Jim Harbaugh survived one of U-M's worst football seasons. Now he's shaking up his staff.
by Craig Ross, Jan Schlain
From the September, 2021 issue
I thought that Jim Harbaugh had the pieces in place for a Big Ten championship run in 2019. But the wheels came off against Wisconsin (35-14, and it could have been worse), and the year closed out with crushing defeats by OSU (56-27) and Alabama (35-16).
The COVID-delayed 2020 season began in late October at highly regarded Minnesota. Despite starting an untested quarterback, Joe Milton, and four new offensive linemen, the Wolverines pummeled the Gophers, 49-24 (not nearly that close) in front of 589 spectators.
Milton looked like the real deal passing the ball and managing the game and the Wolverine ground attack was dominant. All of a sudden, the Wolverines looked like a Top Twenty team.
Well, no, actually. The following week, Michigan, favored by 24.5 points, lost to a truly dreadful MSU team--one beaten up by Rutgers the prior week. Then the Wolverines got shellacked by Indiana--their first loss to the Hoosiers since 1986--and Wisconsin. In those games. Michigan lost more yards in penalties than they gained in rushing.
Next up was Rutgers, which should have been easy prey--since joining the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights have lost more than twice as many games as they've won. Yet the Wolverines barely escaped, winning 48-42 in triple overtime. "Are we at the point where beating Rutgers in 3 OT's qualifies as a big win?" fan Mike Golob asked. "God help us."
Penn State came to Ann Arbor with zero wins. But Michigan did not have a single starter from the offensive line that beat Minnesota who was able to play, and the quarterbacks were hobbled. 27-17, PSU.
When Covid infections piled on top of the injuries, Michigan pulled the plug. The 2-4 record would have placed the U-M at the bottom of the league if MSU hadn't had the bad luck to play (and lose) one more game. It was the team's worst record since 1962.
AD Warde Manuel wouldn't have had to look far for reason to fire Harbaugh.
But the cost of a new staff would have been dear (about $10 million, not counting assistants' buyouts) and there was no obvious successor on the horizon.
Instead, the AD renegotiated Harbaugh's contract at about $4 million--half the prior price--and limited the cost of a future buyout.
Two young, on-the-rise assistant coaches, Anthony Campanile and Chris Partridge, missed the 'debacle--both left after the 2019 season. In their places, Harbaugh had hired warhorses Bob Shoop and Brian Jean-Mary.
As it turned out, Shoop didn't coach at all, for unstated reasons, and post-'season, Jean-Mary made a lateral move to Tennessee.
Harbaugh fired cornerback coach Mike Zordich, defensive coordinator Don Brown, and offensive line coach Ed Warinner, and let quarterback coach Ben McDaniels' contract lapse. That left just four holdovers--offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, Sherrone Moore (now OL coach), defensive line coach Shaun Nua, and Harbaugh's son Jay (tight ends/special teams). All are on short leashes, with one-year contract extensions.
They're joined by former U-M stars Mike Hart (running backs) and Ron Bellamy (safeties), plus George Helow (linebackers), Mike Macdonald (defensive coordinator), Matt Weiss (quarterbacks), and late addition Steve Clinkscale (defensive backs coach and super recruiter). At forty-three, Clinkscale is the oldest of the bunch. I doubt if there is a younger staff in the country, or many others that are minority majority.
My guess is that Harbaugh is putting more stress on recruiting--that going forward, having the right Jimmys and Joes will be at least as important as the coaches' X's and O's. But how the staff shakeup will play out on the field is anyone's guess. There was no spring game, and unlike other Big Ten schools, no video released from any spring practices.
I decided to consult the most expert X and O guy that I know in the fan base, Seth Fisher at MGoBlog.com. He says he expects the Michigan defense to morph from Don Brown's extreme 4-3, where defenders must get to their gaps immediately, to Mike Macdonald's 5-2, building "a wall of humanity so you don't even want to go there." To work with, the DC has a superstar in Aidan Hutchinson at defensive end/outside linebacker and a should-be star at safety in Daxton Hill.
As to the offense, Fisher is as clueless as the rest of us. But he speculates that Gattis will try to go massive on the offensive line to facilitate power football and try to find a quarterback comfortable with run/pass option.
"Not having a QB who can reliably hit downfield has been holding them back," Fisher says, "but the structure of the offense has been sound. It's the in-game tactics that have been lacking somewhat, but Gattis is still quite new as a play caller so that's just a team weakness. Throw it to the damn running backs!"
The offense has plenty of weapons. They have some experience in the offensive line, and some depth, and running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends with talent. The noise from the coaches is that quarterback Cade McNamara will be very good in this offense.
Despite 2020's disappointments and 2021's mysteries, the fans haven't given up. In July, the athletic department announced that 85,154 season tickets had already been sold and sales were still trickling in. The high-water mark was about 93,000 in 2007.
Well, I never had a second thought about my purchase, though the trip from My House to the Big House is a short walk.
The markets opened with U-M at eight wins, but the under was bet heavily and this is now down to 7.5.
My prediction: Michigan wins eight games, gets hammered by OSU, and Jim Harbaugh comes back next year.
Jack Briegel's ViewFor Michigan's most faithful ticket collector, there was good news and bad news.
Jack Briegel has been collecting U-M football ticket stubs since he was nine. At eighty-five, he emails, "the future of hard tickets appears to be in jeopardy. My collection of tickets from all games, home and away, for the last 93 years may be coming to an end."
If so, it will go out with a bang: though no tickets were sold last year, a few were printed. All become instant collectibles--including "phantom" tickets for games that were never played.
"Obviously last year was an anomaly," says U-M associate athletic director Kurt Svoboda. "Because we didn't have public access there were no public tickets. The only people who were allowed to attend games were limited to player guests and family of student athletes, so those individuals were provided with printed tickets but that was only as a means of contact tracing." Contact tracing tickets were good enough for Briegel.
Nine games were scheduled and six were played.
"I posted on several memorabilia collectors sites asking for Michigan 2020 tickets," Briegel writes. "I was able to locate two tickets and two coaches passes from Indiana for $150 each. Then a Rutgers and Wisconsin for $200 each. Then a Michigan State for $200. I then picked up a Penn State Coaches pass for $100. That left me with a ticket for 5 games and a coaches pass for the 6th."
Then someone emailed to ask if he was interested in "phantom tickets from Ohio State and Iowa. A phantom ticket is one that is issues but never played. I bought several for $50 and put one of each in my collection and sold the rest to try to recoup the expense of buying the others."
These weren't the very last U-M football tickets printed, but there won't be many more. "We are moving to digital tickets in all sports except for football this year," says Svoboda.
"I have seen the 2021 tickets," Briegel says, since he gets four season tickets and has for years. "They look quite nice."
He's always thought that tickets were 'beautiful--"that's why I started picking them up." As a kid Briegel's family lived right by the stadium. He'd park cars and then run over to the stadium to see the rest of the game. "I would hear [players'] names over the public address system; then I'd find a ticket with their picture on it. That's how I started collecting."
Svoboda won't say this year is the last for printed tickets--"let's deal with 2021 first"--but single-game football tickets have already gone digital. Thanks to the Michigan athletic app, he says, "for the first time our fans and ticket holders will be able to manage their tickets on their mobile devices." That's "a really good thing," he says, "for fans who are technology-centered."
Svoboda recognizes that "ticket collection is a very real thing," but isn't prepared to say that the reason they still printed season tickets this year "is strictly because of the 'collector' issue.
"This transition is aimed at providing our guests and employees with a safe and contactless environment and increasing protection against the many forms of ticket fraud that exist today," he emails. Going forward, at least for this season, "we're pleased to offer our loyal season ticket holders the option of receiving printed tickets."
[Originally published in September, 2021.]
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