Michigan mailbag: Harbaugh's future, waving white flag on season?
How many of you are waving the white flag and don’t want to read this Michigan football mailbag? Just joking. Come on. Keep reading. Please.
There was a lot of news this week with Michigan pausing because of COVID-19 issues and canceling the Maryland game on Saturday. That was made official Wednesday. The night before, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit suggested Michigan might wave the white flag to avoid playing at Ohio State next week, not only avoiding an anticipated bloodbath but also preventing the Buckeyes from reaching the six-game threshold to make the Big Ten title game (a foregone conclusion). And then Herbstreit apologized. And then Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, in a video shot in-house by UM, eviscerated Herbstreit without saying his name.
OK, that was a lot, so let’s get to the mailbag:
►Question: Do you think Michigan will disclose how many team members tested positive? What is the likelihood that we will have enough available for the OSU game? – @RajLakra
►Answer: No, I don’t think Michigan will offer specifics. However, the department has been releasing weekly COVID-19 data each Friday for all sports, coaches and staff combined. So that might offer a clue. I do believe the issue is less about how many have tested positive but the contract tracing.
►Q: As a veteran journalist, what did you think of the team’s tactic of posting its own video interview with Warde Manuel? Had the beat reporters asked for a Zoom call with him? Did they decline? – @MickiMaynard
►A: Micheline, I know I didn’t ask to speak to Manuel, but I did ask if Jim Harbaugh would be available. I’ve seen other head coaches speaking after there’s been a pause, so being able to talk to Harbaugh about this was my first thought. As you know, Harbaugh was not made available. Of course, I would have preferred to speak to Manuel on a Zoom, but you and I both know there’s no way he would do that because the questions would turn to Harbaugh’s contract, and he is not interested in discussing that publicly. But generally speaking, I really hope this is not the method of athletic departments going forward. When Harbaugh was cranking out weekly podcasts with his father, I really think he believed anything we reporters might want to know could be found in those. That’s not how this works. He knows that and this season, even though people often say he speaks in riddles or coach-speak (agree at times on both), he has been more cooperative and less dismissive. At least outwardly.
►Q: Do you think the season is officially over? How many players tested positive? – @pbishop3
►A: Paul, people in the building are holding out hope, but this is definitely a big hill to climb. Michigan is not saying how many players tested positive. I asked Harbaugh in an opening question at his news conference Monday, and he didn’t say, and others tried, as well, so we don’t know an official number and I’m guessing the number has changed from Monday morning anyway. I’m not ready to commit to saying the Ohio State game isn’t happening. There’s always the crossover game the following week.
►Q: I’ve heard many media people close to the program say JH is a “different person” since Ohio State in 2016. Can one of you find out why or offer an opinion? – @pete0543
►A: Pete, I know this is something one person said and now it has snowballed, the suggestion being “JT was short” broke his spirit and will. He is not less competitive four years later. He has been different during these Zoom news conferences, I will say that. I’ve said congenial, but I’m not sure that’s the right word to describe him. He has been answering questions, in ways, yes, that often don’t say anything, but he hasn’t rolled his eyes at anyone or been dismissive. But he and I had a bit of a disagreement when I asked him something in June 2019, and I can absolutely say he had some fire that day (and so did I).
►Q: Hi Angelique. I say Harbaugh gets an extension but does a major overhaul of his coaching staff. Your opinion? – @MichaelFMiami
►Q: What is your gut feeling on what happens to Jim Harbaugh after the season. Will they part ways? – @jamara23732
►A: Bundling both of your questions, because they’re related. My gut feeling at this moment is Harbaugh returns, perhaps with a shorter extension, hence, shorter leash, less money but a contract with considerable incentives (meritocracy ring a bell?) and the promise of really taking a hard look at his staff and making changes. Otherwise, I don’t see Michigan firing him. If they split, it will be because he decided to move on. But right now, I think he's back.
►Q: Does the case of Vanderbilt firing their coach change your opinion of “doubtful coaches get fired this year since so many in athletic departments have been let go” (which I get made sense, until THAT happened), and does WM’s comment yesterday about winningest program a “tell” for JH? – @MarkProff
►A: And Derek Mason isn’t the only one. South Carolina fired Will Muschamp in mid-November and Utah State split with Gary Andersen. You’re right. There is now precedent. That has opened my eyes to the possibility that as easily as you can write off everything as, “Well, it’s 2020 and the pandemic has distorted everything,” it’s clearly not a go-to reason to have a sense of job security, even in the world of football.
►Q: Do the majority of players still believe in Harbaugh? What would result in more guys in the portal — keeping JH or moving on? – @JonSSwartz
►Jonathan, that’s hard to say because I don’t have an opportunity to really quiz players on their feelings about their coach. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that when there’s a coaching transition, there’s attrition, so that’s to be expected. And with the soon-to-be one-time transfer rule (that Harbaugh publicly supported), there’s definitely going to be movement on that front, at least initially. So, it looks like I’m saying there will be some if he stays and more if there’s a coaching change.
►Q: What now … with football in the fall what do we glean from this experiment? Looks like basically spring ball. Who developed and showed future promise? Are the QBs still viable? Who’s hitting the portal? Who’s leaving and who’s staying? Any young CBs worth getting a look at? – @CHEN313
►A: It really did play out a bit like that, like a glorified spring ball. Are the quarterbacks viable? Joe Milton and Cade McNamara have shown promise, but both need more time. In the end, McNamara, to me, looked like he read the field better, but Milton has plenty of upside. I have no idea at this stage who might be leaving. As far as the cornerbacks, Gemon Green sure looked better last week, and Vincent Gray is improving. D.J. Turner has been slowed by a nagging injury, and cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich said Andre Seldon and Sammy Faustin have been coming along.
►Q: I see Blake Corum as resembling Mike Hart but faster. Can we expect to see his talent and versatility utilized? – @rdmnrenno
►A: Mike, totally agree and have also described him as Mike Hart-ish with speed. I had predicted he would be the freshman to make the biggest impact this fall, and he has done well but he needs to be used more.
►Q: Should Michigan have stayed with the original Harbaugh offense? It seems like the switch has caused attrition of the recruits for that system. Also, the transition to the Gattis offense has been hard and will take more time for the roster to catch up. – @MC_ShopOne
►A: Michael, that’s an interesting question, and I think we can add to it by asking – should he have retained Jedd Fisch and made him the offensive coordinator? I vote yes. The quarterbacks loved working with him and improved. I know what you’re really asking, but when it looked like a plodding, fullback-heavy offense, people wanted change. There’s change with Josh Gattis’ offense and at times there’s been evidence of speed-in-space, just not enough of it. He was hired as a first-time play-caller and that comes with growing pains, too. He looked like he called a terrific game at Minnesota with Joe Milton and once Cade McNamara came in at Rutgers, Gattis seemed to be making better calls. But there are still too many (wildcat, anyone?) that are puzzling. How many offensive coordinators can Harbaugh hire?
►Q: Why will 2021 be any better than 2018 or 2019? – @akm515
►A: Well, the offensive line is still going to be on the less-experienced side, so at least they got some games under their belts, you’ve got a couple of quarterbacks who have some game experience … OK, I’m not going to run down the whole team but let me answer it this way – it has to be better than this year. That’s all I can give you.
►Q: Have you crossed Kirk Herbstreit off your Christmas cookie list yet? – @freehan11
►A: Ha, John. Well, Kirk was never on the cookie list, but I’ve always liked and respected him. He does a great job for ESPN. I also believe he is sincere when he says he wants Michigan to be good and that it's important for the rivalry and college football. But what he said Tuesday night was so off-base, and I don’t have to expand on that. Kudos to him for immediately apologizing.
►Q: If UM football does not practice on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday … what is the timeline to make a call on the trip to the world’s largest toilet bowl? – @SeanRatGoBlue
►A: I would imagine if Michigan doesn’t practice by Tuesday, I don't see them playing in Columbus.
►Q: Do players and coaches pay attention or read all the nasty negative comments towards them and about them and does it affect the morale of the team? In this so-called time of “we’re in this together.” – @bfenwich1970
►A: Becky, I do think the players tend to insulate themselves as much as possible. Some abandon social media during the season and don’t read stories, but you know they see and hear things, and that’s why you get comments like, "People outside don’t know what’s going on in the football building." Fair enough. I remember John Navarre saying he would make sure sports talk radio shows were turned off before he got in a car. But the players’ parents are another story. They read social media, and they look at message boards, and although they know it’s not always a friendly place, they scan to see what’s being said and often get upset.
►Q: Is it true that Wojo has a George Foreman grill at his desk so he can have hot dogs ready at any time? – @GOBLUE4EVR
►A: Dave, apparently he has an air fryer and suddenly thinks he’s a chef. Go figure.