Jim Harbaugh is a winner. The Michigan alum who'll today be named the Wolverines' next head coach has won everywhere he's been.
At San Diego of the FCS-level Harbaugh went 7-4 in his first season and then finished 11-1 in each of his last two years. Then he moved to Stanford where his teams went 4-8, 5-7, 8-5 and 12-1, improving every year. He then jumped to the San Francisco 49ers where he won two division titles, played for three conference titles (winning one) and lost one Super Bowl title in a four-year stint. All that between 2004 and 2014.
So while Harbaugh's track record is relatively short, it's also massively impressive. For that reason, it's not hard to imagine him having a positive impact on Michigan's football fortunes.
Over the course of the last 10 years the Big Ten has gone from one of the big boys in the college football world to a joke. Not trying to be snobbish there, but it's true. Big Ten football has become a national punchline. The recruiting zones of the Rest Belt and Upper Midwest have dried to the point that the league expanded to New Jersey and Maryland in search of a demographic tourniquet. Commissioner Jim Delany has said as much. And when you're adding Rutgers and Maryland to your football portfolio, it's not on par with adding a Penn State or Nebraska (though both the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins did reach bowls this season).
It doesn't help the Big Ten's reputation that the rest of the league's schools have been to Ohio State what the Jordanaires were to Elvis — part of the show, but far from the main attraction.
Harbaugh can help the Big Ten on all fronts. Urban Meyer's cakewalks through the league will likely cease as the OSU/Michigan game will regain its status as one of the best in all of sport. If Harbaugh wins he'll give the Big Ten another premier program and another playoff contender. Delany and the rest of the Big Ten membership — save Ohio State — should be chipping in to pay part of Harbaugh's salary.
But what, if anything, does Harbaugh's return to the college ranks mean to the SEC? Well, we believe there are five areas that bear watching (and that's not including possible head-to-head matchups between Michigan and SEC squads).
1. Salaries. Harbaugh's deal is one of the richest in college football history. That means Alabama boosters — and Nick Saban's agent Jimmy Sexton — are going to have Crimson Tide AD Bill Battle reaching for his checkbook any minute now, especially if Bama wins this year's College Football Playoff. At just over $5 million per year, Harbaugh's salary will impact the entire marketplace. As more coaches top the $5 million mark, there will be fewer coaches down in the $1 or $2 million range. A rising tide lifts all boats. Two SEC coaches made more than $5 million in 2014 (Saban and Kevin Sumlin). At least 13 of the SEC's 14 coaches will make more than $3 million for 2015. (Only Vanderbilt, as a private school, keeps its salaries secret.) Harbaugh, as the latest member of the $5 million club, will help pull those below him up. The SEC's best coaches will see their salaries continue to rise. And then the lower-end coaches will see their salaries rise in order to keep up with the SEC's best. Toss in the fact that the SEC Network is expected to turn healthy profits at some point and the league's schools should have plenty of cash to write bigger and bigger checks.
2. Fan expectations. Michigan has just convinced every talkshow caller in Amercia that if their favorite school would just spend enough… it too could land a hot NFL coach. That's ridiculous, of course, but you can bet your last buck the clamor for Jon Gruden will grow even louder the next time the SEC has a coaching vacancy. Harbaugh to Michigan is a unique situation. First, the Wolverines' new coach is one of the school's old quarterbacks. As Bear Bryant once put it, Mama called Harbaugh home. He also happened to be in a no-win situation in his last job with the 49ers. Ties and timing — in addition to the cash — played a key role in allowing Michigan to get its man. But that won't mean a thing the next time an SEC football power fumbles its way to an eight-win season or worse. Fans will call for a coaching change with renewed gusto. After all, "Look at what Michigan did!" (Betcha many, many Oklahoma fans aren't muttering those very words today.)
3. The Media. ESPN is viewed by folks outside of Dixie as the SEC's press arm. The network's partnership with the conference on the new SEC Network has only fertilized the seeds of discontent that already existed. Do you not think the folks in Bristol — who also have media deals with the Big Ten — don't want to start pushing a massive Big Ten brand name in order to appear unbiased? And a stronger Big Ten would help put money in ESPN's already overflowing coffers. Chris Fowler said as much in October when he tweeted: "NOTHING would boost abc/ESPN biz more than a dominant B1G. Nothing. Trust me." The Big Ten has bigger schools located in bigger TV markets. That means more alums nationwide to drive up ratings. It also means a better Big Ten would result in better ratings in some of the nation's largest markets — Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland, etc. If Michigan becomes Michigan again, that'll be more pub for the Big Ten and a bit less for the SEC.
4. Recruiting. With greater media exposure comes better recruiting. We've already noted that the Big Ten is looking East and South in the hopes of helping its demographics and expanding its recruiting zone. Those folks leaving the Midwest in recent years have headed South and West. Increasingly, Big Ten programs have tried to recruit the South and West as a result. We don't expect Harbaugh and Michigan to start recruiting the Sun Belt area as easily as Alabama, Auburn and Georgia do, but one or two key signees from SEC territory would be enough to leave a few schools smarting. Ohio State has been cherry-picking top SEC prospects for the last three years. This year they have commitments from players in Florida, Georgia and Virginia (not an SEC state, but a state the league's schools recruit heavily). Including this year's commits with last year's signees, Meyer has nabbed five prospects from the state of Florida, two from Georgia and one from Kentucky. The year before that he landed three players from Georgia, two more from Florida and one each from the Carolinas. If Harbaugh can come anywhere close to that success it will create a greater nuisance for SEC coaches on the recruiting trail. A kid not targeted by Alabama, we'll say, might now have a choice between Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Michigan. Two are close to home, but one has a bigger name.
5. The polls. For much of the 2014 season the SEC had six squads listed in the national top 10. On the one hand the league was good. On the other hand the Big Ten wasn't. If Harbaugh is able to resurrect Michigan and get the Wolverines back into the national top 10 mix it's going to come at someone else's expense. If the Big Ten suddenly has another team battling for a College Football Playoff spot it's going to cut into some other league's odds. And with more squads in that rarefied air it would appear the SEC would be the conference most likely to surrender a slot near the top of the polls. That could impact the league's reputation longterm. If the SEC has six teams in the top 10 every year it's hard to argue with the conference's dominance. But if the SEC has five top teams each year while the Big Ten increases to three (Ohio State, Michigan and either a Wisconsin or a Michigan State, for example), it won't take long for the national perception to inch away from the SEC. Still the best? Yes. But the best by miles and miles? Not so much.
Look, no one is saying the SEC's football superiority will wither and disappear because Michigan has hired Harbaugh. But national perceptions could start to shift as a result of the Wolverines' latest hire. We believe that's worth keeping an eye on.
Assuming, of course, that Harbaugh finds success once again.