NCAA Football

How does Michigan’s drama compare? Not all programs are like Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — To those who submitted actual football questions this week: I salute you.

For everyone else, I understand the curiosity. Michigan’s offseason has been a car wreck that people can’t look away from. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll do my best to answer your questions about the ongoing NCAA investigation, the firing of Matt Weiss and the drama surrounding Jim Harbaugh’s return.

Unlike the NCAA, the Michigan mailbag always accepts “I don’t remember” as a valid answer.

(Note: Submitted questions have been edited lightly for length and clarity.)

How does Michigan compare to other programs you’ve covered in terms of drama? Being a fan of this team feels like watching a chaotic soap opera, but at this level, maybe every team is like that. – Jason H.

It’s not your imagination, Jason. Not all teams are like that. Other programs may have more overall drama — Auburn, LSU and Tennessee would like a word — but Michigan’s seems to have a special flavor. Michigan is a polarizing program with a polarizing coach, which means the focus is always on Ann Arbor. Little things tend to get magnified, and Harbaugh is not a coach who wants to de-escalate a situation.

Part of coaching is creating discomfort so players learn to thrive under pressure. Harbaugh takes this philosophy to the extreme, whether he’s selecting a starting quarterback, responding to NCAA allegations or negotiating a new contract. He bets that he has a higher tolerance for discomfort than whoever he’s competing against, and most of the time he’s right. That’s part of what makes him successful, but it doesn’t always make for smooth sailing around the program.

If you’re a Michigan fan who follows the program closely, you’re probably numb to this by now. Michigan fandom is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Do you think Warde Manuel’s fractured relationship with Harbaugh, combined with other missteps in recent years, will lead to Manuel’s demise as AD? If so, what percentage would you attribute to the Harbaugh stuff over everything else? — Ben L. in Kansas City, Mo.

Tying this back to the previous question, Harbaugh will have tension with anyone in a position of authority. Excitement is not always a bad thing. What might look like a dysfunctional relationship in another context might be part of the whole Jim Harbaugh experience.

Therefore, I am not rushing to a conclusion about Harbaugh’s relationship with his AD. The optics of Harbaugh’s return — Harbaugh calling President Santa Ono, Ono informing Manuel — is an example of what I’ve heard about the communication, or lack thereof, between Harbaugh and Manuel. It’s not ideal, but it’s not necessarily an indictment of Manuel’s skills as an administrator.

Manuel’s handling of the situation with hockey coach Mel Pearson is fair cause for criticism. There are some in the Michigan circuit who feel he has been too conservative in terms of name, image and likeness. He wasn’t able to hang on to John Beilein or baseball coach Erik Bakich, and the hiring of Juwan Howard no longer looks like a slam dunk.

All of these things go into an honest evaluation of Manuel’s performance. I’m guessing that’s exactly the kind of evaluation he’ll get from Michigan’s new president. But if you take Manuel’s seven-year tenure as a whole, he has presided over a lot of success in a job that attracts more criticism than praise. Michigan could do a lot worse.

What do you think the realistic answer is for the offensive coordinator position? Sherrone Moore has clearly shown he has the ability to take it over full-time, but Harbaugh has a pretty strong history with co-OCs. Is it someone in the house like Kirk Campbell, or is Michigan likely to head elsewhere? (Hello, Brian Griese?) – Jeff R.

Co-coordinator or not, the priority should be to hire a quarterbacks coach who can get the most out of JJ McCarthy. If that person happens to be a prolific recruiter, even better.

McCarthy had a solid sophomore season, but there’s a lot of untapped potential there, both for the quarterback and for Michigan’s passing game. Weiss did not have an extensive background coaching quarterbacks before joining Michigan’s staff two years ago. He also didn’t have much experience as a recruiter. Michigan would be well served to target someone with a more specialized skill set who can help McCarthy and Michigan’s future quarterbacks with the finer points of their craft.

I’ve heard the slur about Griese, who is in his first season as the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach after more than a decade as a broadcaster. Griese has done a good job with rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, and Harbaugh loves hiring former Michigan players. Leaving a Super Bowl contender to coach quarterbacks at Michigan isn’t necessarily a step up, so unless Griese has a burning desire to coach at his alma mater, this one feels like a big swing.

If Michigan wants someone with experience at the college level, Ravens wide receivers coach Tee Martin would be an interesting option. The Ravens’ pipeline is starting to feel depleted, but Martin is a different matter as someone who spent most of his career in the college ranks. He would upgrade Michigan’s recruiting immediately and has the quarterback expertise Michigan needs.

Campbell, an offensive analyst and former offensive coordinator at Old Dominion, would be the obvious choice if Michigan decides to promote from within. It’s good to have that option, but my feeling is that Michigan would benefit from looking outside for someone who can freshen up the passing game.

Will this next season be the last of Michigan’s College Football Playoff runs for a while? I have to imagine JJ and Donovan (Edwards) going to the NFL and Blake Corum being a senior. I am concerned that after next season this team will take a big step back…am I overly nervous? – Daniel R.

I don’t think your concerns are completely unfounded, Daniel. Right now, everything is set for another run at a national championship before what could be a more extensive rebuild in 2024.

With a few notable exceptions, most of Michigan’s frontline contributors are expected to be seniors or eligible juniors. Perhaps Valiant Management Group will launch another “One More Year” fund to keep McCarthy and Edwards around through their senior seasons, in which case the Wolverines should be back in the CFP conversation in 2024. But if Michigan’s top prospect declares for the draft, the Wolverines could look at massive turnover after next season.

Michigan’s NIL strategy has been geared toward retaining established players, which is great for a team loaded with existing talent. Eventually, those players will move on, and Michigan will have to identify the next wave. There’s still time to do that, but Michigan needs to get things rolling in a hurry.

The Wolverines need a strong recruiting cycle for 2024, ideally headlined by a top-flight quarterback prospect. The transfer portal can help, but there’s still no substitute for elite high school players like the ones fueling Michigan’s current run. And that’s without factoring in possible NCAA sanctions, which loom in the distance with no clear timeline for resolution.

Young players emerge every season and I’m not ready to declare 2023 the end of Michigan’s run. But enjoy the success while it lasts, because the odds say it won’t last forever.

Given the complete lack of interest in playing defense — where we’re talking men’s basketball — is it time for Juwan Howard to find an assistant coach who is a defensive specialist like Luke Yaklich was? Our offense just isn’t good enough to make up for the non-existent defense. – Paul S.

The nonstop football news seems to overshadow everything, but ultimately it will be hard to ignore the fact that Michigan has regressed in Year 4 under Howard.

Howard’s team is ranked second in the Big Ten, but that says more about the Big Ten than it does about Michigan. The Wolverines are 11-8 and No. 77 in the NET rankings with an 0-6 record in Quad 1 games. Nothing on Michigan’s resume says this is an NCAA Tournament team right now.

Paul is right to point out that Michigan’s defense has been a huge disappointment. Michigan was No. 4 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings in 2021. Last year, the Wolverines fell to No. 74. This year, they’re No. 77. I don’t have a simple explanation for that, but I’ve seen opponents score a lot of easy baskets against Michigan the past two years. I’m sure you have too.

I want to see how Michigan finishes the season before I make any proclamations about Howard’s staff. Last year’s team performed for most of the season, then turned it on in March and earned the program’s fifth straight trip to the Sweet 16. It’s hard to imagine this team going on a similar run, but if it’s going to happen, will Thursday’s match against No. 1 Purdue is a good place to start.

WTF?!?!?! That is all. – Chris M.

What Chris said.

(Photo: John W. McDonough / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

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