Depending on your perspective, the 2021 season is either Jim Harbaugh’s last stand or the beginning of his second act.
Either way, narrative possibilities abound. With Michigan’s program stuck in the doldrums, the coach once known as “Captain Comeback” will be trying to pull off a career-defining turnaround. That would be a great story, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately for Harbaugh and Michigan, reality hasn’t followed the fairy-tale script. Harbaugh’s teams flirted with greatness a few times, but unmet expectations have overshadowed the program’s achievements. After his first losing season at Michigan — and only his third in 17 years as a coach — Harbaugh enters the 2021 season with the clock working against him.
Harbaugh gutted his coaching staff this offseason, hiring six assistants younger than 40 to infuse some new energy. That included 33-year-old Mike Macdonald, a first-time coordinator hired from the Baltimore Ravens to overhaul Michigan’s defense. The roster has undergone significant changes, headlined by a rash of transfers, the departure of several NFL draft prospects and the addition of a top-10 recruiting class. Michigan’s recruiting department got a makeover, too, with former Wolverines player Courtney Morgan joining the staff and recruiting director Matt Dudek departing for Mississippi State.
The only thing that hasn’t changed, it seems, is Harbaugh. With a year remaining on his original contract, Harbaugh agreed to a new deal that set his salary and buyout at $4 million, respectively, with the latter decreasing by $1 million in each year of the five-year contract. The implication was clear: If Harbaugh wants to coach at Michigan for the duration of the deal, he’ll need to deliver results.
As the program evolves, Harbaugh stuck to a familiar message this spring. The Wolverines have new schemes, new coaches and new personnel, but the person at the top is fundamentally the same, for better or for worse.
“I want to attack every single day,” Harbaugh said. “That was the mindset: high energy. That’s what we’ve asked our players to do, our coaches to do. I believe I’m setting the example in that regard.”
Based on responses to The Athletic’s recent survey, the mood among Michigan fans is a mix of frustration, apathy and cautious optimism. One thing uniting Harbaugh supporters and Harbaugh detractors is the recognition of what’s at stake in 2021. Either Michigan will complete the freefall that was already in progress when the 2020 season was cut short, or the Wolverines will start the long climb back to contention in the Big Ten East. So which will it be?