Jim Harbaugh's Status Is A Top College Football Storyline Heading Into 2021
The offseason prior to the 2020 college football season was wild. Cancellations, postponements, opt outs, protocols and COVID-19 testing are words fans hope to never hear about again when it comes to their beloved sport.
While things across the country have calmed down and sports are just about back to normal, Michigan has had an interesting offseason once again, albeit the storylines have much more to do with actual football than they did a year ago.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh signed a contract through the 2025 season and has seen his base salary diminish by roughly half of what it was in 2020. He replaced six assistant coaches and has made drastic changes to his recruiting department.
Now, as football nears, with Michigan set to kickoff the season in 87 days, focus is shifting more and more towards what the Wolverines will do on the field in 2021 after a disastrous 2020 campaign. While Harbaugh's newly-minted extension affords him a bit of security heading into the next year or two, it's clear the pressure is on — not that it wasn't in the six years prior.
In Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football Preview magazine, one of the top 'things to watch' across all of college football centered around Harbaugh's status in a section titled, 'Harbaugh's last stand?'
"Throughout his first five seasons at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh’s tenure was defined by one big, insurmountable mandate: beating Ohio State," the publication wrote. "In Year Six, however, the Buckeyes were the least of his problems. Just about everything that could have gone wrong in the abbreviated 2020 campaign did — key injuries, widespread attrition, instability at quarterback, weekly breakdowns on defense, all culminating in a 2-4 slog that very nearly cost Harbaugh his job.
"The only silver lining, ironically, was that at least Michigan didn’t have to suffer through yet another loss vs. OSU — the rivalry game was mercifully called off due to the virus.
"Rumors swirled that a mutual split between Harbaugh and his alma mater was imminent, and although they ultimately decided to stick it out for another year, there’s no hiding now that the marriage is on the rocks. The bid for a resurgence rests largely on a new, as-yet-undetermined quarterback and a first-time defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald, who spent the last six years working under Harbaugh’s brother, John, with the Baltimore Ravens. Macdonald will inherit proven commodities in defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (a 2020 injury casualty) and defensive back Daxton Hill; otherwise, almost every other position is up for grabs."
While the outlet describes the Harbaugh/Michigan marriage as "on the rocks," Director of Athletics Warde Manuel has made it clear that the contract extension means he believes in Harbaugh — the ice may not be as thin as some think.
“Given the contract, I am willing to be patient," Manuel said in March . "Jim and I understand we need to win. This is Michigan — nobody wants to win more than Jim in football and me overall.
"We want success. Did I put a number on it? No. I want him to move forward and build this and continue to drive us toward success in football. Again, nobody wants to have more success in football at Michigan than Jim Harbaugh.
"He has that flexibility and that space to continue to find success here, whether it’s with his staff or recruiting — it’s not a short-term play for me. We’ll see how the season plays out and make decisions accordingly.
"This is something we both want to work, so there’s no minimum or maximum number of wins — I don’t interact with my coaches in that way.”
Many believe that if the Wolverines avoid disaster this season and return to winning eight-plus games while showing improvement throughout the year, Harbaugh and his staff will have jobs in 2022 and can continue attempting to rebuild the program. After all, Harbaugh led a resurgence in Ann Arbor from 2015 to 2019, with the Maize and Blue having won at least eight games in all five of those seasons, including three 10-win campaigns.
In many ways, 2021 is a reset year for Michigan, fair or not. The Wolverines will need to show positive steps forward and that the train is back on the tracks after a 2020 season in which opt outs, injuries and culture problems derailed the club.
One thing is clear — the Michigan fan base, as well as the media, is in wait-and-see mode, now more than ever. After last season, no result would be a shock.
"Ohio State notwithstanding, every other game on the schedule is winnable, including a tone-setter vs. Washington," Athlon Sports wrote. "If the defense reverts to form, the Wolverines could be a stable quarterback away from a dark-horse run in the Big Ten East. But the line between landing in a major bowl game in December and launching a coaching search is as thin as it can be."
• Talk about this article inside The Fort
• Watch our videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel
• Listen and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, The Wolverine
• Sign up for our daily newsletter and breaking news alerts
• Like us on Facebook