Jim Harbaugh is a unique individual who ran his Michigan program in a unique manner. It worked for him to the tune of a national championship.
That’s a daunting challenge for Sherrone Moore, the 37-year-old offensive coordinator who is succeeding Harbaugh in Ann Arbor after Harbaugh departed for the Los Angeles Chargers. He can't be Harbaugh.
That uniqueness is also — to look on the Mr. Brightside — a point of optimism and opportunity for him though.
When college programs try to replace legendary coaches who have been consistently competing and winning titles, the biggest question is obvious: If everything is going nearly perfect under the old guy, then how does the new guy do better?
At Michigan there is actually a lot that can be done “better” — namely in recruiting — because Harbaugh did things differently. That’s Moore’s big chance.
Generally speaking, if you are winning national championships, then the coaching is great, the scheme is great, the recruiting is great, the development is great, the work ethic is great … everything is great. Think Alabama under Nick Saban or USC under Pete Carroll or Georgia’s back-to-back titles under Kirby Smart.
Best players, best system.
In those cases, the goal is simply to maintain as much as possible, which is why schools routinely turn to promising assistants who might not change a thing.
That certainly will be one of Moore’s tasks and there is plenty of promise there.
Michigan’s run of three consecutive Big Ten titles and College Football Playoff appearances corresponded with Moore's promotion to lead the offensive line in 2021. The group went on to be named the best unit in the country in consecutive years. An attitude was built.
The players began raving about Moore as both a coach and a mentor. In a program with a head man who could kindly be described as slightly aloof, having someone to connect with was significant.
Undoubtedly, Moore will try to build off that while keeping in place as many of Harbaugh’s ways as possible. Michigan isn’t like the other teams. That’s an advantage. However, simply hoping Moore can become Harbaugh is a lot to ask.
Harbaugh has proven an ability to build winning football teams like few others.
Where even the greatest of college coaches — Saban, Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier — struggled when they went to the NFL and no longer had the ability to simply recruit better talent than their opponents, Harbaugh went 44-19-1 with San Francisco and led the 49ers to three NFC championship games and a Super Bowl appearance. The Chargers didn’t try to interview any other college coach.
Moore may be a great, great coach. Even then he may not be Harbaugh.
However, Michigan didn’t win the championship the way champions usually win it — by loading up on more talent than nearly anyone and then coaching it to victory.
Harbaugh obviously got enough good players to beat teams with higher-rated recruits — in the Rose Bowl, Alabama had 18 five-star recruits on its roster. Michigan had two. The Wolverines won.
That said, any coach would like to have a more naturally talented roster.
Discounting his first recruiting class (which ranked 50th nationally by Rivals.com), the eight groups that Harbaugh signed to Ann Arbor ranked 11.25 per Rivals. Just two of them — 2016 and 2017 — cracked the top five. Harbaugh’s program was adept at scouting talent — especially via portal additions — but on paper, this is the way you build a 10-2 team, not a national champion.
Moore can — and likely needs — to change some of that, via more aggressive recruiting, modernization of NIL and simple personality.
Put this way, Metro Detroit has been home to a five-star quarterback in the Class of 2023 (Dante Moore of Detroit King), Class of 2024 (C.J. Carr of Saline) and Class of 2025 (Bryce Underwood of Belleville).
None signed with the local national power — which just happened to be led by the only college coach who played 14 seasons in the NFL as a quarterback. Instead, Dante Moore went to UCLA and then transferred to Oregon, Carr is enrolled at Notre Dame, and Underwood, still just a high school junior, is pledged to LSU.
This, normally, would be a massive flashing warning sign for an elite program. Michigan has the trophies, of course, and there are a lot of ways to build a roster these days, but missing out on local quarterback talent year after year remains unadvisable.
For Sherrone Moore, that’s where he might do better than Harbaugh to make up for any part of the job he understandably won’t measure up against one of the sport's great pure coaches. Michigan is a phenomenal place to play football — biggest stadium, elite academics, tradition and lots of recent winning.
That’s the unique nature of following Harbaugh, which isn’t in play in following, for example, Saban, where everything was already best in class.
There is room for growth, which is great, because in these coaching transitions there is always room for regression.
Sherrone Moore’s task is to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.