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Couch: Harbaugh Pay Cut Turns Michigan Into Bargain Basement Program

Jim Harbaugh was the Ferrari your neighbor parks on the driveway for everyone to see. He was the three-carat diamond ring a friend shows off to overtake your party.

When Harbaugh came back to Michigan, he was there to coach, of course. But he was also brought in for show. Michigan was saying, “Look at us! Don’t look at Columbus, Ohio.’’

Michigan believes in the fiction that it has a long history as one of the nation’s elite college programs. It does not. But Harbaugh was the way to fool everyone — fans, boosters, recruits — that it’s true. And they needed to do it before Michigan faded away, like Nebraska.

I say this because reports are that Harbaugh is about to sign a five-year contract extension to keep coaching the Wolverines for $4 million a year. When he was hired six years ago, he got $8 million a year. The price tag was part of the sales pitch to the world. Now, he’ll be the 10th highest paid coach in the Big Ten. They even reduced his buyout, should Michigan decide to fire him.

Jim Harbaugh is on the clearance rack now. He’s day-old doughnuts. I was at the Jewel yesterday, a grocery store in Chicago, buying fresh orange juice. One of the bottles had a $2 off sticker, trying to get me to buy it before they just gave up on it and threw it away.

That’s Harbaugh at Michigan now. And it’s not going to work. Michigan needs to move on from Harbaugh now.

I’m not trying to ridicule him. I’m not spiking the football in joy over his failure. I’m here in Chicago, fully believing that he should be the Bears coach next year. He’s a former Bears quarterback, he coached the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl and developed quarterbacks. His coaching career has been more successful in the NFL level than at the college level.

Harbaugh has actually done a good job at Michigan, no matter what people seem to think. He brought Michigan back to a national level, one of the top 15 or 20 programs in America. Michigan was awful this year, but maybe after five good years, you cut a guy a break when his team stinks during a pandemic, when practice schedules and player availability are unknown.

But part of Harbaugh’s success has been his brashness. And that’s gone now. Now, he’s just some coach at Michigan. And to cut his salary in half — reports say that with incentives such as winning championships, he can still get back up to $8 million — is to put him in position to fail.

Believe me, I think that these salaries are outrageous in a public university system where English departments are filled with adjunct teachers being paid $4,000 per class with no benefits, and students have to take out six figures worth of loans that they’ll be paying off until they retire just to attend.

But for Harbaugh to be Harbaugh at the college level, he has to be obnoxious and he has to have an obnoxious salary, not one that is lower than the coach at the University of Illinois. This would be like moving the Royal Family out of Buckingham Palace into a two-bedroom flat, expecting tourists to keep coming.

On top of that, there are so many reports saying that Harbaugh was looking to leave Michigan and go back to the NFL. (Are you listening, Bears owners?) Supposedly, five NFL teams were interested. So Harbaugh was playing the field while stalling on Michigan’s offer.

Maybe, but if any team had made him an offer, it’s hard to see why he’d take a 50% pay cut to stay at Michigan.

Appearances matter, and it looks like Harbaugh was holding Michigan out as a second-choice, a fallback plan. When he came to Michigan, he made the program look like The Place to Be. Now it’s Plan B, and the school has just cut his salary in half and made it easier to fire him.

I’ve heard of better sales pitches to recruits.

Harbaugh was brought in to beat Urban Meyer at Ohio State. He hasn’t beaten Ohio State yet. Hardly anyone can. Meanwhile, Meyer is reportedly interviewing today with the Jacksonville Jaguars who might pay him $12 million a year to coach Trevor Lawrence.

Sorry, Jim. I know I’m calling for you to coach the Bears and that just comes with Mitch Trubisky at QB, if they bring him back.

But hey, Harbaugh would walk in the door at Soldier Field beloved and believed. There might even be Ferrari-like fireworks in Chicago to celebrate his homecoming. At Michigan now, he’s just a Chevy Spark.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

10 Comments

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  1. ‘Michigan believes in the fiction that it has a long history as one of the nation’s elite college programs.’

    It’s like the Texas Longhorns football program…or like was mentioned…Nebraska.

    It does tell me though that a long storied program has a lot more to do with the coach than the actual tradition or folklore about the football program. There’s not many Tom Osbornes coming through the door.

  2. Greg – you are a great writer and I generally respect your opinion. But dogging Michigan and its coach by using hyperbole seems to be petty. Michigan is still the winningest program in college football, and in terms of relevancy and financial revenue, it is currently ranked in top 4 or 5. You cannot dispute the brand name and the cash cow both the Michigan brand and Harbaugh brings. One cannot overlook the 0-5 record against Ohio State but on the same token, averaging more than 8 wins per year in the tough Big 10 East is high respectable. One can even make the argument that Harbaugh taking the pay cut is taking the high road – when most public institutions and colleges are facing huge deficits. At the end of the day, you cannot doubt Harbaugh’s pedigree in USD, Stanford, the 49ers, and even at Michigan (more than 8 wins per season). You can hold that percentage up to anybody.

  3. is this unprecedented in the modern era? Life long Michigan fan and I have to say they are making really hard to remain one. Harbaugh was paid the big bucks to beat or at least be competitive with Ohio State. Not sure what the expectations for program are now.

  4. I think Michigan set his salary low so his buyout won’t break the bank. Whether he goes to the NFL or gets canned, it’s not a terrible move for Michigan from an admin perspective. It makes me think Michigan is waiting for that big name coach to become available to replace Harbaugh.

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