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Bob Wojnowski

Bob Wojnowski: Michigan would be foolish to let Jim Harbaugh leave, and he'd be foolish to go

DETROIT — It’s more complicated than the last time. It seems more adversarial, with higher stakes, as Jim Harbaugh re-engages in NFL speculation with no clear direction or intent.

His latest dalliance, which included a reported two-hour virtual interview with the Denver Broncos this week, defies what he said a year ago. After exploring the Vikings' head coach job that apparently wasn’t his for the taking, he reupped with UM and indicated he was done looking at the NFL.

Now Michigan and Harbaugh are back in the same delicate spot, more delicate than it should be, and both sides are culpable. How does a program get stuck in uncertainty after back-to-back Big Ten titles and playoff appearances? Ego and stubbornness.

Whether Harbaugh really wants another shot at a Super Bowl, or just enjoys the attention and leverage, or simply wants to gauge his options, is immaterial. He needs to be transparent, and AD Warde Manuel and new school president Santa Ono need to remedy this before real damage is done.

I believe Harbaugh would commit to stay with the right deal. How could he not? He has it good here, maybe better than he sometimes admits, at a place he says he loves. He’s still intrigued by the NFL but knows how talented his 2023 UM team is, with special stars in Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards and J.J McCarthy. That’s why he alternates between “no man knows the future” and “we’ll be back enthusiastically coaching the Wolverines in 2023.”

Harbaugh is entitled to be rewarded for a masterful turnaround and a 25-3 record the past two seasons. Manuel and UM are entitled to certain assurances. One complication is the specter of NCAA allegations hanging over Harbaugh.

If the school stands by him, as Ono has indicated, it’s incumbent to make a competitive offer, and I think that’s the intention right now. Nobody should selfishly worry about who’s gaining or losing power. Of course UM shouldn’t cede complete control to its football coach, but Ono and Manuel and the necessary lawyers need to draft a proposal that satisfies Harbaugh (highest-paid coach in Big Ten, NIL commitment, more money for assistants), and protects the school (significant buyout to dampen further NFL exploration, clarity on NCAA issue.)

Yes, Harbaugh already has a contract that pays him well, more than $10 million last season with bonuses. But his base salary of $7 million is third-highest in the Big Ten, equal to James Franklin and behind Mel Tucker and Ryan Day. The five-year extension he signed last February basically restored his original deal, which was slashed 50% after the 2-4 COVID season. Manuel had no hesitation doing that two years ago, and I thought it was shrewd and bold. For someone as competitive as Harbaugh, I’m guessing it stung more than he acknowledged. But he accepted it, won the Big Ten, and perhaps expected a bit more reciprocation. Then he won the Big Ten again, and here we are.

Game of chicken

UM shouldn’t waste time playing a game of chicken. If Harbaugh’s interest in the NFL is real, and the league’s interest in him is real, then he’ll prove it by leaving. But don’t sit around and wait to see.

In an unorthodox move for a school president, Ono addressed the situation Thursday with a tweet that said, in part, “pleased to share that I have been having very positive and constructive conversations with our Athletic Director and Football Coach. Warde Manuel and I both want to see Jim Harbaugh stay …” Harbaugh responded by saying he appreciated the support.

They weren’t talking to each other on Twitter. They were talking to a fan base that wants to know if Harbaugh plans to leave, and whether UM is doing enough to keep him. The school can’t — or shouldn’t — withdraw its support now, not unless deeper, yet-to-be-revealed issues surface.

Certainly, Harbaugh’s NCAA problem weakens his position. Whatever you think of the allegations, this isn’t just about buying illicit hamburgers for recruits. It’s about being active during the COVID recruiting shutdown, when on-campus contact wasn’t permitted. According to the allegations, Harbaugh wasn’t forthcoming or fully truthful when questioned by investigators, a Level I violation that’s troubling. If Harbaugh thought he could dodge the questions — whether he agreed with the severity of the charges or not − that’s hubris and hypocrisy, and it’s punishable.

It doesn’t matter if other programs have done far worse — you know, the whataboutism that solves nothing. Harbaugh has long considered himself of the highest integrity, never shy to publicly bash alleged cheaters. Maybe as part of a negotiated resolution between UM and Harbaugh, and between Harbaugh and the NCAA, the charge is reduced, as often happens in these cases. Or perhaps he’s suspended a couple games in 2023. If that pushes him to the NFL, that’s on him. If that doesn’t satisfy Manuel, the president, or the Board of Regents, they need to be careful what they push for.

Hubris shouldn’t beget hubris here. It’s not by accident that Michigan has regained control of the Big Ten. The notion it could move on from Harbaugh and easily continue an uninterrupted run is foolish. There are several quality assistants on UM’s staff – Sherrone Moore, Mike Hart and others — who would be good candidates. But a roll like this, with another top-five team returning, doesn’t automatically sustain itself.

Can we see why Harbaugh and Manuel might get a bit irritated with each other? Sure. This annual dance is tiresome for everyone. Manuel likely figured he took care of it last year and isn’t interested in negotiating again. It’s a defensible stance, contractually and ethically. That doesn’t make it the appropriate stance, for the football program or anyone.

How much uncertainty should UM and its fans endure regarding Harbaugh? Depends. How much do they enjoy beating Ohio State?

It’s not that simple, but it’s also not that complex. There shouldn’t even be sides in this, considering it’s the same program.

Unfinished business

Harbaugh’s interest in the NFL stems from his successful four-year stint with the 49ers, where he fell a few yards short of beating his brother, John, and the Ravens in the Super Bowl. He has said he considers a Super Bowl championship unfinished business. A national championship at UM is unfinished as well.

The NFL’s interest in Harbaugh is hard to measure as rumors rise and fall — Panthers, Colts, Broncos, whoever. If he aches to coach at the highest level again, for whatever reason, go for it. But if he wants to win a Super Bowl, I think he’s kidding himself. He turns 60 next season and almost every job would be a major rebuild, unless you think the Broncos’ Russell Wilson is fixable.

Harbaugh may feel underappreciated, and before you dismiss that, consider his persona, and the wobbling program he took over. He’s 74-25 in eight seasons here. UM was 55-46 in the eight seasons before his arrival. If an unpredictable mindset is part of what makes him an excellent coach, you find a way to deal with it.

The departure of former president Mark Schlissel, who was detached and imperious, should help. The arrival of Ono, who’s personally engaging and actively connected with athletics, seems to be key. In today’s wildly evolving college football, UM must adjust with the rules, and that also means enhanced commitment to NIL and recruiting resources.

Michigan’s recruiting hasn’t been as stellar the past couple seasons, and one theory is, Harbaugh’s NFL gaze affects it. Another theory is, UM has been slow to embrace NIL opportunities to pay athletes. Neither is easily provable. UM did load up in the transfer portal recently, and the Wolverines have the benefit of continuity and top-notch coaches. For those who fret about players leaving, most departures were expected, unrelated to Harbaugh’s status, and the most important guy, Corum, opted to stay.

There’s too much potential still here, too much yet to be done, or won. Instead of worrying about decisions by the kids — players coming and going — Michigan should worry about locking the adults in the room – president, AD, coach — until they agree on the plan that’s best for the program.

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