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Harbaugh Headache

In a season of defeat, Warde Manuel has few options.

by Craig Ross

From the December, 2020 issue

After a string of crushing defeats, the U-M's head football coach is staring down one of the worst seasons in the program's history.

The year started with promise, as Michigan dismantled Top-25 Minnesota on the road 49-24. On WTKA, Sam Webb's Thursday Roundtable was giddy with expectation. No, Michigan wasn't about to beat Ohio State--but it sure looked like they could handle the rest of their schedule.

That glitter was fool's gold. A week later, the U-M fell to a feeble MSU team, 27-24. Next came a 38-21 beatdown at Indiana--the Wolverines' first loss to the Hoosiers in thirty-three years. In those games, Michigan gained fewer yards rushing than it amassed in penalties.

Against Wisconsin at home in Game Four, the Wolverines had more turnovers in the first quarter (two) than yards gained (one). The Badgers put up a 28-0 lead at halftime--the largest such deficit in the history of the Big House--on their way to a 49-11 win.

Most of the Michigan fan base has given up on Harbaugh, and the national pundits are gloating. Six years after his arrival, the program looks no more dynamic that it did during its three years under Rich Rodriguez, or four years under Brady Hoke.

Worse, athletic director Warde Manuel has no good options at hand. After three reversals of direction under as many coaches, who could be hired who is even likely to be better?

Michigan will owe Harbaugh $10 million if he's fired before his contract ends in 2021. Manuel could, of course, just let the contract expire and hope that 2021 will be better, but then Michigan is pretty much conceding a year or two of recruiting classes. Extending Harbaugh's contract at a more realistic price than his current $7 million per year would avoid that--but doubling down on the status quo is unlikely to make 2021 very appealing to fans.

Are 110,000 people likely to sign up for a season of possible beatdowns (and maybe a trip to the Covid ICU) when they may have discovered other things to do on fall Saturday afternoons? Raking the leaves may be more compelling.     (end of article)

[Originally published in December, 2020.]


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