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Harbaugh's new contract adds some sanity to college football

John U. Bacon

After weeks of waiting, University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and athletic director Warde Manuel finally agreed to extend Harbaugh’s contract through 2025.

There are no polls tracking fan reaction, but it’s clear Michigan fans don’t feel the same way they did six years ago, when Harbaugh surprised the sporting world by returning to coach his alma mater.

Back then, fans regarded Harbaugh as the savior who would return the Wolverines to the promised land, and he started delivering immediately. His first Michigan team won ten games, twice as many as the year before, portending great things to come.

Off the field, Harbaugh’s players were even better. They consistently finished in the top five academically, stayed out of trouble, and did it all without a hint of scandal. But the media doesn’t care about those things. 

Harbaugh’s second team was one play away from beating Ohio State, winning its division, and going to the Big Ten Title Game, but lost in double overtime. That has been the high point so far.  

It’s hard to know how much weight to give the COVID-shortened 2020 season, but it’s impossible to spin Michigan’s 2-and-4 record, including Michigan’s first loss to Indiana in 33 years. If fans were allowed to attend, you would have heard lots of booing.

Then the waiting began. Would Harbaugh jump to the NFL, or stay at Michigan? Would Michigan want him, or prefer shopping for the Next Thing?

Near as we can tell, Harbaugh never received an NFL offer. Michigan, however, could have hired a number of serious candidates who privately expressed interest. It might have been easier for Harbaugh to turn around Brady Hoke’s underachieving program than it will be for Harbaugh to turn his own program around.

Also, Michigan’s margin of error has shrunk. Thanks to COVID, the athletic department will lose a staggering $100 million dollars this fiscal year. Michigan’s season ticket holders don’t have the patience they had six years ago, either, and aren’t likely to buy up all the stadium’s luxury suites, club seating, and standard season tickets. It’s a bad time to be in a slump.

For all these reasons, the athletic director crafted a contract that actually made sense – rare in college football. He cut Harbaugh’s salary from $8 million a year to $4 million, with incentives to make up the difference if Harbaugh beats Ohio State, wins the Big Ten, and takes the national title.

More significantly, Michigan cut way back on the buy-out – what the school would have to pay Harbaugh if it fired him. Of all the crazy aspects of big-time college sports, the buy-out boom is the craziest. Paying a coach millions of dollars to do his job is one thing, but paying him millions of dollars after he failed to do it is quite another.

A couple years ago I wrote that this insanity has got to stop, and Manuel might be the first big time athletic director to stop it.

Whether Harbaugh, who never coached longer than four years at his previous stops, can rebuild his own program remains to be seen. He is often at his best when his back is against the wall, he loves to prove his doubters wrong, and he has a long history of doing so. That might well be the case here.

But whatever happens, college football just took a small step toward sanity.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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