It's been more than two weeks since Brady Hoke was relieved of his coaching duties at the University of Michigan. Not only has Michigan yet to hire its next coach, but there has been little news of any kind. As a result, many have poked fun at Michigan and interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett, reading the prolonged silence as an indication that Michigan is bungling yet another search for a football coach. And when people like Gil Brandt incorrectly report as fact that Duke's David Cutcliffe turned down an offer to be Michigan's coach, a report that has since been refuted, the jokes start to pile up. However, to interpret Michigan's deliberate pace as a sign that the search is floundering would be incorrect. In fact, unlike Michigan's last two coaching searches, when there appeared to be little direction and even less contingency planning, Michigan fans should feel confident about the search process this time, as interim athletic director or not, Hackett appears to be taking a more focused approach to finding Michigan's next coach than did either of his two predecessors.
Many snickered when Michigan announced Hackett as its interim athletic director. And in ways, it was hard to blame them. After having a former CEO with virtually no intercollegiate sports experience prior to becoming Michigan's athletic director fail so spectacularly and so publically, as was the case with Hackett's predecessor David Brandon, it almost defied logic that Michigan would replace Brandon with ... a former CEO with virtually no intercollegiate sports experience.
However, just weeks on the job, Hackett is proving that he is no punch line. Straight forward and deliberate, Hackett outlined how he was going to proceed in replacing Hoke and hasn't deviated from that path, which included hiring an executive search firm to help identify potential candidates. While hiring a search firm is not unheard of, it's still far from standard practice in the world of intercollegiate athletics. But with an athletic director new to the job, it's not unwise. Hackett also said that he would largely refrain from commenting throughout the search process, so it's no surprise that there has been little news. But it's not hard to see what's going on, either.
Hackett is surely casting a wide net, identifying and evaluating candidates, assessing interest, then narrowing down the pool of potential candidates, performing the kind of due diligence that seems to have escaped previous athletic directors Bill Martin and Brandon, who appeared to be caught flat-footed when the road took an unexpected turn. Whether or not reports that Michigan has narrowed its field of candidates to four finalists are true or not, they're likely not far from the truth, give or take a finalist or two. The kind of vetting process that Hackett is performing takes time, which is one reason for the search's duration. It is not the only reason, however, nor is it the primary one.
It should be abundantly clear that current San Francisco Forty Niners coach Jim Harbaugh is Michigan's top target. Of course, the same could (or should) have been said four years ago, but Brandon, like Martin before him, never put forth a serious effort to land Harbaugh. Martin barely considered Harbaugh and Brandon made only cursory overtures, done more to appease the masses than with the intent of sincerely trying to hire him. That isn't this case this time. Hackett may not ultimately get his man, but it won't be for lack of effort, as all signs point to Michigan putting together a compelling pitch to land its favorite son.
Yet pursuing Harbaugh requires more than a compelling offer, it also requires patience. Disappointing season or not, the Forty Niners have spent the last two months in the playoff hunt. If Michigan was to make a serious bid to hire Harbaugh, it would have to wait for the NFL season to play out, something it has done.
Hackett isn't the only one not talking, of course. With Harbaugh brushing aside questions about his future coaching home, the legitimacy of his candidacy is left open to speculation, and there has been plenty of that. Over the past few weeks, those with NFL ties have been only too happy to report that Harbaugh would never leave the NFL. Jason La Canfora, Ian Rappaport, Adam Schefter and the Bay Area's Tim Kawakami have all chimed in with similar assurances. Perhaps they're right. But there are also plenty of sources that insist that Harbaugh has at least some level of interest in returning to Ann Arbor. Harbaugh may ultimately choose the pursuit of a Lombardi Trophy over the challenge of resurrecting his alma mater, but until he actually says as much, it behooves Michigan to make a serious run at him, and that's what Hackett appears to be doing.
In fact, the prolonged search is the best indication that this is the case. If Harbaugh had informed Michigan, informally or otherwise, that he was not interested in coaching the Wolverines, Michigan would likely either made some sort of move already or would be close doing so. The fact that nothing has happened suggests Michigan believes that it at least has a shot at landing Harbaugh.
That's why it's not surprising that the search has gone on as long as it has. But it's also why the search won't drag on much longer. The NFL season is not over for another two weeks, but with the Forty Niners freshly eliminated from the playoffs, their season is effectively over. As Harbaugh and the Forty Niners eventually finalize what everyone agrees will be a partying of the ways, expect the wheels of Michigan's search to begin to move a little faster in the coming weeks, if not sooner.
If Hackett is able to land Harbaugh, Michigan fans would be ecstatic. The return of the prodigal son, fresh off performing miracles at Stanford and taking the Forty Niners to the NFC Championship game in each of his first three years on the job, would surely be reason for celebration. But even if Hackett fails to land the top prize, Michigan fans shouldn't despair, because unlike past searches, there is likely a contingency plan. While Michigan may have been waiting on Harbaugh, they have not been placing all of their eggs in one basket either, and will likely act quickly if things with Harbaugh don't work out.
So while there is no guarantee that Michigan will get its man, or even if that man will prove successful, there's no reason fret about the deliberate pace of the search process. The proof will be in the pudding, of course, but there is every reason to feel confident that this coaching search will end far better than those in the past.
UPDATE: Michigan is reportedly offering Harbaugh 6 years, 49 million dollars. That would