With Harbaugh Safe, One Michigan Coach Remains On The Hot Seat

It is critical that the Michigan offense takes a huge step forward in 2021.
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For Michigan fans, the early part of the off-season was largely spent speculating on whether or not Jim Harbaugh would return to Ann Arbor after a dismal 2-4 season and entering the final year of his contract.  Harbaugh got off to a hot start upon his arrival to Michigan, posting back-to-back 10-win seasons in his first two years and having the Wolverines within an inch of beating Ohio State and reaching the Big Ten championship game for the first time since its inception in 2011.

Though Harbaugh's first two seasons gave fans plenty to feel optimistic about, the last four years have left fans wondering if Michigan will ever get over the hump with Harbaugh at the helm.  Not only has the man once dubbed the "savior" of Michigan gone 0-5 against Ohio State, his teams have also gone 1-4 in bowl games and routinely seem to come up short when faced with legitimate talent on the opposing side.  

Skepticism aside, Harbaugh's future at Michigan - at least in the short-term - is relatively safe after receiving a contract extension and a vote of confidence from Michigan athletic director Warde Manual.  In fact, Manuel made clear that he remains patient with Harbaugh - a patience that is likely to extend well past the 2021 season regardless of the outcome.

“I think it’s, given the contract, obviously, I am willing to be patient,” Manuel said. “Obviously, he and I understand that. This is Michigan. Nobody wants to win more than Jim in football and me overall. We want success. Did I put a number to his first year? The answer is no. I want him to move forward and build this and continue to drive us to have success in football. Again, nobody wants to have more success in football at the University of Michigan than Jim Harbaugh."

“So, for me, he has the flexibility, he has that space to continue to drive that success here, whether it’s on staff, 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 that I want to work, he wants to work, so there’s no minimum numbers or maximum numbers. And I don’t, with my coaches, interact in that way.”

With Harbaugh clearly safe in his position, it soon became clear that his coaching staff would be on the chopping block in a big way.  The most notable departure came when former defensive coordinator Don Brown would be fired after serving five years alongside Harbaugh.  Brown's defense was often ranked among the college football elite - but would often struggle mightily against top-tier programs with a legitimate offensive attack.  

All in all, the only coaches that survived Harbaugh's complete overhaul of the coaching staff are new offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, special teams coach Jay Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.  

Gattis is set to enter his third season in Ann Arbor as Michigan's offensive coordinator and patience is beginning to run out for the man who once promoted the now infamous concept of "speed in space".  In a move that was supposed to propel the Michigan offense into the new era of college football, the hiring of Gattis has resulted in a Wolverine offense that has regressed each year under his leadership.

josh gattis

Josh Gattis took over as offensive coordinator at Michigan in 2019.

Here's a look at where the Michigan offense finished prior to the arrival of Josh Gattis (2018) and where they've finished following each of his first two years as offensive coordinator (out of 129 teams).

Rushing yards per game:

  • 2018 - 31st 
  • 2019 - 77th
  • 2020 - 98th

Passing yards per game:

  • 2018 - 79th
  • 2019 - 50th
  • 2020 - 44th

Total yards per game:

  • 2018 - 50th
  • 2019 - 68th
  • 2020 - 79th 

Total points per game:

  • 2018 - 21st
  • 2019 - 44th 
  • 2020 - 66th

The bottom line is that, if Michigan has any shot at making drastic improvements in the 2021 season and beyond, the offense simply has to be better in every single phase.  To be fair, it's still relatively early in the tenure of Josh Gattis and the oddity of the 2020 season certainly didn't do him any favors.  At the same time, an offense that routinely finishes among the worst in college football is unacceptable at any power five program - especially a program like Michigan.

Though Gattis was able to escape the significant cuts made to Harbaugh's staff during the off-season, the clock is certainly ticking.  In fact, the 2021 season might provide one last opportunity for Gattis to prove he's capable of doing what he was brought to Ann Arbor to do.