Who is Sherrone Moore? How he became Michigan’s only choice to succeed Jim Harbaugh

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The Athletic

In a cramped corner of Penn State’s visitors’ locker room, Sherrone Moore headed straight for his offensive line.

This was Moore’s first major stress test as Michigan’s head coach, and it was a doozy: a top-10 matchup on the road, nearly 111,000 fans in the stands, Jim Harbaugh stuck in a hotel room. The team learned of Harbaugh’s suspension on the flight to State College, and Moore found out 90 minutes before the game that he’d be the acting head coach. Now he had to tear up his game plan and figure out a way to protect a five-point lead with his line struggling to block Penn State’s pass rush.

Moore let Michigan’s offensive linemen know what was coming. The room was small enough that other position groups could hear the message loud and clear.

Fellas, we’re going to run the ball right up their ass. 

The scene that day in State College is the simplest explanation for why Moore is now Michigan’s head coach. He decided Michigan was going to impose its will on Penn State, and 32 consecutive running plays later, the Wolverines walked away with a 24-15 victory. Moore, overcome with emotion, unleashed a postgame interview that will be replayed for the rest of his coaching career.

“I want to thank the Lord,” Moore said, tears streaming down his face. “I want to thank coach Harbaugh. I f— love you, man. I love the s— out of you. We did this for you.”

Moore provided a rare glimpse into the core of a coach who typically maintains a guarded demeanor in public. But for the people who know him well, nothing about that day was a surprise — not Moore’s poise under pressure, not his ability to rise to the occasion, not the emotions that poured out in his postgame interview.

“That’s just Sherrone,” said Gerald McCoy, a 12-year NFL veteran and No. 3 draft pick who played with Moore at Oklahoma. “He’s very passionate about what he does, and even more so about the people he does it with.”

In one sense, Moore may never face a more pressure-packed scenario than his three-game trial-by-fire against Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State. Amid distractions and controversies galore, Moore led the Wolverines to wins in three of the toughest games of their 15-0 season, including a dramatic 30-24 victory against the Buckeyes. If he could do that, it’s reasonable to think there are a lot more wins in his future.

In another sense, the challenges are just beginning. Moore was the head coach for four games in 2023, but Michigan was Harbaugh’s team. Now that Harbaugh is coaching the Los Angeles Chargers, the scope of the transition is becoming apparent.

Harbaugh is expected to take defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, strength coach Ben Herbert, defensive line coach Mike Elston and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale with him to L.A. Special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh is heading to the Seattle Seahawks, and several members of Michigan’s support staff have departed for NFL jobs as well.

Moore’s search for a defensive coordinator took numerous twists and turns, illustrating the challenges of assembling a staff this late in the calendar. Michigan pursued several coaches from the NFL ranks, including Chiefs defensive line coach Joe Cullen, before reaching an agreement with former Ravens and Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale last week. Martindale, 60, comes from the same coaching tree as Minter and Mike Macdonald but will bring a different temperament and a more blitz-heavy philosophy to Michigan’s defense.

“People have to be patient and know that a transition is occurring here,” said Rick Minter, a former head coach at Cincinnati who spent the past two years at Michigan as an analyst and fill-in linebackers coach. “It’s hard to say that after you just won a national title. Look at this three-year run they’ve been on. Whatever next year unfolds for this program, they need to understand that we’re still just getting started under Sherrone.”

That doesn’t mean Moore can’t win right away, Minter said, but he has his work cut out for him. In the era of NIL and the transfer portal, there are more ways than ever to rebuild a roster. There’s also more competition than ever and schools waiting to pounce at any sign of weakness.

There is a feeling among some at Michigan that Harbaugh elevated the program to a national championship through sheer force of will, masking some of the program’s institutional deficiencies. Michigan was able to retain many of its best players with help from its NIL collectives, but critics saw the lack of a full-time NIL director, a notoriously difficult transfer process and a deep traditionalist streak within the university as obstacles to sustaining that success.

Michigan named Moore head coach two days after Jim Harbaugh’s departure. (Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

Under Harbaugh, Michigan was like an old car that suddenly drove very fast while acquiring a collection of traffic infractions along the way. Harbaugh was able to steer the program to a national championship, but now that he’s gone, the view of many is that Michigan needs to make improvements under the hood to give Moore the best chance of success.

Navigating Michigan through this transition is a massive challenge for a first-time head coach two years shy of his 40th birthday. When the subject of Moore’s inexperience comes up, athletic director Warde Manuel points to his four-game audition as proof of his readiness.

There’s a good chance Moore would have gotten the job even if he hadn’t been the acting head coach for Michigan’s victories against Penn State and Ohio State. But in one of the many ironies of Michigan’s season, the timing of the NCAA investigation into Michigan’s alleged impermissible scouting ring and Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti’s decision to suspend Harbaugh for the final three games of the regular season gave Michigan a trial period to watch Moore perform under pressure.

When Moore doubled down against Penn State, Manuel saw everything he needed to see.

“As great as Jim is, I’ve not seen him run it 32 times (in a row),” Manuel said. “He’s a quarterback. Sherrone is more of a lineman. He’s like, ‘This is working, so we’re going to smash.’ I thought it was great. That’s really the time that it clicked to me that he could be the next head coach.”

Jim Harbaugh is a media magnet who drew a crowd of cameras wherever he went. Moore is a former junior college offensive lineman who rarely makes himself the story, even at his own introductory news conference.

Moore’s no-frills approach goes back to his days as a player at Butler Community College, a junior college powerhouse in El Dorado, Kan. At Butler, Moore blocked for quarterback Zac Taylor, the future head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, and experienced life outside the glare of big-time college football.

In the heyday of junior college football, before the transfer portal and immediate eligibility, Butler was an outpost for talented players who needed time to develop. It was a life of long bus rides, dry ham sandwiches and an unglamorous grind that demanded a genuine love of the game.

“We weren’t dining at five-star places or having food catered in,” said Troy Morrell, who coached in nine national championship games at Butler. “Usually it was four guys to a hotel room. You build a lot of camaraderie, togetherness, mental toughness. It makes you grateful, as you look back on those things in life, for what you do have.”

Players usually ended up in Morrell’s program for one of a handful of reasons. Some were there because of grades. Some had off-field issues that rerouted their football careers. And some, like Moore, were late bloomers who’d been overlooked by bigger schools.

Moore attended high school in Derby, Kan., just outside of Wichita. He and his mother moved there from New Jersey to be closer to his father, who worked in California and later spent time in Iraq as a field manager for an oil company, according to a profile from Moore’s playing days at Oklahoma.

Moore grew up playing basketball and wanted to be the next Charles Barkley. After topping out at 6-feet-4, he decided to try his hand at football and became a two-year starter at Derby. Moore still had the tall, lanky frame of a basketball player, which might explain why major schools passed on him. Morrell remembers sitting at the kitchen table with Moore and his mother and thinking he was the kind of player Butler needed: a local kid with high character and the attributes to play Division I college football.

“I probably remember that because he was an important recruit,” said Morrell, who retired in 2014. “Those guys that you spend time on and really want to get in your program, those guys kind of get ingrained in your brain.”

By the time he left Butler in 2006, Moore had bulked up to 300 pounds and was ranked as one of the top junior college recruits in the country. He went to Oklahoma and became an immediate contributor for a team that won back-to-back Big 12 championships.

Moore played on a pair of Big 12 championship teams in 2006 and 2007. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

Moore was far from the biggest star on Oklahoma teams that included players like McCoy, running back Adrian Peterson and quarterback Sam Bradford. He was more like a glue guy, a player who would take on any task without complaint. Moore made friends easily because of his sense of humor, and teammates knew his door was always open.

“We’d win a game, and it was like, ‘Hey, Sherrone, is the house open?’” McCoy said. “Before you know it, there was a whole party at his house that he didn’t plan. He was so willing to have people at his house, and he was so cool. That’s just who he was.”

Moore landed a job as a graduate assistant at Louisville after playing his final snap at Oklahoma. When Louisville had an opening for a tight ends coach, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson had a feeling Moore was the right man for the job. To make sure, Watson and head coach Charlie Strong put Moore through the wringer, quizzing him on his practice plans, testing him on the whiteboard and forcing him to win the job in his interview.

“The thing that kept coming across was, he was prepared,” said Watson, now the head coach at Wofford. “He was ready.”

A common theme unites Moore’s climb through the coaching ranks, from Louisville to Central Michigan to his first job at Michigan in 2018: Every time an opportunity arose, he was ready for it. He showed it when entrusted to coach Michigan’s offensive line in 2021, as he turned into one of the best units in the country. When Harbaugh gave him play-calling responsibilities, he was ready for that, too.

Now he’ll have to prove he’s ready for the biggest opportunity of all.

“I don’t know if you’re ever just ready,” Moore said. “You’re going to prepare yourself to be ready for any moment that happens.”

Nine years ago, a euphoric crowd of dignitaries gathered on Michigan’s campus to celebrate the return of a favorite son, capping a relentless pursuit that kept fans in suspense until the final hour. The hiring of Harbaugh’s replacement couldn’t have been more different. The search lasted less than 48 hours, included only one formal interview and concluded with a Saturday morning news conference overshadowed by a Detroit Lions playoff game the following day.

Once the news conference ended, Moore ditched his crisp blue suit and hit the road for a full slate of recruiting visits, including a stop in his hometown to visit four-star tight end Da’Saahn Brame.

Moore was honored at a basketball game that night and had time to catch up with Brandon Clark, Derby’s football coach. The two got to know each other through the years when Moore would pass through on recruiting visits, first at Louisville and CMU and then at Michigan. Moore had a new job when he showed up at the school this time, but otherwise not much had changed.

“He really wasn’t one of those coaches who was always trying to climb the ladder as quick as he could,” Clark said. “That’s not Sherrone’s style. He’s not a ladder climber. He’s a ladder builder.”

For a guy who doesn’t climb ladders, Moore has rapidly ascended the coaching ranks. His path is notable for several reasons: He is the first full-time Black head coach in Michigan’s 145-year football history, and at 37, he was the youngest coach hired for the position since Bump Elliott in 1959.

Head coaches who get hired at Moore’s age tend to be quarterback gurus or defensive coordinators. The latter category includes 30-something coaches like Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman, Oregon’s Dan Lanning and Purdue’s Ryan Walters. Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham, the youngest head coach in the FBS at 33, was an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, as were Ryan Day and Lincoln Riley before they were promoted at Ohio State and Oklahoma.

The path from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator to head coach is a road less traveled.

“As long as you really open up to doing other things and learning all the other positions,” Moore said, “you can do whatever you want to do.”

Moore coached Michigan to its third consecutive win against Ohio State. (Adam Cairn / USA Today)

Aligning himself with Harbaugh, who has no problems bucking convention, was one of the best moves of Moore’s career. Michigan has cycled through a long list of offensive assistants during the past six years: Pep Hamilton, Josh Gattis, Ed Warinner, Matt Weiss, Kirk Campbell and others. Moore has been the one mainstay, in part because he understood his role.

“I was going to work as hard as I could to prove to everybody else how great a coach our head coach is,” Moore told The Athletic in 2021. “Because people doubted him so much.”

Perhaps the most impressive feat of Moore’s tenure was the way he rebuilt the confidence of Michigan’s offensive line heading into the 2021 season. The team as a whole was beaten down after going 2-4 in 2020, and morale on the line was particularly low. Several players transferred and others were on the verge, including left guard Trevor Keegan, a fixture on teams that made three consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff.

Keegan told The Athletic he “kinda stopped loving football” until Moore took over as offensive line coach. Moore established a personal connection with the players that allowed him to coach them hard while building trust and respect. He could get in players’ faces when he needed to, but they could always laugh about it the next day.

“It’s one of the toughest and most important jobs of a coach, of a leader, maybe the toughest part of the job: having order and discipline while still having great relationships,” Harbaugh said in November. “It comes from trust. He’s one of the most trustworthy guys I know, like a brother. And he believes in the players.”

Coming off of a national championship, Michigan would have been an attractive job for a lot of sitting head coaches. Manuel gauged interest from outside candidates but saw no reason to schedule formal interviews. Regarding Moore’s lack of experience, Manuel cited Lanning and Kirby Smart as examples of coordinators who succeeded in their first head-coaching jobs.

“There have been others that went from coordinator to Power 5 head coach,” Manuel said. “They didn’t have four games on the sideline to show how they could be as a head coach. I think what I hired is the person who led those four games. You know, 4-0 as a head coach? I’ll take that.”

Michigan learned a lot about Moore in those four games, but not everything. Being a head coach means hiring a staff, structuring an organization, building a roster and interacting with fans and donors. Moore is stepping into a massive void created by Harbaugh’s departure, and based on his first two weeks as head coach, none of this is going to be easy.

Of course, nobody expected it to be. Being the person who followed Harbaugh at Michigan was going to be a tough job for anybody, first-time head coach or not. Moore has been thrown into the fire before, and Michigan got to see how he responded: by putting his head down, gritting his teeth and willing his way to victory. With another huge challenge in front of him, Michigan is betting he’ll do the same thing.

“He is the man for the job,” Minter said. “I can’t say that enough. Sherrone is the right man for the job.”

(Top photo: G Fiume / Getty Images)