Michigan search begins with Harbaugh
ANN ARBOR, Mich.No search for a new football coach can begin for Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon without exploring the Jim Harbaugh possibilities.
Brandon called a report that Harbaugh, a former U-M quarterback and current coach at Stanford, has turned down an offer from Michigan of $5.2 million annually as "erroneous."
Brandon added, "I personally believe that Jim Harbaugh is headed to the NFL. But that's my opinion."
It doesn't mean there won’t be another conversation now that Rich Rodriguez officially has been fired, but it certainly isn't encouraging for the vocal Michigan fan base that is demanding Harbaugh.
"Jim has a lot of contacts with this football program," Brandon said. "I think the world of him. I have talked to Jim Harbaugh. I will continue to talk to Jim Harbaugh. He's a Michigan man."
Before Stanford played in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday night, there were strong rumblings around the Michigan program that Harbaugh indeed wanted to return to his alma mater.
Asked if he's surprised that Harbaugh apparently is looking more toward the NFL than Michigan, Brandon said, "I don't know if surprised is the right word. When you have a bunch of billionaires chasing you around, trying to convince you to become a part of a NFL program ... who would blame him?"
Brandon was named Michigan's athletic director on Jan. 5, 2010. One year to the day, he fired his football coach. His next move could define him as an AD.
Brandon acknowledged the Michigan faithful, including former players, boosters and fans, have been divided in recent years and remain divided after three mediocre seasons under Rodriguez.
The Wolverines need someone to bring everybody together again. Harbaugh could be that man. Perhaps he's the only one who could accomplish that immediately.
He would bring some baggage, including a past DUI arrest. But when directly asked if Harbaugh's negative comments a few years ago about the Michigan athletic department's academic approach might affect his candidacy, Brandon answered, "No."
Harbaugh is the obvious slam-dunk choice. After that, it's not so clear-cut.
If Brandon wants a replacement with Michigan connections, the other top choices would be San Diego State coach Brady Hoke, a former Michigan defensive line coach, and LSU coach Les Miles, a former Michigan player and offensive line coach.
To many, that "Michigan man" identity has taken on a life of its own. Rodriguez didn't have a U-M background, which was held against him. The question is how crucial is that factor to Brandon?
"Whether it's a Michigan man, quote unquote, or not, what clearly is important is that whoever it is has a clear understanding of what Michigan's all about," Brandon said.
That includes understanding the "high expectations that exist here, the passion that we have for football and the results that are expected."
Candidates who could be attractive if Brandon doesn't get focused on the Michigan-man angle include former NFL coach Jon Gruden, now an analyst for ESPN, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and TCU coach Gary Patterson.
Brandon indicated he prefers someone with head-coaching experience, who has recruited in the Midwest and will help bring back a more physical style.
Most importantly, he wants a coach who is defensive-minded, unlike Rodriguez, who tried to win by lighting up the scoreboard.
"Defensive-minded everything," Brandon said. "I want the ball boys to be defensive-minded."
Watching his team get pushed around late in the season, especially in the second half of the Wisconsin game, helped convince Brandon he needed to go in a different direction.
"It's a smash-mouth conference with big teams," Brandon said. "You saw how difficult it has been for us to go nose-to-nose with the big guys in the conference."
Brandon wants a coach who will change that, who will beat the top teams — "red-letter games" as Brandon's former coach, Bo Schembechler, called them. Brandon identified those teams as Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State and any bowl opponent.
"Those red-letter games over the last three seasons, we went 3-15," Brandon said.
How soon he can find a replacement is unclear. His decision to delay the firing until now, rather than shortly after the final regular-season game, as most schools do, puts him way behind.
Brandon said all along he had a process he planned to carry out. He reiterated during Wednesday's news conference that he thought the players deserved to play their bowl game with their coaching staff intact, rather than an interim staff. He also wanted to evaluate Rodriguez on the full season.
"I stand by that decision," Brandon said.
How far along he really is in the search is debatable. One would assume he has laid much of the groundwork and could act quickly. After all, signing day is in four weeks. Recruits who had visits scheduled for this weekend are being asked to reschedule.
The new coach is going to be playing catch-up in recruiting at a time when Michigan seriously needs to be trying to upgrade its personnel, especially on defense.
"Knowing that this decision (to fire Rodriguez) is very fresh, I have a lot of work to do," Brandon said of the job search.
As for a timetable, "The faster ... the better," Brandon acknowledged. "But I'm not going to be motivated by those circumstances (recruiting class, etc.). I'm going to be motivated by making sure I get the right coach."