The last two Michigan football coaches were defined by who they weren’t, not by who they were.
Rich Rodriguez wasn’t a Michigan Man, and he wasn’t Les Miles. He also wasn’t the school’s first choice. The fans and alumni felt that their university settled.
Brady Hoke wasn’t Jim Harbaugh, and he also wasn’t Michigan’s first choice.
The next coach runs the risk of also not being Harbaugh.
There was a time when Michigan didn’t have to search outside of campus to find a football coach.
Gary Moeller was promoted from within after Bo Schembechler retired after the 1989 season. When Moeller had a notorious, drunken flare up at a Southfield restaurant in 1995, Lloyd Carr got the job, and Carr was another assistant coach who was head coach-ready.
Carr retired in 2008 and Michigan has been wandering in the wilderness ever since, save an 11-2 season and a bowl win in Hoke’s first year (2011).
First, let’s get something straight. All major football programs have gone through this sort of thing.
You think Alabama has always been a big deal after Bear Bryant left? Oklahoma, after Barry Switzer? Nebraska, after Tom Osborne? Notre Dame, after Lou Holtz?
Show me a quote-unquote storied college football program and I will show you an era where that program fell out of relevance.
Michigan fans should know very well of Notre Dame’s dark days, having played them every September for about 35 years.
Remember when they made “Oust Faust” signs in South Bend?
The Fighting Irish elevated Gerry Faust from high school and made him the football coach at Notre Dame in 1981. It was dubbed The Great Experiment. And it failed, miserably.
Faust was indeed ousted after five seasons (actually, he resigned under pressure). Then Notre Dame hired Holtz.
Holtz presided over a rebirth of college football at Notre Dame, but after Lou left in 1996, the program went wandering again.
Program after program has lost its way.
Harbaugh, the darling of the fans in Ann Arbor, has as part of his appeal the rejuvenation of Stanford football on his resume.
Stanford, once so strong on the gridiron, had fallen into doormat status in the Pac-12 before Harbaugh arrived and, working with quarterback Andrew Luck, put the Big Red “S” back into prominence.
Alabama was wandering before Nick Saban put away his mercurial ways and became the Crimson Tide’s savior.
Michigan, in fact, has gone through this before, in the 1960s. The football program was an also-ran in the Big Ten before a guy from Ohio named Schembechler arrived on campus.
Every college football program has lost its way. The key is to keep the hemorrhaging to a minimum.
The danger of Michigan football and its supporters putting all their eggs in the Jim Harbaugh basket should be obvious.
What happens if you don’t get Jim Harbaugh?
It could be “Here we go again,” i.e. introducing a new football coach who isn’t someone else.
Anyone other than Harbaugh could be perceived as being sloppy seconds.
And guess what? Michigan isn’t getting Jim Harbaugh.
On the surface, when rumors of Hoke’s dismissal began as early as in October, it appeared as if the timing was right with Michigan getting Harbaugh, the embattled San Francisco 49ers coach and former Wolverines quarterback under Schembechler in the mid-1980s. It looked like, at first blush, that Michigan was poised to lure Harbaugh back home.
Harbaugh was perceived to be a short-timer in San Francisco, and the Michigan job was going to be open. It didn’t take a mathematician to figure it out.
But the timing wasn’t right, after all. Harbaugh, by all accounts, has gotten college football out of his system. He’s a pro football lifer now. Not even the lure of Ann Arbor can change that.
If Michigan fans were being honest with themselves, they’d have faced the fact that once a football coach leaves college and has some success at the pro level, he usually doesn’t go back to school. He becomes an NFL journeyman and then ends up in a TV studio as a talking head.
Only those coaches who flop in the pros, return to college. Usually.
But lust is often blind.
Harbaugh won’t be Michigan’s coach. I don’t have any insider information to support this, but I don’t think any is needed to come to this conclusion.
Harbaugh has spurned his alma mater, but Michigan shouldn’t take it personally. Jim’s an NFL guy now, and who can blame him?
The Super Bowl is football’s grandest prize, and the chase for it can be intoxicating. The money is crazy good if you’re considered an elite coach. And if you wear out your welcome with one franchise, there will always be another ready to hire you. Then when the coaching jobs dry up, you put on a suit and blab into a microphone. That pays pretty good, too.
In college, Harbaugh would have to sit in living rooms again, talking to kids and their parents, begging and pleading with them to attend a school that he knows in his heart shouldn’t need any selling. At Michigan, he’d be working with a president who knows nothing about big time college athletics and a rookie athletic director.
There was a window of time, a few weeks ago, when I thought that if any college program could lure Harbaugh out of the professional ranks, it would be Michigan’s.
I have amended that to say that if Michigan can’t lure Harbaugh from the pros, no program can. And no program will.
Coaching in the NFL is the ultimate job for someone as competitive and as fiery as Jim Harbaugh. No college experience can replicate it. Not even Michigan.
So now what?
So many folks who support Michigan football have set their sights on Harbaugh, that anyone else will be, at least initially, considered a secondary choice. Even Carr publicly stated his desire for Harbaugh.
The new coach has the unenviable task of not being Jim Harbaugh and having to win right away. The win-now mandate is there because Michigan is going on too many years of wandering to continue to do so for very much longer.
The new guy will be the third straight hire at Michigan who will be regarded as not being Miles or Harbaugh. That’s not a clean slate and that’s not a good start.
But winning will end all that. Hence needing to win right away.
I have no more idea who will be the next coach at Michigan than you do. But I do know it won’t be Jim Harbaugh.
But Michigan faithful, take heart.
No one knew who Bo Schembechler was in 1969.