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Jim Harbaugh to Michigan is as big for the Big Ten as Nick Saban to Alabama was for the SEC. It’s that massive for Michigan and the conference. That’s because in today’s era of college football coaches make programs not vice versa. If you have the right coach, you’ll win big, if you have the wrong coach, you’ll lose big. Nothing else really matters. That’s what television has done, it’s leveled the playing field for all big five conference schools.
Let me explain.
We all have the attention spans of flies and the historical memory of a goldfish so it’s easy for most to forget how woeful Alabama was in the decade before Nick Saban came to Tuscaloosa. Over a ten year period with Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula as head coaches the Tide went 67-54 overall, 39-41 in the SEC. In his first year with Alabama Nick Saban went 7-6. Since that time Saban has gone 84-10, 49-7 in the SEC. Saban’s Alabama team has been favored in 68 consecutive games. Sixty-eight! Saban could have won just as big at half of the SEC programs. Alabama didn’t make Nick Saban, Saban made Alabama relevant again.
In the past seven years under the direction of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke Michigan has gone 46-42. That’s a 52% winning percentage, pretty damn similar to Alabama’s 55% winning percentage in the ten years before Nick Saban came to Tuscaloosa. Jim Harbaugh, who took Stanford from one win to 12 wins in four years and put his NFL team in three NFC title games in four years, will change all of that losing in a hurry. That’s because Michigan’s not going to make Jim Harbaugh, Harbaugh is going to make Michigan relevant again. Coaches make programs now, it’s why their salaries continue to skyrocket.
I’ve asked this question before, but how many outstanding college football coaches are there right now? In other words let’s take the most average job in major college football — Illinois, for instance — and if I told you that you could move any college coach to Illinois, but you had to wager your life savings that coach would win a conference title there within five years — how many current head coaches do you think could do it? There are only ten I feel comfortable naming — Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops, Art Briles, Gus Malzahn, Bobby Petrino, David Cutcliffe, Gary Patterson, Mark Dantonio, and James Franklin. (I’d leave out Steve Spurrier because he’s over seventy years old now. I’m leaving out Chip Kelly, who could win a national title at any top 50 job in the country if he ever decided to come back to coach in college, because he’s in the NFL. I’m also leaving out David Shaw because I think he and Stanford are uniquely suited to one another and I’m not sure Shaw’s success would translate as well at other schools. Finally, I’m leaving out Kevin Sumlin because A&M hasn’t been that great over the past two seasons and Charlie Strong because he hasn’t done it at Texas yet.) But I think all ten of the guys I named would contend for a conference title at Illinois over the next five years.
You may quibble with some of these guys — Franklin’s young and hasn’t won ten games yet, Patterson hasn’t proven he can recruit on an elite level, could Briles do it outside of Texas and doesn’t Cutcliffe’s record at Ole Miss suggest he couldn’t do it everywhere? — but this would be my list for the top ten coaches in college football right now. Who else can you argue that I left out? Okay, maybe Les Miles given his track record. Potentially Chris Petersen, but he’s only been at Washington for one year and the verdict is still out if he can replicate what he did at Boise State at a Pac 12 school. Gary Pinkel has been great at Mizzou, but he’s never won a conference title in 14 years with Mizzou so why would I expect him to do it at Illinois? FSU fans will scream that I left out Jimbo Fisher, but I’m not sold he would win big elsewhere. FSU is by far the best job in the ACC. How would Jimbo do with a competitive conference and a local police department that enforced the law? We just don’t know.
Now how many of these ten guys would be willing to leave for another job? Most of them seem pretty comfortable, right? That’s why Harbaugh is such a huge hire and so similar to Saban’s hire at Alabama; Michigan went out and snagged a top ten coach for a struggling blue blooded program when those coaches are a rare asset. Everyone wants a top ten coach, but most schools aren’t willing to pay what it takes to get one. Michigan is ready to make Harbaugh the highest paid coach in college football history. They employed the Clay Travis dump truck of cash theory and just kept adding money until Harbaugh couldn’t say no. Sure, there will be hand wringing columns written about his salary, but the simple truth is this — if Harbaugh wins at a high level he’ll pay for himself a hundred times over.
Because here’s the deal, the top coaches in college football are actually underpaid. You heard me right. Nick Saban is the best bargain in sports. Nick Saban isn’t overpaid, everyone else who isn’t as good as Nick Saban is overpaid. Saban’s salary lifts the ceiling and the floor for college football coaches everywhere. Saban’s success has been worth tens of millions of dollars in additional compensation to coaches who aren’t as good at their jobs as he is.
Harbaugh to Michigan is a home run hire, something that just doesn’t happen that often in college football. (I’m not using Urban Meyer to Ohio State as the equivalent move because Ohio State wasn’t really struggling that badly when Meyer arrived. Sure, the Jim Tressel departure was a mess, but it didn’t last for several seasons). Just like Nick Saban before him, Harbaugh is going to singlehandedly raise Michigan back to the ranks of the top programs in the country. Sure, he may wear out his welcome in a hurry, but are you telling me Nick Saban is warm and cuddly? Hell no. If you win games in college football your personality doesn’t matter. I guarantee you that Michigan fans will welcome having a coach who is so good at his job that there’s a constant fear he might leave. That sure as hell beats wanting your coach fired every year.
Harbaugh to Michigan for a big salary is just the latest evidence of something I’ve been writing about for years — the coach makes the program. In the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, and for much of the 1990’s all programs were not created equal. That’s because the primary driving force of revenue was ticket sales and alumni support. If you had a big stadium you made a lot more money than someone with a smaller stadium. The reason why you had a big stadium was because your program had been winning for generations. That meant you also had a substantial booster base. The difference in facilities, support structure, and program status – – which manifested itself in a colossal recruiting advantage meaning the bigger programs had better players — between the top school in a conference and the bottom school in a conference was seismic. The program made the coach instead of the coach making the program.
Then big television money came along and everyone got an equal share. Soon the SEC and the Big Ten will be distributing $40 million a year in TV money to every school. There’s still a gap in revenue between the top schools in major conferences and the bottom schools, but that gap isn’t anywhere near as substantial. The result? Ole Miss can convince Hugh Freeze to turn down Florida to stay in Oxford. Why would he do this? Easy, because Freeze doesn’t perceive it as being any easier to win a title at Florida than it is at Ole Miss. That’s a tremendous change in football.
Toss in the playoff — which will likely expand to eight teams before long — and college football is becoming much more similar to college basketball. You can win a title anywhere. In college basketball we’ve seen coaches like Mark Few remain at Gonzaga, Gregg Marshall stay at Wichita State, Shaka Smart stay at VCU or, until recently, Brad Stevens stay at Butler. They kept their smaller jobs because the bigger programs didn’t really offer them anything a smaller program couldn’t. You can make the tournament and win a title anywhere in college basketball. It’s the same in college football now. Once you’re in a big five conference in college football, there really isn’t that much of a reason to leave for another job unless you’re in a bottom ten big conference job and you get offered a top ten job. Otherwise there really isn’t that much difference between programs anymore.
Now, I’m not saying that Harbaugh will win at Saban’s level — the recruiting demographics are much better in the SEC than they are in the Big Ten, for instance — but Harbaugh can mean as much to the Big Ten as Saban did to the SEC. The only people more excited than Michigan fans that Harbaugh is going to Ann Arbor? Big Ten school presidents and league commissioner Jim Delany. The timing couldn’t be any better for the league to be bringing its television rights package to the market. ESPN and Fox are going to put big money on the table for the league. (NBC and CBS will bid too, but they won’t win). Given that Fox owns half the Big Ten Network, here’s an early wager on Fox and ESPN splitting the league’s games. You think that Jim Harbaugh against Urban Meyer might make the league’s marquee game a bit more attractive? Hell, the other Big Ten schools should chip in to pay Harbaugh’s salary, he’s going to end up making all of them more money too.
When you get right down to it, Michigan’s about to make the biggest hire in college football since Alabama brought in Saban back in 2007. I don’t think Harbaugh will win multiple national titles like Saban, but if he stays five years he’ll have the Wolverines in the college football playoff. How many other coaches in America could Michigan have hired that would guarantee that result?
It’s just a huge bonus that he’s a Michigan Man.
Time for a song rewrite — Harbaugh to the Victors.