As the clock continues to tick toward decision day for both Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, the reality of the decision is beginning to take shape. For a prideful man like Harbaugh, both options present a reality that is less than ideal - and his decision may ultimately come down to which is less painful.
Option 1: Take less and return to a hostile environment
If the report from John U. Bacon is correct, University of Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel has discussed a new contract with Harbaugh that includes a lower base salary and buyout. This would be a sensible offer from Michigan given the lack of on-field success over the last six seasons, particularly as it relates to Ohio State and competing for Big Ten Championships.
For Harbaugh, accepting a lower salary will likely be hard to stomach for several reasons. Outside of the obvious disappointment that comes along with a paycut, Harbaugh would be accepting less money to return to a football program where a majority of the fans wish to see him gone. We conducted a poll over the summer where nearly 82% of fans had indicated they favored an extension for Harbaugh. When we ran that same exact poll following the brutal week two loss to Michigan State, the numbers had completely flipped - 83% had favored moving on from Harbaugh.
If Harbaugh does end up accepting a lesser offer to return for the 2021 season and beyond, he’ll be returning to a hostile environment with a coaching seat that is already engulfed in flames - at least as far as the fan base is concerned. Not the most ideal scenario.
Option 2: Part ways and tarnish your coaching legacy
If there was one head coaching job that Jim Harbaugh couldn’t afford to fail at, it was Michigan. This is the one that he absolutely had to get right. When he took the podium shortly after accepting the position with Michigan, Harbaugh didn’t understate the importance of succeeding as head coach of his alma mater.
"There were times in my life where I've thought about it, dreamed about it, and now it's time to live it. It’s more than personal. I can’t screw it up, I have to do good.”
Prior to his arrival at Michigan, Harbaugh had developed a track record of restoring programs into legitimate championship contenders. He did it at the collegiate level with Stanford, turning the Cardinal from perennial Pac-12 punching bag to a 12-1 team that finished within the top five of the AP poll. He did it in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, taking a team that had gone eight straight years without a winning record to a team that made a trip to the Super Bowl by his second year as head coach. By the time he had accepted the position with Michigan in December of 2014, Jim Harbaugh was arguably the hottest coaching commodity in all of football.
Six years into his tenure at Michigan, Harbaugh’s head coaching stock has fallen tremendously - a direct result of his struggles in Ann Arbor. Entering what would be his seventh year as head coach of the Wolverines, he’s yet to beat Ohio State or deliver a conference title to the program. Walking away from Michigan with so much unfinished business is the type of thing that will likely eat away at a competitor like Harbaugh. It will also eat away at his coaching legacy.