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Sport Opinion: Michigan made gutsy decision last year to keep Jim Harbaugh. It has already paid off.

14:55  26 november  2021
14:55  26 november  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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The easy thing to do — and goodness knows the easy way out is more popular than ever in college football these days — would’ve been for Michigan to pull the rip cord on Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at this time last year.

Given the toxicity of a 2-4 record during Michigan’s COVID-19 affected season, his 0-5 record against Ohio State, his inability to develop a quarterback and some concerning trends in recruiting, it almost seemed obvious that Harbaugh’s time was up. As much hype as he arrived with in 2015, most fan bases and administrations that are serious about football would’ve long since been ready to move on.

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Jim Harbaugh © Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK Jim Harbaugh

"Thanks for trying, Jim. Here’s a nice fat buyout check. We’ll take our chances with Matt Campbell or whatever hot coach won a few big games this season."

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But on Jan. 8, Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel did something that has become increasingly rare in his business. He used common sense.

"I continue to believe that Jim is the right man to lead our program in pursuit of Big Ten and CFP championships," Manuel said in a statement confirming that Harbaugh would remain the coach on a new five-year contract that paid him less and made it more financially responsible for the school to fire him if it became necessary.

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To be clear, Manuel’s support was not unconditional. Harbaugh had to have a plan for getting Michigan turned around, which included changes to his coaching staff and his approach. If things continued going the same direction, the school’s patience was not going to last forever.

But 11 months later, you could argue the best move of the entire coaching 2020 carousel was the one Michigan didn’t make.

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On Saturday, when the Wolverines host No. 3 Ohio State, they will do so as a 10-1 team ranked No. 6 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches poll and No. 5 by the College Football Playoff committee.

Though Michigan won’t be discussed seriously as a Playoff team unless it beats Ohio State — certainly a major hurdle given the talent gap and the recent history of the rivalry — there’s a massive opportunity in front of the Wolverines this weekend. If they can somehow win this game for the first time since 2011, they’ll enter the Big Ten championship game heavily favored to be Playoff-bound.

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"Both teams have a lot on the line," Harbaugh said this week. "It’s a true playoff in that sense, and in the College Football Playoff world, this is the start of the playoffs. The team that wins will advance and the team that doesn’t, won’t."

The overwhelming probability is that Michigan won’t, jump-starting another refrain of scrutiny over Harbaugh’s record in big games, record as an underdog, record against his most important rivals — all of which are admittedly underwater.

But at a time when schools like Florida are firing accomplished, successful coaches the first time their programs hit a speed bump, Michigan’s season shows the value of giving someone a chance to fix it. Even amidst a terrible season and fan unrest about the direction of the program, Manuel made a bet last year that he could not go out into the marketplace and hire a better coach than Harbaugh.

He was right.

Doing the work to fix what's wrong

There’s no guarantee that Harbaugh, even if he coaches for another 20 years at Michigan, will ever win a national championship, much less a Big Ten title. Guess what? The vast majority of schools won’t.

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Michigan is undoubtedly one of the dozen biggest brands in college football, but that doesn’t come with any birthrights. Ohio State has a richer history, better institutional infrastructure and friendlier recruiting territory, and even if Michigan gets through the Buckeyes someday, the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and the rest will be waiting for them on the path to the promised land.

None of this is easy.

But what’s even harder right now for college football programs is understanding what success is actually supposed to look like and having even a little bit of perspective about the coach they already have versus the theoretical one they could hire.

Harbaugh’s tenure has not been perfect. Far from it. Beyond the flaws in the win-loss record against elite opponents, he cycled through poor offensive coordinator choices and stuck with defensive coordinator Don Brown for way too long. Some of his other early initiatives, like setting up recruiting camps in the South, yielded fairly meager results. After so much success at Stanford with Andrew Luck and in the NFL with Colin Kaepernick, the inability to land a difference-making quarterback has been baffling.

But the big picture at Michigan looks like this: In Harbaugh’s first five years, his team finished in the top-20 four times, with three 10-win seasons and two trips to New Year’s Six bowl games. If you draw a line through 2020, which you can do for a lot of programs that struggled with COVID-19 issues, the only truly disappointing season was 2017, when Michigan was in the top-10 throughout the month of September but faded to 8-5.

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If that’s a failing program, you might as well just reduce the sport to about eight teams and let them play each other all year long.

And yet far too often, schools act as if the only standard of success is making the College Football Playoff, or that there’s no coming back from a disappointing season. Rather than doing the work to fix what’s wrong, it’s easier to just pay a big buyout and spin the roulette wheel on a new coach.

We won’t know for quite some time whether Florida made a good decision on Mullen, who had consistently met or exceeded expectations for more than a decade at two different SEC jobs before he hit a disaster year. But with no obvious, Urban Meyer-like candidate for the Gators, it’s highly likely they’ll end up with someone like Louisiana’s Billy Napier, who has great results in the Sun Belt, or Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, who is 41-33 with the Cyclones.

There’s almost no scenario where Florida hires someone with a better track record than Mullen, and it’s a long shot that his replacement will match a 29-9 record in his first three seasons with trips to the Peach, Orange and Cotton bowls. And that’s for a job many consider to be one of the five best in the sport.

If their donors don’t mind forking over the cash, schools like Florida and Texas have every right to fire coaches every three or four years. In some ways, the constant drama is more exciting for fans than the on-field product they see 12 Saturdays a year.

But there’s something to be said for letting things play out a little longer, particularly when a coach has demonstrated in the past that he can do the job at a high level. As Michigan’s bounce-back this season showed, it was never as far away from getting back in the mix as it looked at the low point of Harbaugh’s tenure.

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With a few program adjustments and a little patience, Michigan now stands one great performance away from potentially reaching the Playoff for the first time. It’s going to take a lot to beat Ohio State on Saturday, but regardless of the outcome, the gutsy decision to keep Harbaugh has already paid off — and will keep producing dividends well into the future.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Michigan made gutsy decision last year to keep Jim Harbaugh. It has already paid off.

Jim Harbaugh plans to give his bonus money to Michigan AD staffers who had pay cuts .
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