Rob Oller: Oh, brother, is Michigan in tight spot with Jim Harbaugh

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Coach Jim Harbaugh has a .690 winning percentage at Michigan, but he is 0-5 against Ohio State and his Wolverines are 2-4 this season.

By now it should be obvious that Buckeye Nation has an obsession with Jim Harbaugh

Expanding on that, Ohio State fans — and media, to be honest — can’t get enough of anything pertaining to Michigan football coaches. Amending it further, specifically we are talking about UM coaches who couldn’t spell “win” against OSU even when spotting them the W, I and N. 

Harbaugh fits the bill. He is 0-5 against the Buckeyes and likely would have been 0-6 had COVID-19 not interfered with Ohio State supremacy. The virus did on Saturday what Captain Khaki could not, keep the Buckeyes from winning The Game. At least 40 Michigan players would not have been available because of either a positive COVID test, contact tracing or injury.

Harbaugh does not, however, foot the bill. That financial drain falls to the university, and oh, brother, are the Wolverines in a tight spot.

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said last week he and Harbaugh would meet after the season to discuss the coach’s contract — whether to extend it, buy it out or let it ride through its current 2021 end date. The Wolverines’ season concludes Dec. 19, three days after national signing day. That is a problem, as writer John U. Bacon pointed out Friday in an essay critical of the athletic department.

“By delaying the (Harbaugh) decision, Michigan will force a couple dozen high school students to make one of the most important decisions of their lives without knowing who their head coach will be,” Bacon wrote for Michigan Radio’s website. He concluded: “That is not the Michigan I know.”

Bacon’s finger wag is especially potent because he is a friend of the UM program, having written multiple books on Michigan football. But he also bares fangs when necessary.

Manuel stepped in to stem the speculative bleeding only after The Detroit Free Press reported on Monday that Michigan was prepared to extend Harbaugh, but at a lower base than his current salary and at a lower buyout figure, making it easier to fire him next year if needed.

Michigan’s dilemma is that cleaning house in the coming weeks by buying out Harbaugh and his staff for about $11 million is a bad look in light of the pandemic-related layoffs of 25 UM athletic employees. But allowing him to coach as a lame duck through 2021 would further cripple recruiting that already has tailed off.

Reports indicate the Wolverines are willing to extend Harbaugh up to three more years, but that means keeping a coaching liability who is 2-4 this season, including the first loss to Indiana in 33 years and a lopsided home loss to Wisconsin in which Michigan trailed 28-0 at halftime, its worst first-half showing in stadium history.

The best-case scenario for everyone except Ohio State fans is for Harbaugh to return to the NFL, where according to Bacon at least five teams have expressed interest, though it is unclear if firm offers have been made.

The hand-wringing up north makes for great theater south of the border, but it’s not like Harbaugh pioneered popcorn-eating entertainment among Ohio State fans. The beat goes on as the Buckeyes continue to beat the gold pants off the Wolverines.  

It wasn’t always that way. Michigan coaches Gary Moeller, who played at Ohio State (1959-62), and Lloyd Carr, who despised but respected the Buckeyes, were of little interest south of Sylvania prior to 2001. The pair went 8-2-1 against John Cooper’s Buckeyes, making Coop the most popular coach in Ann Arbor.

Moeller only became a juicy topic of scarlet and gray conversation when he got fired in 1995 after getting arrested for disorderly conduct at a Michigan restaurant. Carr only became the butt of jokes at the arrival of Jim Tressel in 2001, upon which he was renamed LLLLLLoyd. 

But Harbaugh, Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez? That’s gold, Jerry, gold. And with each new hire the precious metal increased in comic value. RichRod was a bad fit, a Southerner who never connected with Michigan’s wine and cheese crowd (ask Cooper how his own Southern roots initially played in Columbus) and whose more creative offense went against UM conservatism. Of course it did not help that the native West Virginian went 15-22 overall and 0-3 against Ohio State in three seasons.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh plays catch before the game against Michigan State on Oct. 31 at Michigan Stadium.

Hoke reached his pinnacle in 2011, when UM finished 11-2 with a win over the Buckeyes. After that it went downhill fast as the Wolverines went 20-18 with three consecutive losses to OSU over the next three seasons. 

Harbaugh’s overall winning percentage of .690 trumps that of Hoke (.608) and Rodriguez (.405), but his tenure is even more underwhelming when considering he was hailed as a Michigan Man savior when he arrived in 2015. 

It is a head-scratcher how Harbaugh has underperformed, not just in his record but in restoring the maize and blue to a place of relevance. Mostly, that has to do with his inability to overcome the Buckeyes, but 2020 illustrates how far the program has fallen. 

How much deeper it can drop, and will Harbaugh be along for the ride? A conundrum for sure. Force him out and pay up. Keep him and pay for it on the field. It is fascinating to follow. Pass the popcorn.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD