It’s the first Friday in February and the search is in high gear. The mission: to replace the coach who sparked the most improved unit in major college football in 2021.
Mike Macdonald spent one season at Michigan and helped turn a backsliding program into one that shocked the sports world by winning its first Big Ten title in 17 years en route to making the College Football Playoff. But then in late January, the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator left Ann Arbor to return to his former team with a big promotion, taking over the Baltimore Ravens defense.
Almost no one around the Big Ten had heard of 34-year-old Macdonald when Jim Harbaugh hired him off brother John’s staff to replace Don Brown. Macdonald had no experience as a coordinator, but Harbaugh trusted the intel he got from his brother and the feel he got from Macdonald. Replacing him would be as critical as finding him. This time, as Harbaugh set up his search for the Wolverines’ new DC, he had some unique directives he hoped would help sort out the candidates.
In addition to getting to know each coach, Harbaugh wanted the candidates to have a big-picture plan readied for the Wolverines’ defensive personnel in 2022: what they’d keep from Michigan’s 2021 system and why, what they’d change and why; as well as have some early game-plan thoughts, specifically for Michigan State on first and second downs and Ohio State on third downs.
In the past, Harbaugh had hired coordinators without even formally interviewing them. But allowing 6.3 yards per play on first down in a 37-33 loss to archrival Michigan State can change a man.
“Knowing Jim, every coordinator he’s ever hired has probably been a different process because it’s probably what he thinks is important at that particular moment,” one former Wolverines assistant told The Athletic.
One of this year’s candidates, Wisconsin linebackers coach Bobby April III, was flying down to Orlando, Fla., for a family trip to Disney World when Michigan called him about the vacancy. That meant pulling an all-nighter, doing a deep dive into Michigan’s returning personnel and what they did under Macdonald to be ready for the Zoom with Harbaugh and the Wolverines defensive staff. Harbaugh’s dad, Jack, a former college coach, would also be on the call the following Monday at 9 a.m.
Zooms can be an awkward medium for coaching interviews, particularly because of technology’s fickle nature. The cost and convenience of Zoom, though, has enabled coaches to meet with more candidates. “Zoom has changed everything,” one coach said. “I interviewed 13 guys for a quality control job. It was awesome.”
The coach Harbaugh ultimately hired — a former colleague of Macdonald’s with the Ravens, Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Jesse Minter — was not one many observers viewed as a front-runner. Vanderbilt ranked No. 120 in the country in 2021 in fewest yards per play allowed — although the Commodores’ talent, by SEC standards, was underwhelming. More telling: Minter, a 2015 Broyles Award nominee for his work as Georgia State’s DC, was already well-versed in the system Macdonald had brought with him from Baltimore, save a few new concepts that had been worked up in Ann Arbor. With Michigan beginning spring football just two weeks later, finding a coach who spoke the same language seemed like a likely move.
For April and the other candidates who didn’t get the offer, the interview process was still a huge opportunity because they might’ve impressed someone else in the room. What often happens in these job interviews is more arbitrary than the schemes that, sometimes, get drawn up in them. This is the story of the quirkiest process in football: how coaches actually do their hiring.