Michigan Coaching Hot List (10/30) - Part 1

In this edition of the Michigan Coaching Hot List we begin handicapping the future of Michigan's head coaching position. Many pundits have suggested it's already over for incumbent Brady Hoke, but is it really? Are the Wolverines' chances of landing Jim Harbaugh as high as some think? And is the name of Tennessee head man Butch Jones one to watch if things open up in Ann Arbor??

Brady Hoke (Michigan Coach)


The 11-2 campaign in 2011 stands as Hoke’s crowning achievement. The immediate success was a byproduct of his ability to earn complete buy-in from a band of seniors that had seen a senior class three years prior handle the transition to Rich Rodriguez much differently.  There were 15 fifth-year seniors on that Wolverine squad including six on the offensive depth chart and five on the defensive depth chart. They helped propel the Maize & Blue to its first BCS bowl victory since the 2000 Orange Bowl.  From there the roster began falling off a maturity cliff due to holes born of attrition and positional recruiting gaps.  Hoke began filling in those gaps with a strong showing with his first full class in 2012, and followed that up with two more highly regarded classes in 2013 and 2014. The biggest hole was in the offensive trenches where one lineman was signed in 2010 (but never played due to a medical hardship), only one OL signee remains from 2011, and no tight ends signed in either class. That should portend brighter days ahead for a program that is currently the second youngest team in the Big Ten with 35 juniors and seniors (Penn State is first with 33). Numbers have been restored at most positions and attrition has been virtually nil, as 66 of 68 scholarship players from the 2012-2014 classes remain on the roster.   Hoke’s overall record compares favorably to that of the coach whom he is frequently compared and just lost handily to, Mark Dantonio.  Through four years Dantonio, who started 20 fourth or fifth year players in last week’s rout of Michigan, was 33-19. Thus far Hoke, who started seven fourth or fifth year players last week, is 29-18.


The trend line of the overall record is clear… Michigan has declined every year in Hoke’s tenure. 11-2 in year one, 8-5 in year two, 7-6 in year three, and 3-5 thus far this year.  Hoke’s Wolverines are 4-7 versus Michigan State, Notre Dame, and Ohio State including blowouts to the Spartans and Irish already this season.  The team’s on-field performance declined as the season progressed the last year, and the lopsided loss to the Spartans last suggests a similar fate could be in store this season.   Furthermore being retained without an extension beyond the two years remaining on his six-year contract would likely handicap recruiting and the ability to make any staff changes that might come as a condition of his retention. Criticism for “lack of player development” has been on the rise from other coaches on the recruiting trail, pundits, and fans. The approval rating among fan base has taken a nosedive, and that will inevitably affect season ticket sales.

Bottom line:

How much of Michigan’s declining returns on the field stems from the youth on the roster and how much of it stems from poor coaching?  It will take an athletic director with guts and Teflon skin to withstand the avalanche of criticism that would come with a “mostly youth” assessment.  That athletic director would also have to be able to withstand the further degradation of the season ticket base.

Whether it’s the current athletic director and any potential replacement candidates the decision on Hoke’s future may have gotten much easier after last week’s blowout by the Spartans.  With his tenure likely on life support, any remaining chance hinges largely upon how the team finishes the final third of the season. Even then the odds drop precipitously with each loss.



Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco 49ers)


This is the man most fans and alums are clamoring for.  It’s not hard to see why. Simply put, Harbaugh wins.  The former Michigan standout has won everywhere he has coached. He led San Diego to a league title in only his second year on the job and did so again the following season. In his first year at Stanford he coached his team to statistically the largest upset in the history of college football with 24-23 road victory over top ranked USC.  By year three he had Stanford in its first bowl game since 2001, and in year four the Cardinal finished with an 11-1 record with the only loss coming to national championship runner-up Oregon.

Harbaugh has been lauded for working with quarterbacks Andrew Luck, but his work in the pros with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick is what really brought the praise.  Smith, who was the #1 overall pick in 2005, was universally considered a bust prior to Harbaugh’s arrival in San Francisco.  Harbaugh helped revitalize Smith’s confidence, game, and ultimately his career.  With Kaepernick there were questions about whether he could transition to being a pro quarterback due largely to skepticism about his skills as a passer.  He is now considered one the NFL’s top signal callers. 

The play of those quarterbacks were key ingredients in the immediate and sustained turnaround in San Francisco. In his first year the 49ers were 13-3, NFC West Division champs and made it to the NFC championship game. By year two Harbaugh had the 49ers in the Super Bowl. In year three he had his team back in the NFC championship game again.

At every stop Harbaugh turned things around and he turned them around quickly.


Harbaugh’s reputation in NFL circles has taken a beating this year with multiple reports suggesting he is widely disliked by players in his own locker room. His in-your-face style might actually play better in college… if he actually opts to go back to college.  Harbaugh has a year left on his contract with the 49ers beyond this one and there is scuttlebutt that rather than fire him at the end of the season like some reports are suggesting, the team might opt to trade him.  On the other hand, if he has the 49ers back in the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year (they currently sit one game out of the wildcard and two games behind Arizona in the division), it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the organization look past the acrimony, or at the very least see what it can get for him.  There definitely will be no shortage of pro suitors for a coach that seems to have the Midas touch.  Oakland will be in the market, and that would prevent him from having to leave the Bay area. The Miami Dolphins, owned by Michigan alum/donor Stephen Ross, is another rumored possibility. He would surely be a hot commodity for any other pro team that comes calling, so the Wolverines would face a lot of competition for his services.

Then there are those unflattering remarks Harbaugh made back in 2007 how Michigan inadequately educates its athletes.  That spawned a war of words with Lloyd Carr and Mike Hart. Carr and Hart shot back with terse retorts calling him “arrogant”, “elitist”, and “not a Michigan Man.”

Seven years and a number of subpar football seasons have passed since one more of the more visible disputes within the Michigan football family occurred. Time and losses have a way of healing wounds, but how healed this one is and whether it even makes a difference remains to be seen.

Bottom Line:

At this point Harbaugh is THE candidate.  He is the candidate for whom there would be the least opposition.  He is the candidate that is the most proven.  He is the candidate that pairs being in the prime of his career with Michigan ties.

Some that know him in Ann Arbor insist he would have interest in Michigan if the job came open, but the strength of that interest would increase if there was a change in the athletic director’s office. 

Harbaugh would unquestionably be the #1 target if Michigan opts to for a change in direction, but it wouldn’t be a slam dunk for the Maize & Blue.  There are obviously few very significant “Ifs” that keep him from being a sure thing.



Butch Jones (Tennessee Coach)


In three year stints at Central Michigan and Cincinnati Jones won two league championships during both stops.  He is widely regarded as a bright offensive min and spent two years as an assistant working under former Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez. The Saugatuck, Michigan native has no direct ties to Michigan’s program himself, but worked the Wolverines summer football camp for years as a visiting staff member.  Furthermore his staff at Tennessee has deep Great Lake State ties.  His offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was a graduate assistant in Ann Arbor under Lloyd Carr from 2000-2001, his defensive coordinator John Jancek is a Muskegon, Michigan native, his defensive line/associate head coach Steve Stripling coached Michigan’s defensive line from 2005-2007, tight ends and special teams coach Mark Elder was grad assistant at Michigan from 2005-2006, and four other staff members coached multiple years at Mid-American Conference schools in Michigan (mostly but not exclusively with Jones at Central Michigan).


Jones hasn’t been at Tennessee very long and hasn’t yet experienced much success.  In year one he went 5-7, and is 3-4 so far in 2014. So while he certainly is a proven coach, his isn’t yet a proven coach at the Power-5 conference level.  His arrival at Michigan would also signal a move back to the spread, which would call for another roster overhaul.

Bottom line:

Jones is a Michigan guy without being a University of Michigan guy. He shot down any suggestion that he is in the running for the still occupied Michigan job Tuesday saying, "It's not even worth discussing,” Jones told the Tennessean. “No validity to it." That’s not your typical deflective comment from a coach during a search.  At the moment Michigan can’t even say for sure who will be the athletic director when the time comes to evaluate the football program, so any talk of an official list of candidates is pure fiction.  But when that time does come it wouldn’t be surprising if Michigan showed interest in Jones, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he reciprocated.

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