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Jim Harbaugh

After weeks of waiting, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and athletic director Warde Manuel finally agreed to extend Harbaugh's contract through 2025. 

There are no polls tracking fan reaction, but it's clear Michigan fans don't feel the same way they did six years ago, when Harbaugh surprised the sporting world by returning to coach his alma mater. 

Back then, fans received Harbaugh as the savior who would return the Wolverines to the promised land, and he started delivering immediately. His first Michigan team won 10 games, twice as many as the year before, portending great things to come.

Off the field, Harbaugh's players were even better. They consistently finished in the top five academically, stayed out of trouble, and did it all without a hint of scandal. But we've learned the media doesn't care about any of those things.

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Harbaugh's second team took a No. 3 national ranking into Columbus, and was one play away from beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten's East Division, and going to the Big Ten Title Game, where they would have been favored to win and go onto the College Football Playoff. But the Wolverines lost in double overtime. 

That, it turns out, has been the high point so far.

Michigan's 2017 squad finished with a discouraging 8-5 record, and his fourth team was riding a ten-game winning streak before getting blown out by Ohio State and then Florida. Michigan lost four more games in 2019, three of them blowouts – wrong direction.

It's hard to know how much weight to give the COVID-shortened 2020 season. But it's impossible to spin Michigan's 2-4 record, including its first loss to Indiana in 33 years. If fans had been allowed to attend that contest, it's a safe bet you would have heard a lot of booing. 

Then the waiting began. Would Harbaugh jump to the NFL, or stay at Michigan? Would Michigan still want him, or prefer shopping for the Next Thing? 

Six NFL teams are in the process of hiring new coaches, but as far as we know, none of them extended an offer to Harbaugh. Michigan, however, could have hired a number of serious candidates who privately expressed interest. 

Although fans are quick to call for a coach to be fired, if your current coach is within reach of the program's goals, usually it's better to help the coach you have finishing the job he's already embarked on than starting over, which costs time, money and patience. But in Michigan's case, you could argue hiring a new coach could be the simpler path. Why? Because it might have been easier for Harbaugh to turn around Brady Hoke's underachieving program in 2015 than it will be for Harbaugh to turn his own program around in 2021.

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Another factor: Michigan's margin of error has shrunk considerably. Thanks to COVID, the athletic department could lose a staggering $60 million to $80 million, almost half of its $200 million budget this fiscal year. Michigan's season-ticket holders don't have the patience they had six years ago, either. They're not likely to buy up all the stadium's luxury suites, club seating and standard season tickets, leaving empty seats and red ink.

In short: It's a bad time to have a bad year for anyone, and Michigan more than most.  

For all these reasons, it was refreshing to see athletic director Manuel craft a contract that actually makes sense – one of the rarest sights in all of college football. He cut Harbaugh's salary from $8 million a year to $4 million, with incentives to make up the difference if Harbaugh beats Ohio State; wins the Big Ten; or takes the national title, among other milestones.

More significantly, Michigan cut Harbaugh's buy-out from $10 million -- and almost as much for his staff -- down to $4 million after next year, and a million less after each successive year. 

Mind you, none of these figures suggest Harbaugh or any Power Five coach is taking a vow of poverty. Over the past three decades, the average football coach's salary increased tenfold to $2.5 million. That's about 25 times more than the average college professor earns, whose salary has merely kept pace with inflation. Today the highest-paid public employee in 39 states is either a basketball coach or a football coach.

But of all the crazy aspects of big-time college sports, the buy-out boom has to be the craziest. Paying a coach millions of dollars to do his job is one thing, but paying him millions of dollars for failing to do it is quite another. A couple years ago I wrote that this insanity has got to stop, and Manuel might be the first big time athletic director to do it.

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Whether Harbaugh, who never coached longer than four years at his previous stops, can make the transition from sprinter to marathoner and rebuild his own program remains to be seen. The odds might be against him, but historically Harbaugh at his best when his back is against the wall. He loves to prove his doubters wrong, and he has a long history of doing so, from beating out the popular starting quarterback at Palo Alto High, to getting a last-second scholarship to Michigan, to becoming the Big Ten's MVP and Chicago's first-round draft pick, to his meteoric coaching success at the University of San Diego, Stanford and the 49ers. 

His four-decade run of unlikely triumphs has finally run out, but his new contract suggests he is betting on himself again. 

But whether Harbaugh turns the Wolverines around or not, college football just took a small step toward sanity.

John U. Bacon is the author of multiple New York Times best sellers, including Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football and Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope with the late John Saunders. A collection of his journalism, The Best of Bacon, was released in 2018. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.