The world works in mysterious ways — shifting and readjusting, pushing and pulling as competing forces work to maintain an equilibrium.
There was life before the COVID-19 outbreak, when this planet was humming along, sports were played without interruption and Jim Harbaugh became the recent recipient of a 10% raise baked into his contract.
There is the trying existence we now lead during a pandemic, when nations across this globe have been paralyzed, games of all kind have disappeared from the calendar and the Michigan football coach is subjected to a 10% pay cut that is just another consequence of this nasty virus.
As the face of an athletic department anticipating a $26.1 million deficit in the next fiscal year, Harbaugh’s salary reduction is a good-faith effort to help alleviate some of the bleeding. Along with AD Warde Manuel and basketball coach Juwan Howard, who also will see their compensation trimmed 10%, he is being a team player.
And at Michigan, it’s supposed to be about the team, the team, the team.
So often, though, it’s about Harbaugh and the money he nets on an annual basis.
This year, he was set to make $8.05 million — a figure that would have only been eclipsed in 2019 by the earnings of two coaches, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Alabama’s Nick Saban.
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Until reigning champion LSU zipped into the College Football Playoff this season with Joe Burrow at the wheel and Ed Orgeron riding shotgun, Saban and Swinney went back and forth trading national titles during a four-year span.
Harbaugh, all the while, watched from afar.
Sure, there were temporary appearances in the top four of the preliminary CFP brackets, as Michigan flirted with inclusion in one of sports’ most exclusive tournaments during 2016 and 2018.
But the Wolverines have never advanced to Indianapolis to compete for Big Ten supremacy, which made Harbaugh’s salary figure seem outsized.
Perception so often governs the discourse, and consequently Harbaugh’s contract has become an albatross, creating the burden of overwhelming expectations for a coach who has won 72% of his games at Michigan but hasn’t been able to push the Wolverines into the top tier of the sport.
If one were to project results based on Harbaugh’s annual compensation, then he should be in the CFP every year.
He’s paid in an equivalent range, after all, and in turn Harbaugh is judged accordingly.
Upon Michigan losing to Ohio State for the fifth straight year under Harbaugh and then suffering its fourth consecutive bowl loss in January, a provision in Harbaugh’s contract kicked in that would give him a 10% pay increase. Per the terms of his deal, the raise could have been even larger if Michigan and Harbaugh determined through good-faith negotiations that he was “compensated less than fair market value.”
But Harbaugh was still in line to make a princely sum that seemed more than reasonable.
Then the pandemic arrived, disrupting the sports world and changing Michigan’s financial outlook. Last week, Manuel delivered some sobering projections to the university’s board of regents before the panel voted to approve the budget. Revenue is expected to decline nearly $61 million, as the amount of money secured from spectator admissions is anticipated to drop 50%. With the university making cuts and instituting furloughs in other sectors, it only seemed a matter of time before Manuel’s department endured the same kind of pain. On Monday, after the budget passed, it was announced that a sliding scale with salary reductions ranging from 5 to 10% were implemented for athletic department employees making more than $50,000 with the highest earners suffering the biggest decrease.
Harbaugh, the most recognizable figure in Michigan’s sports program, is at the top of that pyramid.
He’s still making big money.
But now he’s taking home a little less. A 10% bump has been followed by a 10% dip.
As the natural order would have it, some balance has been restored.
Steve Berkowitz of USA TODAY contributed to this report.