How Michigan football hiring Mike Macdonald compares to Ohio State's recent gambles

Orion Sang
Detroit Free Press

The last time Jim Harbaugh hired a defensive coordinator, the process seemed relatively easy.

Harbaugh perused that season's statistics and noticed Boston College — yes, really — was among the nation's top defenses in every important category despite finishing 3-9. 

That, as told by Harbaugh years ago, was essentially how he hired Don Brown.

Harbaugh's newest defensive coordinator comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. Mike Macdonald, whose hiring was officially announced by Michigan football on Sunday afternoon, does not have a track record close to that of his predecessor.

Brown had decades of experience and had constructed numerous top-15 defenses before his arrival in Ann Arbor. Macdonald, meanwhile, has never called plays before. He last coached in college in 2013 — as an off-the-field assistant at Georgia. 

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Mike Macdonald.

We don't know how this move will work out for the Wolverines. Macdonald, 33, has an arrow clearly pointing up. He steadily climbed the ladder with the Baltimore Ravens for the past seven seasons, and had a good track record as a position coach. He worked for Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, Jim's brother, so the Wolverines have a detailed and honest scouting report. 

But there's plenty of risk associated with this hire for Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, who is rapidly approaching "do-or-die" time

Based on the terms of Harbaugh's contract, which include a halved base salary and a decreasing buyout, there's more than a good chance Harbaugh won't get to hire another defensive coordinator if this doesn't work. If Harbaugh is to remain at Michigan and turn the program's trajectory around, this move has to pan out. Which is why it is particularly interesting he is putting his faith in someone as inexperienced as Macdonald. 

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There are several factors working in Harbaugh's favor. The (presumed) recommendation from his brother looms rather large, as does Macdonald's ascendance. The Ravens have fielded some of the league's stingiest defenses over the past few seasons, and Macdonald was credited with coaching players like Matthew Judon, C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle, who all reached the Pro Bowl. And when Macdonald worked with the defensive backs in 2017, the defense led the league in interceptions (22) and forced turnovers (34). 

Based on Macdonald's coaching history, there's not much separating this move from the one Ohio State made in 2018 when it hired Ryan Day as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after Day had been the quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles. You can also argue it's somewhat similar to the Buckeyes' decision to hire Jeff Hafley as co-defensive coordinator in 2019 after Hafley spent three seasons as the 49ers' defensive backs coach. These types of gambles have clearly worked for other teams. 

Still, there are plenty of questions. 

Ohio State paired Day with Kevin Wilson, widely regarded as a top offensive coach in college football. It paired Hafley with Greg Mattison, the former Michigan assistant who had over a decade of experience as a coordinator across college football and the NFL. 

Michigan Wolverines defensive back Daxton Hill (30) intercepts a pass intended for Rutgers running back Isaih Pacheco during the third overtime at SHI Stadium, Nov. 22. 2020.

Somewhat conspicuously, Michigan named Macdonald the defensive coordinator. Perhaps they'll end up hiring another coach who does have play-calling experience — but even then, this appears to be Macdonald's show. 

Which makes it prudent to ask: How much of his success in Baltimore can be attributed to the organization's ability to draft and acquire premium talent at the positions Macdonald coached? And how much of Macdonald's success can be attributed to the presence of Wink Martindale, Baltimore's venerated defensive coordinator whose specialty is coaching linebackers, and Chris Hewitt, a highly regarded defensive backs coach who Macdonald worked with in 2017? 

These are the same questions that followed Day (a Chip Kelly protege) and Hafley (also a Kelly protege who coached under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh). Did these young coaches succeed because of the system in place and who they learned under? Or did they prove they were rising stars of their own accord? Ohio State's coaches proved they fit under the latter category. 

Another factor to consider: The players Macdonald has inherited. There's significantly less defensive talent on the roster than there was in 2016 when Brown took over; that defense had eight starters drafted into the NFL, including two in the first round, and counted future first-round picks like Rashan Gary and Devin Bush Jr. as backups.

Michigan defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson celebrates after sacking Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley during the second half of U-M's 10-3 win on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, at Michigan Stadium.

Michigan's defense has hemorrhaged talent to the NFL over the past few seasons and looks nothing like it did earlier in Harbaugh's tenure; while there are key returning pieces like defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and safety Daxton Hill, turning this unit around will be a difficult job for Macdonald. He is also unproven as a recruiter and last worked in college football in 2013: Does he have the connections and juice to land the players he wants? And can he replenish the roster and develop that talent fast enough, with Harbaugh and Michigan in need of a rapid turnaround? 

These are all questions that face an unproven, young coordinator like Macdonald. Harbaugh decided he liked the answers well enough to hinge his program's future upon Macdonald.

As for the rest of us — we'll just have to wait and see. Which is something that could be said about this program at large. 

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