Texas and Michigan taking very different paths with coaching moves, but will either work?

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·5 min read

Texas fired football coach Tom Herman on Saturday after he posted a 32-18 record (.640) the last four seasons. Buying out the contracts of Herman and all of his assistants will run the school (or its boosters) about $24 million and that’s before it pays new coach Steve Sarkisian or his staff.

Meanwhile, Michigan presented football coach Jim Harbaugh a five-year contract extension this week (he’s yet to sign it, per an industry source) after leading the Wolverines to a 49-22 record (.690) the past six seasons.

Two historic college football juggernauts stuck in the same rut of semi-irrelevance taking two completely different paths.

Neither is close to competing for a national title, let alone a College Football Playoff bid that many of its fans believe is something of a birthright, at least occasionally. Neither is a complete wreck either (at least if we write off Michigan’s 2-4 season to COVID). Texas went 7-3 and just won a bowl game.

Is one decision correct? Is the other wrong?

You could call the Longhorns aggressive. Or reckless.

You could call the Wolverines patient. Or passive.

Everything is bigger in Texas, even the appetite for buyouts and backroom deals — Sarkisian was hired from Alabama, where he is the offensive coordinator, just hours after Herman got knee-capped.

Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian watches warmups before a game against LSU on Nov. 9, 2019. (AP)
Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian watches warmups before a game against LSU on Nov. 9, 2019. (AP)

Michigan, meanwhile, has been meandering along with Harbaugh, even though the team hasn't played since November. It’s possible it will linger longer — the NFL’s annual “Black Monday” of coaching firings is just days away and Harbaugh, who led San Francisco to a Super Bowl, might garner some interest.

There are risks with both takes.

At Texas, the prevailing thought was Herman wasn’t the man for the job — and refusing to act on that now would just extend the Longhorns’ stay in football purgatory. During that time they'd watch Ohio State and Alabama continue to raid the state for recruits and Texas A&M establish itself as the local destination.

So Herman was gone. That’s how it works these days. Big salaries mean little time.

What Texas replaced him with is anyone’s guess, though. The Longhorns didn't get Urban Meyer, a proven champ you'd fire a lot of guys to hire. They didn't get a hot up-and-comer — that was Herman four years ago and Charlie Strong three years before that.

Sarkisian may turn out to be the greatest thing since Darrell Royal, but he arrives in Austin with plenty of questions. The now-46-year-old was a USC assistant under Pete Carroll before being hired by Washington in 2009. In five seasons, he went just 34-29 and never finished better than third in the Pac-12 North.

USC brought him back to L.A. anyway, trying to maintain the Carroll coaching tree long after Pete had left for the NFL.

Given the keys to a Cadillac program, Sark delivered a disappointing 9-4 season in 2014 and then started 3-2 in 2015 before leaving due to what he later acknowledged was a battle with alcoholism. He’s been successful in his fight and rebuilt his image at Alabama, where he runs a high-octane offense.

What’s he done to merit a third Power Five job, let alone another top-10 one? Not much. If that.

Again, maybe it works. Maybe he's learned by making mistakes. The L.A. native has a great reputation as a play caller … but plays do tend to work better when you have DeVonta Smith weaving through defenders and Najee Harris leaping over them.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stands on the sideline during the first quarter of the team's NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stands on the sideline during the first quarter of the team's NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

The money isn’t the issue at Texas — when it comes to football, they’ll find it. The issue is time. The Horns want to win now, and by win, they mean win big. That’s fine; this is a program with great resources, so great expectations come with it.

It’s just that betting on Sarkisian is betting on someone with no serious ties to the state being a lot better than he's shown to be.

On the flip side, there is Harbaugh, who (at least before 2020) showed he could bring Michigan back to general respectability. The Wolverines were regularly beating teams they should beat — which isn’t much of a bar to clear, but after the Rich Rodriguez/Brady Hoke eras it was at least something.

What Harbaugh hasn’t done is beat Ohio State at all or Michigan State enough. He hasn’t won a Big Ten East title, played in the Big Ten championship game or reached the College Football Playoff.

At Texas, that’ll get you fired. At Michigan, it’ll get you extended.

Rather than reboot, the Wolverines want to see if an alum who won at Stanford and in the NFL and showed flashes in Ann Arbor, might still be able to turn it all around.

Maybe that’s naive. Or maybe it just keeps you from flailing again by reaching on a replacement.

Firing Herman and hiring Sarkisian might win the day or the news conference, but will it win any more games? Then again, re-upping Harbaugh may make it seem like you are resigned to mediocrity or too timid, but will that lose you any more games?

Big money and big decisions in big-time college football. One went one way, the other the other.

Neither one has a clue if they did the right thing.

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