It’s college bowl season, and around these parts, that can only mean one thing: Rumors of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh going to the NFL!
Of course, that seasonal rumor comes with many other traditions, including ridiculously irresponsible click-bait stories based on absolutely nothing, everyone freaking out because of it, and the whole thing amounting to zero. ‘Tis the season – and will be every season Harbaugh is Michigan’s coach, any NFL team needs a coach, and any reckless reporter needs a few thousand more Twitter followers.
Meantime, there’s actual football to be played. And this bowl season, Michigan schools will be playing more than ever before. Harbaugh’s team narrowly missed out on the four-team playoff, but received a trip to the Orange Bowl, one of the best, to play Florida State.
The season’s big surprise is Western Michigan, which finished the season at a perfect 13-0, ranked tenth, earned an invitation to the Cotton Bowl, where they’ll take on Wisconsin. Everyone assumed their 35-year old coach, P.J. Fleck, would be leaving Kalamazoo for a bigger program like Oregon or Texas. But to just about everyone’s surprise, including mine, it looks like Coach Fleck will be staying in Kalamazoo for at least one more year.
That’s not a small thing – and not a small risk, either. Fleck is making 800-thousand at WMU, more than the president, and he’ll get a raise. But schools in Power Five conferences, like the Big Ten, pay a guy like that three or four million dollars.
The risk is simple: with a lot of stars leaving, and Southern Cal and Michigan State on the schedule next fall, the Broncos could fall back whence they started just three years ago, when they went 1-11. Fleck’s chance to go big time would drop with his team. But that, to me, makes Fleck’s decision all the more impressive: in an era where loyalty only goes as far as your last paycheck, this guy turned down big bucks to stay. I hope it works.
Central Michigan will be going bowling for the third straight year, this time to the Miami Beach bowl. No surprise there. But the shocker is down the road, where the Eagles of Eastern Michigan will be going to a bowl game for the first time since 1987.
Yes, these are the same Eagles I argued should drop football, because they’ve been traditionally terrible, their students and alumni don’t care about the team, and they lose millions every year – millions other students have to subsidize with ten percent of their tuition. The remarkable job Athletic Director Heather Lyke and head coach Chris Creighton have done certainly proved the first theory wrong: you can win at Eastern. But the exception proves the rule: even with a winning team, the vast majority of students and alumni still don’t care, and it will lose millions this year, too – while paying for the bowl trip, plus bonuses for coaches.
And that brings us to the biggest surprise of this bowl season: If you had bet in August which of the state’s five top tier teams wouldn’t make a bowl game, you would have won a lot of money if you’d said, “Michigan State.” The Spartans had only lost five games in three years. Well, this year, whatever could go wrong, did. The Spartans finished 3-9, far out of the running. But here’s an easy bet: head coach Mark Dantonio didn’t forget how to coach. He’ll sort out his staff and his players, and return next fall.
Until then, enjoy the games.
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