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Delay in determining Harbaugh's future creates tough choice for recruits

John U. Bacon

University of Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel announced this week that he and football coach Jim Harbaugh would determine Harbaugh’s future on Dec. 19. That’s the day after high school recruits commit to their future schools.

In other words, by delaying the decision, Michigan will force a couple dozen high school students to make one of the most important decisions of their lives without knowing who their head coach will be. Waiting until December 19 is an uncharacteristically short-sighted, selfish move on both sides, at the recruits’ expense.

This is bewildering to me because I’ve seen both men go out of their way to put their players first. Warde Manuel has done that countless times, in ways both big and small. One example: as Manuel told me, “We currently have 20 former student-athletes on medical scholarships, including mental health. The NCAA doesn’t require it, the Big Ten doesn’t require it, a lot of schools don’t do it. But we think it’s the right thing to do. That’s always been true here.”

I have also seen Jim Harbaugh put his players first countless times. One example: When Grant Newsome suffered a career-ending knee injury, Harbaugh visited often, kept him on scholarship, and hired him as a graduate assistant. Harbaugh has emphasized education, and his teams usually finish in the top five academically, and his players have been solid citizens – even though no one seems to care.

That’s why, when Manuel and Harbaugh cancelled Michigan’s game against Ohio State – for the first time since 1917 – I didn’t doubt that they did so out of a sincere concern for the players’ safety, and not because the Wolverines have already suffered four bad losses and would be 30-point underdogs. Both men took a lot of grief from Ohio State fans and the media, as they knew they would, but to do otherwise would ignore science, and the well-being of their players. It was a tough decision for two competitive personalities, but it was the right one.

Any coach can suffer a disappointing season, even Harbaugh, the prodigal son. But given the high character I’ve witnessed in both men, I’m stunned they will now force their recruits to decide on Michigan before Michigan decides who’s going to coach them -- – especially after cancelling Michigan’s last two games due to COVID, which should free up time to settle this one way or the other much sooner. 

Michigan’s coaches often tell recruits, “These four years will determine your next forty.” So how can they expect recruits to decide on their all-important next four years without knowing who their coach will be?

Making matters worse, Michigan President Mark Schissell is of little help. Michigan’s faculty this Fall narrowly passed a vote of no-confidence in Schlissel. Some deans now quietly ignore him. By all accounts he’s eager to leave, and Michigan is just as eager to let him – but that’s another decision both sides are delaying, with the students caught in the middle. Warde Manuel is not likely to receive valuable guidance from this president, who never expressed much interest in athletics even before he had bigger problems of his own.

The best argument against delaying Harbaugh’s decision comes from Warde Manuel himself, when he told me two years ago, “If we say we really care about the athletes, we’ve got to care about everything. We can’t pick and choose— we care about this, but not that—or wait until the timing’s most beneficial to us.”

But that’s exactly what Michigan is doing now.

And that is not the Michigan I know.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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