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Michigan's patience with Jim Harbaugh pays off

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A year ago, there was a push among some boosters, some administrators and plenty of fans for the University of Michigan to fire Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh had returned to his alma mater in 2015 with great fanfare and huge expectations. Six seasons later, he’d brought the Wolverines back to respectability (.690 winning percentage), but the program still struggled against its rivals, notably Ohio State, hadn’t reached a Big Ten title game, let alone won it, and appeared to have become stagnant. A COVID-shortened 2020 season produced a hapless 2-4 record.

A firing wasn’t without merit. In today’s college football world — exhibited by the chaotic coaching carousel of this week — it almost seemed mandatory.

UM athletic director Warde Manuel saw it differently. Harbaugh, he believed, was the same quality coach he’d always been, including at Stanford and in the NFL. The program had almost no off-field issues. It mostly won. There was a lot of potential on the roster.

Besides, the cycle of firing and hiring coaches provided no more assurance than staying the course.

With great vision and tact, Manuel held off the critics. He then met with Harbaugh, who, to his credit, was open to restructuring his contract (at a significantly lower guaranteed salary) as well as his coaching staff.

“We had good conversations about the staff and what he was thinking about doing. Very open,” Manuel said last February. “I shared my thoughts. … I’m not coaching the team, but I do listen, I do provide input.”

A new, youthful group of assistants, full of what Harbaugh would later call “new perspective, new ideas, new energy,” arrived. As for money, Harbaugh made over $8 million in 2020. His new deal guaranteed just $4 million in 2021. He didn’t blink. He didn’t pout. He didn’t go looking for somewhere else to coach.

He wanted to win with his players at his university.

“It’s just what you do,” Harbaugh said Saturday. “Keep working, grinding, knowing it is going to pay off.”

It all seems so hopelessly old school in today’s environment of hair-trigger firings and coaches leaping for greener grass. It also, as Harbaugh hoped, did pay off. Big time.

Michigan is 11-1 coming off a cathartic bullying of rival Ohio State. It plays Iowa on Saturday night for a shot at the Big Ten title and a likely No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff. This is what everyone envisioned possible when Harbaugh was first hired.

Patience proved prudent. The old critics aren’t just silent, they are busy storming the field.

“A lot of joy in Ann Arbor,” Harbaugh said.

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 27: Head Coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates with fans after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium on November 27, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)
Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates with fans after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. (Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

Maybe this can’t work everywhere. It certainly can’t work with everyone. Harbaugh is an unusual personality, but he deserves respect for doing something very few coaches would — realizing that being paid $4 million to coach football is a blessed existence, not an insult to his ego.

Then there was the maturity to understand, at age 57, that he needed some fresh voices around him. That included hiring 33-year-old defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and a slew of similarly aged assistants who have changed the spirit around the team and on the recruiting trail.

It certainly didn’t hurt that Manuel is not just an experienced athletic director, but that he played defensive tackle in the late 1980s for Bo Schembechler. Manuel’s freshman season, his starting quarterback was none other than Jim Harbaugh.

Maybe this is just a blip of success for Michigan. Maybe Ohio State returns to Big Ten dominance next season. Maybe the Wolverines get upset by Iowa or get beat big in the playoff. One good season doesn’t a juggernaut make.

But in a sport where schools abandon conferences for more revenue, where coaches leave potential playoff teams for other jobs, where contracts are renegotiated after just a few victories and where guys get fired after just 13 games or less than a season and a half after winning a national title, the Michigan approach certainly stands out.

Faith rewarded. Loyalty repaid. Respectful discussions about coexistence and coach-ability, not simply buyouts or leverage plays.

As the coaching cycle spins wilder than ever, here is Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, of all people and all places, sailing through the calm of a dream season they created by following an increasingly uncharted course.

As for Harbaugh’s bank account, all this winning has triggered incentives in his new deal that could push him back up toward $7 million.

He earned $500,000 for winning the Big Ten East. He can get another $1 million if Michigan wins the league championship game Saturday, which would ensure another half a million courtesy of a playoff invite the next day. The Wolverines are 10.5-point favorites, according to BetMGM. Even if Michigan loses, there’d be $200,000 for a New Year’s Six bowl game. A million more is on the table if it wins a national title.

It’s good money. Lots of it, too. And it’s his. He bet on himself and now comes the windfall.

Except Monday, Harbaugh said on his radio show that he and his wife don’t want the bonuses. They made enough this year. A lot of others in the athletic department haven’t, at least not since COVID-19 hit and salaries were cut.

“Sarah and I were talking about it last night and we decided any bonus money that I am to receive through this season will be redirected to reimburse U of M athletic department employees who have [taken] a voluntary or mandatory pay reduction during the pandemic,” Harbaugh said.

What the what? No pounding the table for 24-hour access to a private plane or some fresh "retention bonus" because he finally beat the Buckeyes?

"Redirected to reimburse"?

Does Jim Harbaugh even know this is 2021 … and this is college football?

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