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Our Football Scout 365 College Football Coach of The Year: Michigan's Jim Harbaugh

The changes made to the Michigan Football coaching staff this past offseason following a 2-4 season marred by the pandemic felt like desperation. For Jim Harbaugh to remain the Head Coach of the Michigan Football team beyond 2021, he faced a mountain of circumstances that, quite frankly, no coach to my recollection in football has overcome at the level Jim Harbaugh has in 2021. He took a 50% pay cut, a lower buy-out, and then made several staff changes that, in most cases, would take a year or two to develop.

A disastrous 2020 Season

In 2020, Harbaughs 6th year as the Michigan head coach, the defense ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten Conference in total defense while giving up 34 points per game. They complemented a bad defense with a middling mediocre offense. The team felt flat in 5 of its six games and often not on the same page. The Wolverines would finish the 2020 season 2-4 with zero wins at home. One positive in an otherwise negative year, they would avoid Ohio State because of the pandemic, a game scheduled on the road in Columbus against an Ohio State offense poised to smack Michigan around the field once again.

Harbaugh Considered a Lame Duck In 2021?

Heading into the 2021 calendar year, Jim Harbaugh had to agree to accept a lame-duck contract extension that cut his pay in half while lowering his buy-out significantly, which labeled him among fans and media to be a lame duck. It also meant that Michigan AD Warde Manuel and the Michigan Board of Regents had prepared to move on if 2021 were to go downhill in a similar way to that of 2020.

Swallowed By Expectations

The expectations for Jim Harbaugh when he arrived in Ann Arbor in 2015 were high. Michigan fans, the media, and everyone expected him to compete immediately, beat Ohio State, win Big Ten championships, and get Michigan to the College Football Playoff. Instead, Harbaugh started 0-5 vs. Ohio State and has since lost his last two games to in-state rival Michigan State, where Jim is now just 3-4 vs. the Spartans. Michigan had not been to the Big Ten title game in Harbaughs first six seasons, and the reality for Michigan Football is that unless they beat Ohio State, they may never realize the goal of winning a Big Ten title.

Cultural Changes Combined With Staff Changes Infuse Confidence

Before the 2021 season, Jim Harbaugh knew changes were needed. Not just staff changes, but cultural changes. He started by firing his offensive line coach Ed Warriner (who had done an okay job) and Defensive Coordinator Don Brown. He hired Sherone Moore, a coach who had never coached offensive line before, to be the new OL coach. Many pundits would criticize the Sherone Moore move, but Moore is arguably the second-best coaching decision of Harbaugh's tenure at Michigan. The best decision would be his hiring of 34-year-old Mike Macdonald, a linebacker coach for Jim's Brother John in Baltimore. John Harbaugh highly recommended Macdonald to replace Don Brown. The hire would prove to be the best hire of the Harbaugh era.

Michigan made several other staff moves; they hired a new defensive backs coach (Steve Clinkscale), another brilliant move, they finally snagged Mike Hart away from the Indiana Hoosiers to coach the running backs. Jim moved his son Jay from running back coach to coach the special teams, which his unit in 2021 is arguably the best in college football, or at a minimum top two or three.

Staff and Culture Changes At The Administrative Level

One of the most notable staff changes made by Jim Harbaugh happened at the administrative level. Jim decided to move on from his Recruiting Coordinator Matt Dudek, who had been in the role since 2017. Jim Replaced Dudek with Courtney Morgan. Morgan, a Los Angeles native who lettered at Michigan 2000-2003, was director of player development at UCLA early in his career. More recently, he was coordinator of player personnel at San Jose State and then director of player personnel at Fresno State in 2020. It was apparent that Jim Harbaugh's determination to change the culture at Michigan would go deeper than just his coaching staff. All of the changes to his staff spoke volumes about his intentions to right the ship at Michigan.

Hope Springs Eternal at Big Ten Media Days

In 2021, the Michigan Football team had a different aura; in the spring at Big Ten Media Days, Jim spoke optimistically about his staff, his team, and their expectations heading into the 2021 season. He made a statement at Media Days about beating Ohio State or die trying. He was saying all of the right things, but one thing was noticeably different, Jim was smiling, he looked loose, he had lost some weight. And now, in hindsight, we can look back to the spring and say that Jim's optimism was warranted.

Jim Harbaugh Never Waivered, Kept the Same Message From Spring Through Fall Camp, and The Rest Is History

The 2021 Michigan Football team beat Ohio State (handily) and followed that with a dominant Big Ten Championship win against Iowa. Michigan is ranked number two in the College Football Playoff rankings, and they will make their first appearance in the playoff against the number three Georgia Bulldogs. All of this is a culmination of so many factors, the bold move to bet on oneself to overcome the odds of a lower buy-out and a 50% pay cut, the looming cloud of 0-5 vs. Ohio State, and your fan base and media actively rooting against you.

In one season, Harbaugh has changed the narrative about who he is as a coach. He had achieved all of the expectations everyone had for Michigan Football when he arrived in 2015, maybe not as fast as many wanted, but he finally did it. From the outside looking in, it appears that Jim took a long look in the mirror, made some changes to his physical health, changed his staff by hiring a highly energetic and youthful staff, and then had faith that his plan would work. His comment about beating Ohio State or they would die trying back in the spring of 2021 is a testament to the new cultural focus in Schembechler Hall, and that's the same formula used by Ohio State in their Woody Hayes center. Everything is about beating Michigan 247/365. Michigan has now embodied that same mindset, and now they are back to being Michigan once again.

Jim Harbaugh is the 2021 Football Scout 365 College Coach Of The Year

Michigan is 12-1; they beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten Championship, finished #2 in the college Football regular-season poll, and now face #3 Georgia on New Year's Eve in College Football Playoff Semi-Finals in Miami. Michigan's defense went from the bottom of the Big Ten to 12th nationally in total defense and 4th in scoring defense.

The offense has been the ultimate example of complementary football. This season, offensive Coordinator Josh Gattis has come into his own as a coach by embracing a run-first mindset. Michigan's offensive line has been dominant this season, leading the nation with the lowest tackles for loss allowed a testament to new offensive line coach Sherone Moore. The Michigan rush offense is 4th nationally in total yards and 10th in average yards per attempt.

The turnaround from 2020 to 2021 feels almost impossible, but Michigan is a complete football team; one can argue they are the most complete.


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