On Jan. 19, we first wrote about Jim Harbaugh's original seven-year contract, which is set to expire three days after the conclusion of the 2021 season. Only 52 percent of the fans responding to a Twitter poll felt that AD Warde Manuel should extend the deal before the 2020 season, but inside the athletic department that number is closer to 100 percent, as officials understand failing to extend Harbaugh would make him appear to be a lame duck coach and that would stifle recruiting and progress for the program.
In fact, multiple sources WolverineDigest spoke to believe an extension will be finalized and announced within the next few weeks.
"We're already getting negatively recruited against, one staff in particular - and it's pretty pathetic considering the status of that staff - telling 2021 recruits that Harbaugh will be gone after their first year," one of the sources said.
"But at the same time, they're not really making stuff up at the moment. Jim doesn't have a deal in place beyond 2021 and every recruit's parent will be asking whether he'll be here to coach their son, and if not, is there a plan?"
Earlier this week, Manuel finalized Michigan's 2022 schedule, adding UConn to a non-conference slate that also includes Colorado State and Hawaii, and doing so was believed to be his first priority, as one official noted "setting Jim or whoever the next coach is up for success" in a year U-M also gets Penn State, Nebraska and Illinois at home and plays Michigan State and Ohio State on the road.
OSU will still be OSU, but most Michigan officials expect MSU to be in transition or at the tail end of the Mark Dantonio era.
"You're seeing it more and more now, these coaches wielding tremendous power over their athletic directors, and it's quite possible Dantonio will still be at Michigan State in three years because he will not walk away when the program he built into a Big Ten champion is scuffling at the bottom ... and the administration there doesn't have the stomach to fire him," admittedly a Michigan not MSU official said.
Back to Harbaugh, there is an urgency now that the 2022 schedule has been remedied to get a deal done soon. Why?
The 2021 class is loaded with in-state talent, eight current recruits ranked in the 247Sports.com composite Top 250, including three Michiganders in the Top 50 and five in the Top 100. That almost never happens. Additionally, there are 42 prospects from Big Ten states ranked in the Top 250 (though a number already committed), and the Wolverines need to clean up in their own backyard.
"An extension of at least three years takes Jim and this program through 2024, the duration of a 2021 recruit's career at Michigan," said one of the U-M officials, who also noted that the salary should be about the same. "It'll be in the $8 million range again because it has to be. Economics demands that, and at the same time, you can't take the compensation down and acknowledge to the college football world that we don't feel Jim is worth what we've been paying him.
"That would be akin to admitting he hasn't achieved anything of substance yet."
Which leads us all to this: will Harbaugh be at Michigan in 2024?
Three of the four sources I spoke to said, ideally, yes, citing the financial health of the football program and the athletic department, which is largely attributed to Harbaugh's performance in his first five years.
"He re-established the Michigan brand and created energy among the fan base," one of the athletic department staffers said. "Is that slipping a little? It's hard to tell. We believe those vocally frustrated represent a minority, and even that minority seems to still be buying tickets, watching games and grabbing merchandise, so from a straight-up business argument, there is absolutely no reason to move on from Jim.
"Competitively, everyone is disappointed in the lack of results against Ohio State and the Big Ten Championship, and that's why I'd expect a lower buyout on the contract extension, both to protect ourselves but also so Jim, if he feels he wants to move on, can do so without reservations.
"If it's 0-6 or 0-7 [against Ohio State], when is enough enough? All he needs to do is win one of the next two, go to Indianapolis just once in the next two years, and all this talk will go away, and he can coach here forever if he wants."
The same official who remarked about Dantonio, with a bit of a chuckle admitted, "the future really is in Jim's hands. This isn't a Warde Manuel decision. This is a Jim Harbaugh decision because the bottom line [financially] is there, and the big donors overwhelmingly still support him."
In the meantime, Michigan understands how important it is to set Harbaugh up for success both in the short term, with the 2021 class, and the long term, with the 2022-24 classes.
"Just think how bad it would look if he beats Ohio State this year and goes to the Big Ten title game and he has one year left on his contract about 10 days from a 2021 Signing Day and we're missing out on in-state kids because there was uncertainty about Jim's future here," one of the officials said.
"You'd have all this momentum and we'd have asked him to capitalize on it from an impossible situation. We know we need to get it done, and unless Jim pulls some huge surprise, both sides know we can't let this linger much further."