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The post-Saban aftermath at Alabama only bolsters Sherrone Moore's case at Michigan

Andy Staples head shotby:Andy Staples01/22/24

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Andy Staples Relating Alabama's Fallout To Michigan | 01.21.24

“I am going to look at my wife and kids and my friends and family in my room while I have me a drink and we party and we celebrate this great victory. That’s what I’m going to look at tonight.” — Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel late on the evening of Jan. 8 when asked if he’d consider promoting from within should the Wolverines need to replace Jim Harbaugh.

Warde Manuel probably enjoyed that drink in the hours after the national title game. Since then, he and the others in charge of the big decisions for Michigan’s athletic department have had to think some sobering thoughts about what might come next.

We don’t yet know if Jim Harbaugh is headed to the NFL, but we know he has interviewed for two jobs. Presumably, Manuel and the rest of the Michigan administration spent the past few weeks (months?) thinking about what they might do if they found themselves without Harbaugh going forward.

The question is whether the past two weeks have affected that thinking. Because if the people in charge at Michigan watched what’s happened at Alabama, Washington and Arizona as the dominoes fell following the retirement at Nick Saban, it probably pointed them toward one logical conclusion.

If Harbaugh leaves and they want to field a team that in any way resembles the one that just won the national title, they need to promote offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore to head coach as quickly as possible. 

This may seem elementary, but the buzz in the agent community is that Michigan might seek to look outside the organization since Moore was entangled in the same NCAA case that led to Michigan self-imposing a three-game suspension on Harbaugh to start the 2023 season. Moore was suspended for the first of those games. He served as the acting head coach for the Bowling Green game on Sept. 16 and then led the team again during the Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State games after the Big Ten suspended Harbaugh amid the investigation into signal stealing accusations.

If Michigan goes outside, its leaders should reasonably expect the same kind of exodus into the transfer portal that Alabama experienced after Saban retired and the Crimson Tide hired Washington’s Kalen DeBoer. (And after DeBoer left Washington and the Huskies hired Arizona’s Jedd Fisch. And after Fisch left Arizona and the Wildcats hired San Jose State’s Brent Brennan.) While the Saban situation was unusual and not likely to be repeated often — a mega-successful coach leaving a national power on his own terms — it is precisely what would be happening if Harbaugh takes an NFL job.

Alabama freshman All-America safety Caleb Downs hit the portal and landed at Michigan’s rival Ohio State. Freshman offensive tackle Kadyn Proctor, who started all 14 games, has committed to Iowa, the school he planned to attend before he flipped to Alabama late in the recruiting process. Receiver Isaiah Bond and tight end Amari Niblack have landed at Texas. Cornerback Desmond Ricks, who redshirted last season, chose Texas A&M. Incoming freshman quarterback Julian Sayin hit the portal and might wind up at Ohio State. (Sayin’s departure may have more to do with Washington freshman Austin Mack following DeBoer to Tuscaloosa, though.)

If Harbaugh leaves, the transfer portal would open for 30 days for Michigan players. In today’s version of college football, the prudent economic move for a proven player with eligibility remaining is to either enter the portal or threaten to enter to the portal to maximize the amount he receives from a school’s NIL collective.

Only two things can keep players from testing their market value:

  • Their current school’s collective sweetens the player’s current deal.
  • The player loves where he is and who he plays for so much that he chooses not to chase the highest possible dollar figure.

Should Harbaugh leave, several Michigan players would be incredibly valuable on the open market.

Defensive tackle Kenneth Grant is 6-foot-3 and weighs 339 pounds but is fast enough to chase down tailbacks in the open field. He has to play one more season in college before going to the NFL.

So does edge defender Derrick Moore, who famously took on two blocks before dropping Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe on the Rose Bowl’s final play. 

So does cornerback Will Johnson, a consensus first-team All-Big Ten player.

Michigan, and specifically Moore, also have been cultivating some talented young offensive linemen behind a veteran group that helped pave the way for the national title. Because such players rarely hit the portal, those linemen would be incredibly valuable. 

The risk of such players immediately leaving — and potentially wind up playing for conference rivals — isn’t something decision-makers haven’t had to consider before now. And it’s not a given that they should automatically base their decision on roster retention. Alabama didn’t have anyone on the staff ready to take over a program of that magnitude. Sacrificing some of the 2024 roster in exchange for a better next five years might have been the more prudent move. 

But Michigan has a different set of circumstances. The Wolverines have someone in Ann Arbor who has demonstrated he can run the program, and he has the respect of the players on the roster. 

Would these players definitely enter the portal if Harbaugh leaves and Michigan hires from the outside? Not necessarily. But Michigan’s chances of making sure they don’t probably increase if the environment around those players changes as little as possible. Elevating Moore would change as little as possible.

This might be an absurd suggestion if Moore hadn’t already shown himself to be an excellent gameday coach when thrust into the situation late in the season. Imagine the pressure of learning that you’re in charge less than 24 hours before kickoff at Penn State. Imagine the stress of handling offensive playcalling and all the important global decisions in a win-or-else game against Ohio State. Moore handled those situations with aplomb. Add in the fact that his development of the offensive line since he moved from tight ends coach prior to the 2021 season is probably the most important factor in Michigan’s rise, and it seems like an easy decision. 

The other most important to retain is strength coach Ben Herbert. Perhaps Harbaugh wants Herbert with him if Harbaugh goes to the NFL. But strength coaches in the NFL aren’t valued the way they are in college because so many NFL players have their own private trainer. Keeping Moore and most of the staff intact might also help keep Herbert. 

Meanwhile, the NCAA piece shouldn’t be an issue since Michigan seems prepared to fight for Harbaugh no matter what happens with the NCAA cases. Maybe 10 years ago the school would have folded and cleaned house, but this is a new era. The Wolverines just won a national title in a season when Harbaugh didn’t coach six of the 15 games. 

If the administration is willing to go to the mats for Harbaugh, why wouldn’t it do the same for Moore to keep the train rolling as smoothly as possible? 

Moore was the logical choice as Harbaugh’s successor before the exodus at Alabama showed what can happen when a legend leaves. But now?

He’s the obvious choice.