The news of Michigan’s hiring of Jim Harbaugh last week was met with much excitement and fanfare. However, the news reminded me of one of my favorite topics: the treatment of collegiate coaching contracts. It also reminded me of something that Harbaugh said after signing a contract extension to coach at Stanford. At a press conference to announce the extension, Harbaugh wouldn’t commit to coaching the Cardinal the following season:
“Nobody has promised that….I’m not going to write anything in blood on a stone tablet.”
This quote was used as part of a 2009 story by Elliot Almond of the San Jose Mercury Press, which explored the area of college coaching contracts and introduced me to the concept that these contracts are akin to pre-nuptial agreements – they merely set forth the obligations of each party when the inevitable divorce occurs.
Harbaugh’s statement probably went unmentioned in the Harbaugh-to-Michigan articles, because it merely reflects the status quo in big-time collegiate coaching. Coaches remain perpetual free agents, regardless of buyout clauses. Schools generally remain unwilling to get involved in litigation with coaches and the schools that hire their coaches (for an exception, see this post regarding Marist). Jim McElwain’s recent departure from Colorado State for Florida demonstrates this concept, although Colorado State deserves credit for negotiating a considerable settlement, which reportedly contained a game-commitment clause.
For Harbaugh, time will tell how long he coaches at Michigan. But Wolverines fans should prepare themselves to hear about Harbaugh’s potential return to the NFL each off-season, regardless of the terms of his contract.