Here's the problem with giving Jim Harbaugh an extension at Michigan football

Jeff Seidel
Detroit Free Press

Some argue that Michigan football should cut bait from Jim Harbaugh after this season.

To be clear, I’m firmly in that camp. I don’t see any reason to believe Year Seven will be any different than the previous six. To borrow a quote from Brian Griese: “Enough is enough.”

But others argue Michigan should keep Harbaugh and give him a short-term contract extension with a friendly buyout option, hoping he can turn around the program quickly by making sweeping changes and overhauling his staff.

“Brian Kelly had a bad year at Notre Dame,” the thinking goes. “Kelly overhauled his staff and look at the Irish now.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh walks on to the field before a game against Ohio State at Ohio Stadium, Nov. 24, 2018.

After making significant changes three years ago, Notre Dame has thrived. The Irish are undefeated and ranked No.2 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

“So why can’t Michigan do the same, right?” some say. 

But there’s a problem. The situations are not comparable.

Let’s go back to South Bend. Circa 2017. The Irish were coming off a 4-8 season in 2016 — the worst full season of Kelly’s career since he took over at Central Michigan in 2004. Back then, there were rumblings that Notre Dame should dump Kelly, just as there are strong critics of Harbaugh who now want change in Ann Arbor.

Similar to Kelly in 2017, this is the worst season in Harbaugh’s career since taking over at Stanford (4-8 in 2007). And it could go down as the worst season of his career if Michigan gets crushed by Ohio State next Saturday — if they play.

So that part is the same. But the situations are not when you dig a little deeper.

The Irish lost six of their eight games in 2016 by one score, and four of the losses were by three points or fewer. For the most part, the Irish were competitive in every game but couldn’t finish.  Notre Dame’s worst loss was a 45-17 defeat against No.12 Southern Cal, a game in which the Irish gave up a punt and kickoff return for touchdowns.

Now look at Michigan. The Wolverines have lost by double digits to winless Penn State, by more than five touchdowns to Wisconsin and by 17 points to Indiana. If you add in the final two games of the 2019 season, they lost by 19 to Alabama and 29 to Ohio State.

“Yeah, but Kelly didn’t have to deal with COVID-19,” some say.

I get it. This is a strange year.

But you can’t play the COVID-19 card when you are getting humiliated by a winless team.

[This is the best-case scenario for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan football ]

All aboard the assistant coach carousel

After Notre Dame’s 2016 failure, Kelly had a come to Touchdown Jesus moment.

“Part of the whole culture,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2017. “I let slip up.”

He realized he had to change.

“We failed and I failed,” Kelly told Sports Illustrated. “I think like any successful person. ... I looked at what adjustments needed to be made.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the Tar Heels don't go away on offense.

Kelly realized he had grown complacent. He overhauled his entire organization, hiring 17 new members of the football staff, including an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams coach and strength coach. It was like Notre Dame decided to rip the guts out of a major corporation and leave the CEO.

“Why did we hire all these new coaches?” Kelly told Sorts Illustrated. “We did it because there’s a tradition of excellence that I need to live up to. Period. I didn’t live up to it, and I’m going to make sure that never happens again.”

Kelly made some bold moves when shuffling his staff. He got rid of coaches and friends, who had been with him for years.

Would Harbaugh do that?

Would that fix everything?

Well, he has already tried. He has tweaked his staff several times, changing a couple dozen on-field assistants, and it hasn’t worked. He still hasn’t beaten Ohio State or advanced to the Big Ten Championship game. 

After Michigan went 8-5 in 2017, Harbaugh cleaned house. Tim Drevno, his longtime assistant at San Diego State, Stanford and San Francisco, was out. So was strength-and-conditioning coach Kevin Tolbert, who was the Director of Football Strength and Conditioning at Michigan from 2015 to '17 and served as the assistant strength coach for the Wolverines during Lloyd Carr's tenure from 2001 to '07.

And where has that left Michigan? Still searching for answers.

There are only two coaches on Harbaugh’s staff who have been with him the entire time in Ann Arbor: his son Jay Harbaugh and Mike Zordich, who works with the secondary.

In the last six years, Harbaugh has had two defensive coordinators: D.J. Durkin and Don Brown.

He has churned through three configurations of offensive coordinators/passing game coordinators: Drevno as the offensive coordinator with Jedd Fisch as the passing game coordinator in 2015-16, Drevno as the offensive coordinator with Pep Hamilton as the passing game coordinator in 2017, and Josh Gattis as the offensive coordinator with Ben McDaniels as the quarterbacks coach in 2019-20.

Still, Harbaugh hasn’t developed a championship quarterback at Michigan. And yet, the coaches who have departed are clearly respected and sought after. Fisch is now the quarterbacks coach for the New England Patriots. Hamilton is the quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Chargers. And Drevno is the offensive line coach and pass protection coach at USC.

Clearly, these are talented coaches, but Harbaugh hasn’t been able to figure out the right mix. And you have to remember Harbaugh is also part of that mix, considering his offensive expertise.

Harbaugh has rolled through four different configurations of special teams coordinators in the last six years: John Baxter with Jay Harbaugh as an assistant in 2015; Chris Partridge with Jay Harbaugh as an assistant in 2016; Jay Harbaugh and Zordich as co-special teams coordinators in 2017; Partridge with Jay Harbaugh as an assistant in 2018-19; and now Jay Harbaugh as the coordinator alone.

To make it worse, longtime assistant Greg Mattison (defensive line) and Al Washington (linebackers) left Harbaugh’s staff after the 2018 season and jumped to greener pastures — ahem — that turned out to be gray and scarlet.

Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison watches warm up before the Michigan game at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.

Add it up and you realize Harbaugh already has tried to make sweeping changes and it hasn't worked. And I'm not sure why anyone would think making big changes or changing a coaching staff will change anything in 2021.

[Jim Harbaugh's recruiting attrition foreshadowed Michigan football's rapid decline ]

Where does change have to start?

So what are the arguments to give him an extension?

Harbaugh supporters can argue:

  • He runs a clean program and led Michigan to four 10-win seasons.
  • Michigan has a top-10 recruiting class right now, which includes five-star quarterback JJ McCarthy, from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and 11 four-star recruits, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
  • Injuries and defections have left this team in a vulnerable state, playing young  players who aren’t ready, and it’s not a true reflection of what Harbaugh has built. Or can build.
  • During this pandemic, while the athletic department is bleeding money, it is not financially prudent to get rid of Harbaugh and spend big to bring in somebody new.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic makes it unfair to judge him on this throwaway season.
  • This team is so young. Wait till Harbaugh has a quarterback.

Um. Still waiting.

I'm not buying it. This slide has been coming for a while. In its last 21 games, Michigan is 11-10, and it has been so bad this season that this doesn't look like a one-year fix. It’s going to take years to rebuild this program.

Does Michigan have the patience to stomach a rebuild that could last years?

Hoping Harbaugh turns it around in one season, like Kelly did at Notre Dame, doesn’t seem likely. This isn’t Notre Dame in 2016; Michigan just isn’t as good as the Irish were during that season.

Giving him an extension, even a small one, is just kicking the problem down the road and not recognizing the trajectory this program has been on for most of Harbaugh's tenure:

Unable to compete with Ohio State.

Unable to beat top-10 teams.

And years from contending for a Big Ten Championship.

Is there a quick fix? No. Harbaugh's track record suggests reshuffling his staff won't work. And there are too many holes on the roster to count.

If Harbaugh is brought back, as I suspect will happen, maybe there is only one hope for Michigan: the change has to start with him.

Which is what Brian Kelly figured out at Notre Dame.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.