Back when Jim Harbaugh was still taking snaps under center and delivering passes from the pocket, he earned the “Captain Comeback” nickname for his ability to rally his team to victory.
Harbaugh’s willful nature and determination persist to this day as he begins to tackle the toughest test of his coaching career at a time when the Michigan football program he commands is in a rut.
That was evident Friday, when Harbaugh shared six of his personal goals during a virtual presentation, captured in a screenshot, at a Michigan High School Coaches Association clinic.
Among his objectives: Leading a team that would win the 2021 Big Ten and national championships — an ambition he has yet to realize in any of his previous six years at Michigan when the Wolverines haven’t finished atop their own division. Another was not being “scared of any man, moment, circumstance or of being fired.”
While Harbaugh maintains lofty aspirations for his beloved alma mater, he’s also keenly aware that his job security is tenuous after signing a contract extension through 2025 this month that nearly halved his annual compensation and cut the university’s buyout costs.
The added years mask the stark reality of Harbaugh’s situation. The terms of this new deal were constructed after Michigan’s scheduling — by coincidence or design — created a two-year window that would ease a transition to a new regime in either 2022 or 2023.
Both seasons’ schedules feature no non-conference Power Five teams. In October 2019, Michigan canceled its series with UCLA during those years. They then filled the voids with home games against Connecticut in 2022 and UNLV the following season. The Wolverines’ non-Big Ten slates also include Hawaii, Colorado State, East Carolina and Bowling Green. Only Hawaii finished 2020 with a winning record while UConn, in transition to independent status and in response to the coronavirus pandemic, sat out the season entirely.
Once upon a time, Harbaugh voiced his opposition to this kind of soft scheduling.
“Somebody really ought to take notice of this stuff,” Harbaugh said in 2009, when he was Stanford’s coach. “You have eight or nine wins and so you’re a great football team? Well, what if you played four patsies in your non-conference and then you only won half your conference games and so you get to go play in the Alamo Bowl and everyone says you’re a great team. That’s what happens. … There’s no question that the Pac-10 doesn’t get that respect for playing teams out of conference of like caliber.”
Whether Harbaugh has changed his tune on the subject since returning to the Big Ten is uncertain. But if he has, that would run counter to trends in the sport’s highest ranks. The powers, after all, are arranging more intersectional games against tougher competition. Ohio State is scheduled to face Oregon, Notre Dame, Washington and Texas in upcoming seasons. In fact, the Buckeyes are set to play the Huskies and the Longhorns in the same year, 2025. Along the same lines, Alabama has made dates — and, in some cases, series — with Miami, Texas, Florida State and Wisconsin to supplement its SEC slate.
So, why hasn’t Michigan done the same, especially when athletic director Warde Manuel said his department may lose approximately $80 million this year?
The preservation of as many home games as possible appears to have been among the main considerations.
“We are also mindful that we already play nine conference games — that’s nine games against Power Five opponents, so the remainder of our schedule needs to factor all of the needs of our program,” Manuel told the Free Press in September.
That seemingly includes Harbaugh’s long-term future with the Wolverines, which at the time was uncertain, with Harbaugh entering 2020 as the only Power Five coach with less than two years left on his contract.
Months later, Harbaugh’s position doesn’t appear much more secure. He hinted at that when he revealed to high school coaches his desire to not succumb to any fears of being fired. If that wasn’t a legitimate possibility in his mind, why would he worry about it?
Harbaugh, of course, understands the stakes. He needs to win now. The contract he just signed and Michigan’s future schedules signal that mandate.
The question is whether he has another comeback in him as he stares at one of his greatest challenges yet.