With contract uncertainty, does Jim Harbaugh need to justify his salary this season?

From coaching shirtless at satellite camps to appearing in Judge Judy’s gallery to sleeping at the home of a recruit, Jim Harbaugh has remained persistently bizarre. In a football world defined by conformity, he’s long been a proud outlier.

As Michigan’s fans and administrators alternately experience and endure Year 6 of the Jim Harbaugh Era, the situation around Harbaugh’s contract stands out.

Harbaugh is the only Power Five coach with less than two years remaining on his contract. Few even have less than three. With a winning percentage and a reputation that should have earned him an extension long ago, Harbaugh instead is inexplicably headed toward the end of his contract. “That just doesn’t happen in college football,” an industry source said of Harbaugh’s contract situation. “No one coaches to the last year of their deal in college. They are either fired or extended.”

Nearly 14 months remain before Harbaugh’s contractual time at Michigan runs out. And even by his standards for bizarre, this contract situation is an outlier. Harbaugh remains on his original Michigan contract, one that a coach winning 72 percent of his games would have extended at least for optical purposes.  

But now here’s the problem. Harbaugh appeared to cross swords with Michigan’s president, Mark Schlissel, during the pandemic. And that’s who ultimately will have to decide whether Harbaugh is worth $8 million annually, the amount he was reportedly scheduled to make this season prior to a 10 percent COVID-19 pay cut. 

It remains unlikely Michigan would fire Harbaugh, even if they flop this season as many around the Big Ten are predicting. He’s gone 47-18 and finished ranked in four of his five seasons. But the lingering contract uncertainty dovetails with an increasing feeling that Harbaugh has generally underperformed at Michigan. The current roster and recruiting trajectory don’t point to Michigan changing weight classes anytime soon.

Then there’s Harbaugh, who has long failed to play nice with his superiors, which manifested itself at both Stanford and in San Francisco.  

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who has two years left on his deal, says he was close to a contract extension before coping with the pandemic became a priority. (AP)

Harbaugh’s prior track record is that he’s so day-to-day strange, awkward interpersonally and ambivalent toward authority that he eventually wears out his welcome. Harbaugh appeared to antagonize Schlissel during the pandemic with his vocal demands to play after Schlissel voted against it. Harbaugh took part in a protest that put scrutiny on his relationship and lack of communication with the school president. 

That led to this doozy of a stay-in-your-lane quote from Schlissel, an immunologist by background, to The Michigan Daily: “In the instance of how to keep our student-athletes safe, that’s much more of a medical decision and it’s much more of a university responsibility than it is a football coach’s decision.” 

While Schlissel did say he considered Harbaugh a friend, that quote doesn’t sound like a boss ready to dish out another $8 million annually during a pandemic. Schlissel said he and Harbaugh “come at things in different ways,” which is an understatement.

The relationship with Harbaugh at Michigan isn’t nearly as toxic as the one he brewed with the 49ers. But from the brass to the fan base, the infallibility that Harbaugh has brought with him upon his arrival in 2014 has faded.

Harbaugh has no-showed in enough big games – especially against Ohio State – that the specter of him reviving Michigan into a national title contender has subsided. In Harbaugh’s five seasons, Michigan has yet to reach the Big Ten title game, beat Ohio State or win a major bowl game. The ugliest numbers come consistently when the competition stiffens, as Michigan is 2-12 against top-10 teams, 0-5 against Ohio State and has four straight bowl losses.

Around the league, Harbaugh has entered that awkward coaching netherworld where rivals wouldn’t mind if he stuck around. There’s a realization that others could do more with the Michigan job than Harbaugh, who has proven an ambivalent recruiter, spotty with staff hires and an impotent quarterback developer. (Michigan also has not had a tailback drafted since Mike Hart in 2008, while Michigan State has had four since then. Eastern Michigan had a tailback drafted more recently.)  

Since Harbaugh’s arrival in 2015, Ohio State has lodged itself in the Big Ten’s Ritz Carlton penthouse, while Michigan is staying in a Hyatt corner room. The biggest worry for Michigan fans is that instead of signs of upward mobility, the Wolverines appear content with the continental breakfast.  

Would Harbaugh be in this weird contractual purgatory if not for the COVID-19 pandemic? Probably not. He said in July that he had “bigger fish to fry” than his own contract and that he expected “an announcement sometime.”

Three months later, there’s no announcement. Harbaugh made the third most – $7.5 million – of any college football coach last season. Since Harbaugh clearly isn’t in among the sport’s top-five coaches, would he take a pay cut for performance? His ego would struggle with that.

Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh reacts to a call during a loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes on Nov. 30, 2019. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel didn’t return calls for comment about Harbaugh’s unusual contractual predicament. But this decision will likely go over his head anyway. The athletic department is facing some grim finances, as it has laid off 21 employees and faces a $26 million deficit.

Until some white smoke comes from Ann Arbor on Harbaugh’s contract, it will remain a talking point. Most coaches would claim the short contract hurts recruiting, but that doesn’t appear to be a concern.

What’s remarkable about Michigan under Harbaugh is how the program has seemingly become comfortable with its second-tier status in the Big Ten. This has manifested itself is in recruiting, where Ohio State has cast a national net to compete with Alabama, Clemson and LSU for the top players. Michigan hasn’t even been able to enter many of those battles, never mind win them, as their recruiting strategy continues to be viewed as strikingly unstrategic.

“If you are trying to beat Ohio State, you should be recruiting against Ohio State,” said a recruiting director at a Power Five school. “Michigan is getting four or five studs a year, when Ohio State is getting 20 studs a year.”

Michigan does rank No. 7 in the Rivals.com recruiting rankings. But the Wolverines really haven’t been competitive with Ohio State on the recruiting trail, much like on the field. Just five of Michigan’s Class of 2021 commitments even had Ohio State offers, according to Rivals.com, and a source told Yahoo Sports that Ohio State would have taken just one of those five.   

“It’s a lot of independent contracting, and it seems like the backbone of their team is being built from the state of Massachusetts,” said another Power Five recruiting director. “They are throwing darts around the board with no identity. Where’s their recruiting area?”

No. 19 Michigan opens the season at No. 24 Minnesota on Oct. 24, a game where the Wolverines’ vulnerabilities could be exposed. If Michigan loses that game, a 4-4 season would quickly become the expectation. Michigan has a new quarterback, four new starters on the offensive line and little dynamic skill at receiver. They have two of the nation’s best defensive ends but lack quality defensive tackles and proven cover corners. (Sophomore safety Daxton Hill, who flipped from Alabama in a rare big-time recruiting win, is the program’s best young player.)

Each loss Michigan suffers this season will further magnify Harbaugh’s awkward predicament. For now, he’s overpaid, underperforming and his loudest supporters, fittingly, are Ohio State fans begging for him to be extended.

And that potentially leaves the Michigan brass with a vexing question: Do you keep shelling out a penthouse salary to a coach who after five years hasn’t shown the ability to get there?

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