday that nearly halved his base compensation and slashed Michigan’s buyout costs.

With one stroke of the pen, Harbaugh conceded defeat once again. A man who is 11-10 in his last 21 games agreed to terms favoring a school that appears to have lost some measure of faith in him.

[ Harbaugh is Michigan's version of John Cooper. That is a shame ]

Michigan won’t admit that publicly, and athletic director Warde Manuel even disputed that notion in a statement.

“I continue to believe that Jim is the right man to lead our program in pursuit of Big Ten and CFP championships,” Manuel said.

But the reality is Harbaugh hasn’t led the Wolverines to any titles in the previous six years and the program has gradually deteriorated after it peaked under his watch near the end of 2016. During the downturn that has unfolded ever since, Michigan has weathered significant staff turnover and a stream of defections that have destabilized the foundation of what Harbaugh was building.

At the same time, a disorganized approach to recruiting has impeded the Wolverines’ efforts to restock a roster depleted by transfers and early departures to the NFL. The cumulative effect of these problems materialized this past season, when the Wolverines either appeared outmanned or outwitted in losses to Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin and Penn State.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh walks away after finishing up his first Michigan signing day press conference at Schembechler Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh walks away after finishing up his first Michigan signing day press conference at Schembechler Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015.

Before this season, when Harbaugh was marching through the streets of Ann Arbor and campaigning to play the games, he exuded the same cockiness that has long defined his persona. He paid no attention to the critics, believing he set Michigan on the right course. But at that point his main detractors were on the outside, needling him from afar. These days, the discontent has grown louder from those close to the program andoversaturating Wolverines’ message boards where fans grouse about the state of their beloved team.

[ Why Michigan is smart for extending Harbaugh's contract ]

“There is work to be done and challenges to be addressed,” Harbaugh acknowledged in a released statement Friday. “These challenges are being addressed as we continue to strive for excellence in the classroom and championships on the field, a message that I hope is noted in the language of our agreed-upon contract.”

The details of the incentive-rich agreement are indeed revealing, telling a story with numbers that subtly unveils Harbaugh’s inadequacies — the 0-5 record against archrival Ohio State that has prevented him from winning the Big Ten East, the 1-4 postseason mark that remains an albatross and the abiding inability to distinguish himself among his peers that can’t be ignored.

If Harbaugh were to somehow beat the Buckeyes, win the conference, qualify for the College Football Playoff, claim a national championship and be named the Coach of the Year, he would once again become one of the highest-paid men in college football.

More to the point, he would transform into the version of Harbaugh that Michigan’s faithful thought they were getting when he came back to Ann Arbor more than six years ago.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines reacts in the second half while playing the Penn State Nittany Lions at Michigan Stadium on Nov. 28, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines reacts in the second half while playing the Penn State Nittany Lions at Michigan Stadium on Nov. 28, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Once again, he would be viewed as the victor, the conquering hero, the savior and the messiah.

But at U-M, Harbaugh hasn’t shown he is that guy.

Instead, he’s just another decent coach trying to win some games and give his program a fighting chance.

The contract he signed Friday reflects Harbaugh as he is right now: a mere mortal trying to rebound from the disappointment of the last six years against all odds.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Jim Harbaugh's contract finally unmasks the Michigan football coach