The Next Michigan Man

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For the better part of the last seven years, Michigan football has been a punchline. The post-Lloyd Carr era in Ann Arbor has been defined by disappointment. First Rich Rodriguez stomped on the label “Michigan Man,” and turned every man, woman, and child in the Mitten against the spread offense. Then it was the presumptive local hero Brady Hoke, who went from superstar leader to bumbling buffoon in the time it took him to realize that Shane Morris couldn’t tell the sky from the ground. There will be all kinds of time in which to debate which of these coaches was worse, and why. For now, it’s on interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett to determine who will be next.

Recently, reports circulated that Duke head coach David Cutcliffe had been offered, and turned down the position. By doing this, he chose to remain at the helm of a program once famous for winning a lawsuit by proving that it was the worst team in America.

The Cutcliffe reports were later revealed to be unsubstantiated, as both Michigan and Duke denied any contact between the two parties. The rumor did raise an interesting – and, for Michigan fans, understatedly frightening – question: who would want to coach at Michigan? For one of the storied programs in the sport, the question was suddenly and starkly not only who the school would get, but who it could convince that the job was worth taking.

In a practical sense, Michigan needs a new head football coach; in a broader sense, it needs a leader who can drag it out of the gutter. Pat Narduzzi, who played a big part in dropping the team down there in the first place, should be that coach.

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Michigan, naturally, is hunting bigger game than Narduzzi at the moment. Rumors of Jim Harbaugh leaving San Fransisco for a pay raise and total control have floated around for most of the year, as have rumors of Les Miles finally abandoning the bayou (though we’ve heard that before). The problem for Michigan is that neither of these big-ticket coaches seem all that likely to take the job. Yes, reports suggest that Harbaugh is unhappy in San Francisco, and has been at odds with the front office, but the chance of a successful NFL coach leaving his job to rebuild a college program is miniscule, even if that task seems preferable to Harbaugh’s most likely NFL gig, in Oakland. Les Miles would be a great get for Hackett, but if he were willing to leave LSU for Ann Arbor, it would have happened in 2008.

The truth is, the Wolverines are looking in the wrong place. Narduzzi’s office is 62.5 miles down the road. He’s had his fair share of success in the Big House, and has produced one fine defense after another as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator. There is no better candidate for the job, and that’s before the thrill of stealing away an in-state rival’s coach comes into play.

Narduzzi has been one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel over the last two off-seasons. After leading the Spartans to a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford in 2013, the defensive maestro was linked to Connecticut, but turned the job down to remain in East Lansing. Now, after a fourth consecutive season ranked in the top 12 in points allowed per game – MSU was third in 2013 – it looks as if Narduzzi is ready to move on to bigger and better things. That doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to move out of state.

At Michigan, Narduzzi would get to try his luck as the head coach of one of the truly national programs in the sport. Yes, Michigan has fallen on hard times, but the talent is there. They continually boast top-20 recruiting classes, and would give Narduzzi the opportunity to continue working with future stars, such as Jabril Peppers.

If they want to return to national prominence, Michigan should ask Narduzzi what he wants to be paid, and then double it, and for no greater reason than this: If the Wolverines manage to steal him, it would be the biggest slap in the face to their in-state rival since Mike Hart named them “Little Brother.” Narduzzi is a great coach, and is ready to take charge of a top flight program. If that program is Michigan, the move would be about more than just X’s and O’s; it would be about re-asserting the Wolverines as the team in the state. What is a bigger power move than swiping your rival’s crown jewel?

The move would bring Michigan’s swagger back, both on, and off the field. Narduzzi would be their proverbial Justin Timberlake, their Chairman of the Board. He would bring the kind of program-wide confidence boost that’s normally reserved for European soccer teams that have been acquired by Russian billionaires.

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Michigan’s last two coaching hires have been embarrassing, with one being more immediately so than the other. The selections reflect a program on the downslope, while the search reflects the denial of its crumbling empire. Before signing Rodriguez and Hoke, Michigan was turned down by Les Miles, Jim Harbaugh, and Greg Schiano. It is worth taking a moment to consider that the head coach of Rutgers turned down a position at one of the self-proclaimed royalty of college football to continue working in central New Jersey.

The Wolverines feel like they could have done better than who they got. That’s why they’re still chasing Harbaugh and Miles all these years later. They’re (justly) ashamed of their recent history, and the old Michigan Man vanity means the program can’t bear the thought of giving the keys to their castle to anyone with less than superstar status. Because of this, they won’t consider Narduzzi as a candidate, although they should.

After a century atop the Pantheon of collegiate programs, Michigan is on the outside, and the risk inherent in hiring another gamble has forced them to throw all of their chips at Harbaugh and Miles, praying that one of them takes the bait. Unlike Harbaugh, and Miles, Narduzzi isn’t a retread. He’s never been a head coach. Yes, he’s been instrumental in organizing Michigan State’s ferocious defense, but he hasn’t experienced the day-to-day struggles that a veteran head coach is used to.

The most apt example as to why Michigan won't hire Narduzzi lies down I-96 at Comerica Park, in Detroit. Last year, the Detroit Tigers parted ways with their Hall of Fame coach, Jim Leyland. His replacement was the veteran catcher and first time manager Brad Ausmus. Ausmus, like Narduzzi, was regarded as a future star; Ausmus, like Narduzzi, may one day be just that. But as the baseball season wore on, Ausmus fell victim to rookie mistakes, as expected, and the Tigers were eliminated by the Orioles in the ALDS. While Ausmus was lauded by many for a strong first campaign, there were others who believed that a seasoned touch might have carried the team to their first World Series win in three decades. This was almost certainly not the case -- a manager, like a head coach, can only do so much -- but this is Michigan’s fear. It’s a fear profound enough to ensure, most likely, that Jim Hackett will not hire an untested coach like Narduzzi, who might come up short when someone else could lead them to glory.

As time passes, we’ll hear more coaches linked to the maize and blue. Narduzzi, sad to say, isn’t likely to be one of them. It would be very Michigan, in the least flattering sense, if Hackett failed to notice that the best fit for the program’s next Michigan Man In Chief is already in the state. It could change everything if he realizes it.

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