Most every coach, when they arrive at a new job, tells his team that no jobs are safe and even the most entrenched of starters will have to compete for his spot with a clean slate. Jim Harbaugh was no different in his first weeks at Michigan, which resulted in the typical departure of several older players.
In Harbaugh’s first five months on the job five players who were down to their last year of eligibility opted to leave the program. One of them, tight end Keith Heitzman, said earlier this week that he was disappointed when the new coach told him the fifth-year players would have to try out to keep their jobs.
"Obviously, Harbaugh coming in was going to change things at Michigan -- do things his way," Heitzman, now at Ohio University, told the Columbus Dispatch. "But I didn't know if I wanted to try out. That definitely took me off-guard. I was bummed out."
The sentiment is understandable. Heitzman put in four years as a role player for the Wolverines, developed a connection to the university and wanted to finish his college career where he started it. It’s not clear whether the “tryout” would be for his spot on the depth chart or for a spot on the roster and a scholarship, but it’s a difficult blow either way.
Heading into their final year, players want to be sure they can make the most out of their last experience. Sticking around to try out during spring practice could mean losing out on a potential roster spot with another school or at least losing valuable time that could be spent preparing to join a new team. Heitzman, like several of his classmates, chose to cut his losses when he heard there was an opening for him elsewhere. He ended his career at Michigan before he would have wanted.
At the same time, coaches use a lot of methods to reshape their rosters when taking over a new program, and asking fifth-year players to try out is as benign as it gets in that department. While redshirted players sticking around for a fifth season has become so common it’s almost a foregone conclusion at many schools, no one is guaranteed five years in college sports. The Big Ten guarantees four-year scholarships to all its athletes, but after that it’s up to the coach to decide if it’s worth bringing a player back for one more season.
Harbaugh didn’t “run off” any of the fifth-year players that left. He gave them a chance to compete for the spot, which sounds like the standard modus operandi he uses in just about every situation. Heitzman’s comments to the Dispatch didn’t express any ill will toward the coach or his former team, and while it’s easy to sympathize with his disappointment it’s hard to find someone to blame in this situation.