Why ditching Bo's Big Ten dream could be Jim Harbaugh's goal under new CFP plan

Rainer Sabin
Detroit Free Press

The contract Jim Harbaugh signed in January to continue his tenure as Michigan football’s coach was a tacit indictment of his performance. His base salary was slashed in half, the university’s buyout obligation was significantly reduced and the deal was loaded with incentives for goals he has yet to achieve.

Under the terms, Harbaugh would receive $500,000 for a semifinal invitation to the College Football Playoff and another $1 million for winning a national championship.

At the time the deal was consummated, both bonuses seemed unattainable with the Wolverines in decline and Big Ten division nemesis Ohio State as mighty as ever.

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Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh celebrates during the second half against Notre Dame on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

But now there is hope for the Wolverines and Harbaugh. A new proposal that would triple the CFP field to 12 teams is under consideration, and the sport appears to be barreling towards its adoption — in college football terms, at least. This week, the CFP’s Board of Managers approved a feasibility study of the expanded format, advancing a change that won't go into effect until 2023 at the earliest.

While this must be a welcome development for Harbaugh, it also should spawn some regret, as he contemplates what could have been. If the proposed format had been implemented at the start of the CFP era seven years ago, the Wolverines would have had an opportunity to compete for a title in both 2016 and 2018, when they were ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, in the final playoff rankings. How differently would Harbaugh be judged now with two CFP berths on his resume?

It’s an interesting question now, almost 20 months after Harbaugh unveiled his own design for an 11-team competition. Harbaugh's model eliminated conference title games, included each of the Power Five regular-season champions plus the highest-ranked non-Power Five team and relied on the old BCS computer model to determine the at-large bids.

At the time, Harbaugh’s plan seemed born out of self-interest. After all, a December trip to Indianapolis has remained elusive for the Wolverines during Harbaugh's term because the Buckeyes — as well as Michigan State and Penn State, to a lesser extent — have stood in Michigan’s way.

Under his proposal, the Wolverines would have been eligible to win the sport’s most significant trophy without being crowned Big Ten champions —a good thing, considering they haven’t won their conference since 2004.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day shakes hands with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh after the game at Michigan Stadium, Nov. 30, 2019. Ohio State won, 56-27.

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Along the same lines, the CFP proposal would allow Michigan to bypass Indianapolis in December and still be the last team standing in January.

Harbaugh would have a different path to winning something meaningful at his alma mater, even though it runs counter to the priority stated long ago by his mentor, Bo Schembechler.

"I don't lust after national championships; I lust after Big Ten championships," Schembechler famously told Sports Illustrated writer Douglas Looney in 1981.

Michigan fans not only accepted Schembechler’s stance at the time; they celebrated it. In 21 years, the iconic coach never led the Wolverines to the top of the final rankings. Lloyd Carr did, however. In 1997, he guided U-M to at least a share of the national title for the first time since 1948. But Schembechler is the one with the statue and his name on the football program's headquarters. He’s the man Harbaugh called the “greatest coach in the history of college football” at a 2004 reunion.

Schembechler’s influence can even be seen in Harbaugh’s latest contract: Remarkably, the payout for securing a Big Ten championship is the same as he’d receive for winning a national title.

Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler yells at quarterback Jim Harbaugh at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, 1987.

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That’s why it’s rather ironic Harbaugh’s best chance at resurrecting his regime could be granted by a 12-team playoff proposal that would render the conference title meaningless — assuming Michigan can earn an at-large playoff berth and then run the table.

To that end, the rich incentives in his new contract, which appeared unattainable back in January, may be within reach in the coming years regardless of future outcomes in the Ohio State game.

Of course, there is much work to be done for Harbaugh and the Wolverines to merely return where they were three years ago before another loss to the Buckeyes:On the cusp of inclusion in the CFP that, to this point, has barred them from entry.

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