This, as much as anything else, helps explain Michigan’s decline since Lloyd Carr exited stage right in January of 2008.
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When Michigan had a talented head coach, that coach wasn’t given the kind of budget that could bring in top assistants, especially on defense. When Michigan then moved from Rodriguez to Hoke, it expanded its coaching budget to bring in a fine defensive coordinator in Greg Mattison. However, just when the assistant coaches on defense improved, the program lacked a head coach with the skill that was necessary to put together a good offense and make the transition from Rodriguez’s spread concepts to the more pro-style format favored by former offensive coordinator Al Borges.
Naturally, the main reason Michigan fans are excited about the 2015 season and beyond is that Jim Harbaugh is a super-duper star, one of a handful of rock-star head coaches in college football. He is — alongside Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Jimbo Fisher — a member of the very small fraternity known as the “Can’t Miss Club.” Those four coaches have earned the distinction. Their mastery of the coaching profession is such that they will always and unavoidably improve any college program they lead. There is no question that Harbaugh will move Michigan forward. The only questions are: “How much?” and “How long will it take?”
Yet, as powerful and charismatic as Harbaugh is by himself, the even bigger reason Michigan is in position to succeed is that Harbaugh has assembled a top-shelf coaching staff. At every position, in every facet of the sport, Michigan football players are going to receive quality instruction and guidance. Players are going to develop throughout the roster, giving Michigan more than the “half-a-loaf” identity under which the program has labored since 2008. Under Rodriguez, only the offense developed; under Hoke, only the defense — thanks to Mattison — steadily performed.
Tim Drevno has been a trusted sidekick for Harbaugh at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers.
D.J. Durkin guided Florida’s defense, which was excellent during Will Muschamp’s tenure with the Gators.
Mattison is still on the Michigan staff, now as defensive line coach. His familiarity with the current crop of players, not to mention his track record in Ann Arbor, will lend cohesion to this year’s defense. Keep in mind that as a position coach, Mattison will make more this year ($500,000) than either of Rodriguez’s two coordinators did in 2010, his final season with the program.
Depth is something generally used to refer to a roster of players, but with Michigan, depth exists on the roster of assistant coaches. This is a deep and talented coaching staff, one which makes the lack of comparable resources for Rodriguez all the more glaring.
You get what you pay for, and as the Harbaugh era (coaching version) begins at Michigan, it seems that the Wolverines — institutionally and structurally — have learned the lessons they needed to learn from the Rodriguez experiment and its aftereffects. Humbled by defeat, Michigan — as a school and as a program — has again begun to comport itself with the clarity needed to bring about substantial results.
Jim Harbaugh is the foremost embodiment of this reality, that’s true. However, the composition of his coaching staff says just as much — if not more — about Michigan’s regained readiness to win.