In The Ringer today, Rodger Sherman has a piece about Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan football program. He points out just how big an upset it is that they won the Big 10 and are in the CFP. He also talks about how strange it is that Harbaugh was still around after the failure to beat Ohio State or win the Big 10 in his first five years, especially given how quickly Michigan fired its two previous coaches, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, at the first sign of underachievement.
This misunderstands the culture at Michigan. People outside the university (which includes a *lot* of Michigan fans and boosters) look at how successful the sports programs, and football especially, have been over the years, and think of the place as an athletic powerhouse, like most of the other athletically successful universities do.
But that’s not how people *inside* the university see it. For them, Michigan is, first, foremost, and ultimately, an outstanding university, and it is up to the athletic programs to live up to the school, not the other way around. The school actually has a long history of standing by coaches, who outsiders accuse of being underachievers, and keeping them on well past when the outsiders expect them to be fired. In football, that was Lloyd Carr, who kept losing to Ohio State, but whom Michigan thought represented it well academically and in personality.
The ultimate case was hockey coach Red Berenson. He developed some good will by resurrecting a once glorious program from the dead, but after becoming competitive, the ascent seemed to stall out, with the team losing in the NCAA semifinals for what seemed like a century. Despite a lot of people on the outside asking, “How long will Michigan keep Berenson if he never wins the title?” The answer from the inside was, “Forever,” though I had a hard time convincing people of that. Berenson never wavered in taking the academic progress of his players seriously; in fact, it seemed impossible to cure him of the idea that all he had to do to recruit the players he wanted was sell them on the prospect of getting a Michigan education.
Sherman doesn’t understand *why* Michigan axed Rodriguez and Hoke quickly. It wasn’t the losing, per se. It’s that they didn’t really fit the culture in Ann Arbor. In addition to losing, Hoke also seemed out of his depth, and lashed out at people. The proximate cause of his getting fired was when he put an injured player back into a game. He and AD Dave Brandon both lied to the university president about what happened, and both were fired shortly thereafter. Most of the university considered Rodriguez to be an embarrassment before he’d ever coached a game. He made no pretense of caring about academics. He was vulgar, and considered himself above everyone else. The Michigan people I know (for those who aren’t aware, my high school is kitty-corner from The Big House at Stadium and Main) were, low key, happy that he lost a lot of games so that the athletic department had an excuse to get rid of him.
Before any of the hockey people interrupt, yes, Berenson had an incident that was highly embarrassing; after an evening at the bar where he did his radio show, he was caught urinating on a building, and then busted for a DUI when he started to drive off. By that time, though, he had built up so much goodwill in the town, the university, and the athletic department that a single incident wasn’t going to get him fired. He apologized profusely, and not one of those awful non-apology apologies, and seemed to learn from it. He stayed on for another decade plus, probably 3-4 years after the program would have been better off if he’d retired.
There are a lot of ways in which Jim Harbaugh reminds me of Berenson. He probably speaks more words in a month than Berenson did in his life, but he’s a Michigan Man through and through. He takes academics very seriously, and it’s notable that his previous college head coaching jobs were at the University of San Diego and Stanford, both very good schools that take academics seriously. The people outside the program, like Sherman, interpret the trips he took the team on, to Rome, Paris, and South Africa, as stunts meant to get publicity and help recruiting. And, sure, Harbaugh loves publicity and undoubtedly thought about possible recruiting edges, but it was also clear to those on the inside that the trips were also meant as serious educational endeavors. The players who were on them talk about what they got out of them.
Despite what the outsiders might think, I doubt that there was ever serious consideration about firing Harbaugh at any point over the last six years. He signed a new contract last year that cut his base salary in half, instead having a lot of incentives that, even if he achieved all of them, would still leave him short of what he made previously. Sherman characterizes this as both Michigan and Harbaugh “settling” and accepting mediocrity. That misreads things. Neither Harbaugh nor the University of Michigan thought of this as settling. Each is exactly what the other wants.
I’ll be somewhat surprised if Harbaugh ever voluntarily leaves Ann Arbor for another job, college or pro. There isn’t any other campus he’d rather be on, and loyalty is important to him. I also think he’s smart enough to realize that his high intensity approach plays better with college kids than it does with pros. After 3-4 years, a fully grown adult being paid millions of dollars for their services has probably had his fill of Harbaugh.
And Michigan is happy to have him. If he consistently finishes with ten wins a year and beats OSU once in every 3-4 tries, they’ll be satisfied. If anything, it’s not beating Michigan State more often that weighs things down; the insiders recognize the OSU runs its athletic programs like they’re an SEC school, and that’s not considered a compliment, no matter how much they win. I’m sure they hope he beats the Buckeyes more often than that, but I’m not sure that it’s necessary for him to keep his job.
Harbaugh thinks of himself as the true successor to Bo Schembechler. The university does, too. I won’t be surprised if Harbaugh decides that his life’s goal to to match or exceed Schembechler’s 21 years as the coach at Michigan.