At the conclusion of Jim Harbaugh’s drawn-out   flirtation with the NFL last month, when the Michigan football coach vowed to return to his post in 2022, the inbox of a high-ranking university official began to crowd with messages from scorned fans.
“If I’d done this, I’d be fired,” one wrote.
Yeah, the administrator thought, but you also don’t occupy one of the most high-profile positions in the state. The steward of a major college football program isn’t exactly a fungible job, especially when it is occupied by someone with Harbaugh’s credentials. The list of active coaches with a Big Ten championship and a College Football Playoff appearance on their résumés is a short one, after all.
The email was absurd.
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Not long after it was received, U-M turned around and gave Harbaugh a substantial raise that restored his annual compensation to $8.34 million, the approximate amount he was set to earn last year before he accepted a massive pay cut in January 2021.
Then, the decision to halve Harbaugh’s salary was hailed as a victory for the Michigan administration. The Wolverines had just crashed to a 2-4 record, reaching the low point of Harbaugh’s tenure during a season delayed and interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The global health crisis spawned a budget crunch within the athletic department, which was near the midpoint of a fiscal year that ended with a $47.6 million deficit. Faced with unique financial hardships and a coach underperforming his mega contract, cutting Harbaugh’s pay appeared a fiscally prudent decision.
It undoubtedly was an unusual move in an industry where salaries either remain static or rise. But it would prove to be a miscalculation that required a course correction.
Last year, 11 Big Ten coaches earned more than Harbaugh’s base total of $4 million, according to a USA TODAY database.
The low pay wasn’t equal with the responsibility of running a program with Michigan’s prestige, one coaching insider told the Free Press. To advance his argument, he mentioned a high-profile SEC school and said it would never consider valuing its head football coach at a price point well below market value.
“That’s embarrassing to them,” he said. “You know what I mean?”
But as the 2021 season kicked off, the man in charge of Michigan football was drawing a lower salary than his counterparts at Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota.
Was Harbaugh really worth less than those guys?
It seemed a preposterous question that became increasingly ridiculous as Harbaugh launched a remarkable turnaround with a rebuilt staff and renewed sense of purpose. The Wolverines won their first seven games and positioned themselves to compete for the sport’s biggest prizes. Then they stunned Ohio State with their most impressive performance during Harbaugh’s regime, notching its first victory in the series since 2011.
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In the afterglow of that shining moment, Harbaugh gloated and took an indirect shot at Ohio State’s Ryan Day, the 42-year-old coach who was now earning almost $3 million more than he was.
“Sometimes, there are people standing on third base that think they hit a triple, but they didn’t,” Harbaugh said.
As Harbaugh sauntered into Indianapolis to claim Michigan’s first Big Ten title in 17 years and sow the seeds for the program’s inaugural CFP berth, athletic director Warde Manuel and the university’s leadership began to contemplate the terms of a new contract for its reborn head coach.
The fiscal restraint that governed many athletic departments during the darkest days of the pandemic had fallen by the wayside. Coaches were now striking massive deals, earning big raises from their employers. Michigan State’s Mel Tucker signed an extension worth $9.5 million per year. Penn State’s James Franklin received a pay bump to $8.5 million per year, using potential interest from other schools as a bargaining chip.
Michigan, which set the market with Harbaugh’s salary not long ago, felt obligated to compete in that space after the cash spigot had been turned on in the Big Ten East. Getting Harbaugh in the range of “Ryan Day money” became a priority, according to a source. The optics were important, after all. If U-M didn’t attach a high value to its head coach, why should anyone else?
In the event Harbaugh one day leaves, it was important to convey to his peers in the industry that the leader of the football program is compensated fairly if he wins championships and meets expectations.
That is why Harbaugh’s fruitless and frustrating flirtation with the NFL didn’t change Michigan’s position on giving him a raise.
Despite having little leverage, Harbaugh was going to get his money. The head coach at Michigan usually does.   
Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin.

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