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Michigan Football 2021: Coaching

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The biggest coaching news in Ann Arbor this offseason was head coach Jim Harbaugh’s contract extension. With Harbaugh heading into the final year of his contract, Michigan and Athletic Director Warde Manuel extended Harbaugh through 2025. The extension comes with a lower base salary and a lower buy-out than that which was in Harbaugh’s initial contract, but nonetheless confirms the university’s commitment to its embattled head coach. “I continue to believe that Jim is the right man to lead our program, “ Manuel said of Harbaugh. “Our program didn’t achieve at a level that anyone expected this year (2020),” Manuel continued, “but I know those setbacks will drive the coaches, players and staff moving forward.”

Harbaugh’s contract extension ensures a measure of continuity in Michigan’s football program, but that’s not to say the program is remaining status quo. That’s because while there may not be a change at the top, the rest of Michigan’s coaching staff underwent significant change since Michigan last took the field.

Most notably, Michigan parted ways with defensive coordinator Don Brown. In five seasons under Brown, Michigan had mostly terrific defenses. Brown will be remembered, however, for his catastrophic performances against Ohio State as much as he will for his string of elite defenses. When Brown had the talent, Michigan was dynamic on defense. The Wolverines ranked among the nation’s top five defenses in each of Brown’s first three seasons. But when Michigan didn’t have the same level of talent, particularly in the secondary, Brown showed little ability to adapt or adjust, and Michigan’s defensive performance suffered as a result. Last season, hindered by opt outs and injuries, the wheels came off and the Wolverines finished their COVID-shortened season with the 89th ranked defense in the country.

The decision to replace Brown could not have been an easy one for Harbaugh, who was always vocal in his admiration for Brown. But it was a move he felt he had to make. Coming off a disastrous 2020 campaign, Harbaugh needed a change of direction. Needed new blood.

Replacing Brown is 33-year-old, first time defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who comes to Michigan from the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. Replacing a team’s defensive coordinator is a significant change, but it’s not the only one Harbaugh made. In what proved to be an eventful offseason, Michigan replaced six of its ten assistant coaches. Just how eventful was the offseason? Michigan hired Maurice Linguist in January – and replaced him in June (Linguist left to accept the head coaching position at Buffalo in the MAC).

And did I say new blood? I could just as easily have said young blood, as nine of Michigan’s ten assistants, including its two coordinators, are under 40. And the tenth? Steve Clinkscale is the old man of the group at 43.

The new coaches, including familiar names (and former Wolverines) Mike Hart and Ron Bellamy, are expected to bring a new energy to Ann Arbor. But not just with respect to coaching. Michigan’s new coaching staff was also assembled with an eye toward shoring up Michigan’s recruiting.

Upgrades to Michigan’s recruiting effort weren’t limited to the coaching staff, however. Michigan also revamped its recruiting department, replacing what was essentially a one-man operation with a much more robust organization, headed by directors or player personnel and recruiting. This recruiting restructure should bring Michigan, organizationally at least, closer to the level at which most elite programs are operating.

Harbaugh’s staff and recruiting overhaul reflects the sense of urgency he feels as enters his seventh season at Michigan. Reflects his desperation to reverse the direction of the program. And to hear Harbaugh talk, he’s happy with the changes. “We’ve got the right guys on board,” Harbaugh said of his new staff. “Working hard, coaching hard. I feel really good about where the staff is.”

Michigan’s players seem to be embracing the coaching changes. Senior Brad Hawkins said of the new coaches, “(They’re) bringing a lot of energy to the practices, to the meeting rooms.” Junior captain Aidan Hutchinson echoed his teammate’s assessment. “There’s a kind of different energy around Schembechler Hall these days,” Hutchinson told reporters.

Having a new perspective and renewed energy is great. And it’s something Michigan needed. But will that perspective and energy translate into more victories? Will the new blood succeed in changing the direction of the Michigan football program? Time will tell.

Michigan Coaching Staff

Coach Position Tenure
Coach Position Tenure
Jim Harbaugh Head Coach 7th Season
Josh Gattis Offensive Coordinator 3rd Season
Mike Macdonald Defensive Coordinator 1st Season
Ron Bellamy Safeties 1st Season
Steve Clinkscale Defensive Passing Game Coordinator / Defensive Backs 1st Season
Jay Harbaugh Special Teams / Tight Ends 7th Season
Mike Hart Running Backs 1st Season
George Helow Linebackers 1st Season
Sherrone Moore Offensive Line / Co-Offensive Coordinator 3rd Season
Shaun Nua Defensive Line 2nd Season
Matt Weiss Quarterbacks 1st Season