Brandon learns coaching lesson the hard way

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After two offseasons of chaos, all is quiet under the Golden Dome. But the same can’t be said for life at the Big House, where the sloppy firing of head coach Rich Rodriguez has put Michigan fans into a fury that only had one way out: hiring Jim Harbaugh.

Now that Harbaugh actually called the press conference and picked a hat, the villagers can riot. Harbaugh was the perfect fit — the “Michigan Man” roots, and the perfect confluence of football cred, Q rating, and a great season at Stanford turning him into the greatest coaching candidate anyone in the modern media’s history (meaning their memory stretches no more than nine months) has ever seen.

How great is Harbaugh? Consider: He had a losing record (17-20) at Stanford heading into this season. In 2007, the year Harbaugh put the Cardinal on the map with their shocking upset victory over mighty USC, he lost eight games, including one to Charlie Weis’ Irish squad, the worst in Notre Dame history. In 2008, the year the Irish swooned down the stretch to a .500 regular season finish that nearly cost Weis his job, Harbaugh lost again to Notre Dame. Last season, led by a near Heisman-winning running back and facing a dead-Weis walking, Stanford won the season finale in the final minutes before losing their bowl game — finishing the year with an 8-5 record, the same as Brian Kelly’s 2010 squad.

The point of this isn’t to bury the man, but to point out that his 11-1 season isn’t the norm, but the confluence of a program building at a perfect time in the Pac-1o, now free from Trojan reign.

Captained by an elite quarterback, a solid defense and a veteran roster, Harbaugh’s star is at its brightest because he took a school known primarily for academics (but far from a football pariah) and turned it into a one-year wonder and BCS game winner. (But even that doesn’t say much when you consider Virginia Tech won a mediocre ACC,  lost to I-AA James Madison, and the Pac-10 conference champion beat Stanford by three touchdowns.)

But why get carried away with facts and context? I’m willing to concede that Harbaugh is the most attractive candidate out there. Glossy NFL playing career? Check. Coaching bloodlines? Check. Program builder? (Begrudgingly) Check. Rock star personality? Check-plus.

And therein lies the problem for Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon. In his first real tour of duty in major sports, Brandon is tasked with firing Rich Rodriguez after an abrupt three years and bringing in a replacement that’s only going to be viewed as a success if it’s the one man everybody in football wants to hire: Jim Harbaugh.

Comparing Brandon’s search to the one Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick conducted a year ago shows a contrast Michigan fans might not be too happy about. On November 27th, Michigan lost to its arch-rivals by 30 points, losing for a seventh consecutive year to Ohio State. The next Monday, Brandon released a statement:

“I have 27 sports, and I evaluate the performance at the end of the season,” Brandon said. “It’s the appropriate time to do it. It’s when the coaching is over and you can sit down and focus on what we’ve learned. That’s the way to do it.”

Those statements were before Michigan fans suffered through hand-holding to Josh Groban, a 38-point defeat to the fifth-best team in the SEC West, and the crumbling of a recruiting class that were among the first to scurry from a sinking ship. When Brandon made the decision to fire Rodriguez, 39 days had passed. A true eternity to let your football program hang in the balance, and now, with no real end in sight. All because “that’s the way to do it” at Michigan.

Mirror that process with the end of the Weis regime. On Saturday, November 28th, Weis and the Irish loss a hard-fought battle to Jim Harbaugh’s Cardinal 45-38. The next day, Weis met with Swarbrick. On Monday, Swarbrick announced that Weis wouldn’t return, beginning a national coaching search. Ten days later, Brian Kelly was hired. That was December 10th, 55 days before National Signing Day.

Now, with less than four weeks to go before prospects sign their letters-of-intent, and days before early-entrants enroll in schools, Michigan football, the pride of the state, is lost as sea, with the only life raft in sight one that was just snatched up by 2003 Notre Dame graduate Jed York.

This is Dave Brandon’s Urban Meyer to Florida moment, and the plane just left the runway without the one guy the state of Michigan needed to have.

Now Brandon soldiers on, with the recruiting clock ticking to midnight, offensive personnel tailored to Rodriguez’s system, defense personnel masquerading as eleven matadors, and a coaching search that will welcome a silver medalist into a burning Big House.

All because “that’s the way to do it.”

Welcome to college football, Dave Brandon.