INT. MICHIGAN FOOTBALL OFFICES
Two men. Two smiles. One warm handshake.
Welcome aboard, Jim!
Thanks! Wait. What’s this?
It’s a name tag, champ. You’re going to need it.
If we count Dan Enos (do we?) and Kevin Tolbert, the exit count is nine Michigan assistant coaches in over three seasons and change.
Accent on the change, kids.
“Unless you have a bad staff, which I don’t think they do, you really don’t welcome turnover in staff,” Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo says. “A little bit of turnover is OK, because you get new ideas and fresh ideas and all that.
“I don’t think a lot of turnover is ever very good. I haven’t followed all their turnover all that [closely]. It’s hard to get information out of there; you really never know what’s going on … if you have a really good staff, you’re going to lose guys for head-coaching jobs, that kind of thing. From an outsider’s point of view, it doesn’t look good. It looks a little unsettling.”
From the outside, it looks a little like fatigue. A relationship that’s white-hot at the beginning, passions raging at full-tilt, then, from out of the blue, it turns supernova and … dies. Kaput. A burned-out cinder. Which begs the question:
Harbaugh Fatigue — myth or mess?
Wally Richardson, the former Penn State and NFL quarterback, offered up a particularly candid take on that point as part of a convo with veteran PennLive.com scribe Dave Jones last week. It paints a picture, the kind that makes Wolverines fans want to take a pair of thinning shears to the canvas:
He was a backup QB, first behind former Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde in 1997. And then, behind Jim Harbaugh in 1998.
When Richardson mentioned that up during a Wednesday phone interview, I couldn’t help asking: What sort of guy was Harbaugh? Just as strange as he is now?
Richardson paused a moment, then admitted:
“Yeah, he was.”
Laughter from both of us. Then Richardson clarified:
“I like Jim. He was a good teammate. But I think his personality just kind of wears on people.”
Richardson is not the first to make that observation. Assistants have come and gone like deliverymen in his college tenures at FCS San Diego, Stanford and now Michigan.
Richardson continued about his experience with Harbaugh in 1998 with the Ravens:
“Our quarterback coach was Don Strock who was Dan Marino’s [and Bob Griese’s] backup for a long time. Don was a great coach.
“Jim was on the last legs of his career then and his arm wasn’t as strong as it used to be. I remember going through about half of that season and Don was trying to coach Jim and tell him different things. And sometimes Jim would do his own thing.
“By the time we got to Week 9 or 10, it was kind of a toxic relationship. I saw it happen right before my own eyes.”
I mentioned then that the only assistant who’s figured out how to tolerate Harbaugh more than a handful of years – and it seems a matter of mutual loyalty that trumps even the current dysfunction of Michigan’s offense – is current coordinator Tim Drevno.
“Yeah, I can believe that. And I understand it.”
When Shemy Schembechler raised an eyebrow about Michigan’s staff continuity last month with Land of 10’s Rachel Lenzi, ya know what? The man might’ve had a point. And a good one at that.
In Harbaugh’s defense, you’re damned down either path. After an 8-5 mark in 2017 and with an un-Michigan-like 9-8 record over your last 17 contests, if you don’t shake the box, the natives get restless. If you do, it gets slapped by skeptics as rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.
Certain levels of consistent attrition — when rising stars such as D.J. Durkin are taking other head coaching gigs or promotions elsewhere — can be a good sign, the nature of the beast. But when the moves appear somewhat superficially lateral — John Baxter hopping from Michigan special teams coach to USC special teams coach, for example — and the pace of the exits starts to quicken, questions are inevitable.
And so are the presumptions of a pattern.
Harbaugh Fatigue — heresy or headache?
“I’m sure the rah-rah thing gets old with anybody,” college football coaching analyst Adam McClintock notes. “It probably plays a little bit better in the college game than in the NFL, especially. They’re grown men supporting their families.
“I don’t know if it has anything, if there’s any correlation of him running people off or not … I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. But if there’s smoke, there’s fire. If he rubs people the wrong way enough, and people go on record saying he does, I don’t know if there’s any correlation or not.”
Wisconsin’s run through three different defensive coordinators — Dave Aranda to Justin Wilcox to Jim Leonhard — over three straight seasons (2015-17) and hasn’t missed so much as a beat on that side of the ball. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has seen off six assistants over the past three years. During his first three Buckeyes campaigns, Meyer had to replace only one coordinator — former co-defensive boss Everett Withers, who, in December 2013, took the head football job at James Madison.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘If Harbaugh would’ve had similar success to what Meyer had, then would you be seeing this turnover?’” McClintock continues. “Is it [that] these guys are getting tired of Harbaugh and moving on? Or is it Harbaugh scrambling a little bit to get the correct puzzle pieces that will make this thing work?
“There are two ways to look at this as well. It could be a little bit of his brashness running people off. But it could be, a little bit, him just scrambling [in] trying to get this thing going to everybody’s expectations of everyone thought this was going to be. So far, it’s been underwhelming. Michigan fans have seen this song and dance before. A couple good recruiting classes and, ‘Hey, where did Michigan go?’
“It’s like the party’s over. It’s died down. It’s become a little laborious here, a little more labor intensive than the glitz and glamor of the first two years, for sure.”
Winter 2016: Say, have you met my pal Derek Jeter?
Winter 2018: So is that M-A-C or M-C on ‘McElwain?’
Harbaugh Fatigue — narrative or nothingburger?
‘It’s gone from one extreme [in February] to the next. There’s no middle ground. I don’t think it’s financial. I think this is Jim — he’s kind of all over the map. He’s unpredictable.’
— BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh
“I get the feeling that [the Wolverines] are almost grasping for straws, scrambling for answers,” McClintock says. “Defensively, they’ve been fine. Offensively, they’ve got to find some consistency on that side of the ball. That’s a result of the quarterback position being in flux.
“Name one quarterback [since 2015] who’s been average or above average? [Harbaugh has] been working with other people’s parts or flawed parts.”
With McElwain now in the picture, we’re assuming the chess pieces on the coaching side for 2018 are finally lined up on the board.
Then again, if we’ve learned anything at this point, it’s to assume at your peril.
“It’s hard to figure out what’s going on at Michigan; we’re all just guessing,” DiNardo says. “I think the only thing we can know is that it’s going to be unpredictable. It’s hard to tell.
“It’s gone from one extreme [in February] to the next. There’s no middle ground. I don’t think it’s financial. I think this is Jim — he’s kind of all over the map. He’s unpredictable. [He] works usually to extreme ends and not in the middle. So he could go back to making [recruiting] a big production next year. You just don’t know. Nothing will surprise me.”