Jim Harbaugh to Michigan: A Transformative Hire


Sometimes, fate comes for you a second time with a bear hug. Or, in this case, a Wolverine hug. What is happening is now happening. Announcements are being made.  Jim Harbaugh will become the Michigan Wolverines’s next head coach, according to multiplereports. For many, this development generates questions. Why college? Why Michigan?

Perception has painted Harbaugh as a cool operator, someone tormented and consumed by winning the Super Bowl. It’s a cute caricature, however, the more probable reality suggests he’s human, with a myriad of closeted needs and desires. From that perspective, Harbaugh choosing Michigan makes more sense.

Michigan offers a better everyday working environment. The 49ers treated Harbaugh like crap, for about a full calendar year. His bosses undermined him through media leaks and in-game tweets. They ran him out, after three-straight NFC Championship Games. At Michigan, Harbaugh will be appreciated and will have autonomy. The Michigan athletic director’s foremost task will be keeping Harbaugh happy.

Jim Harbaugh has a family with young children. Uprooting a family is one thing.

Uprooting for a future in flux is quite another. NFL relationships can sour in the short term (as Harbaugh is well aware). Michigan, with success, is stable, longterm and, for him, crazy lucrative.

Michigan is Michigan for Harbaugh. Michigan reared him when his father was an assistant. Michigan molded him into the inveterate competitor he became. When not directly quoting Bo Schembechler, Harbaugh radiates his essence. The victories, the winged helmet, the fight song, the tradition, the pride, and the exceptionalism matter, if you went to Michigan. Emotional ties exist and they count. It’s hard to sidle along and leave the Leaders and Best hanging when you can fix things (a second time, depending on who is reporting).

No matter where Harbaugh’s “heart” was, there were no better NFL options.

Coaches are imperative in college and expendable in the NFL. Starting the bidding at “Sean Payton” precluded almost every franchise. The Dolphins backed away (not clear they were ever in it). The spendthrift Bears weren’t going to enter the bidding. Woody Johnson doesn’t like him per a report. That left, barring an unforeseen wild card, the Raiders.

Harbaugh could have overlooked the decade-plus of incompetence and the uncertainty about where the franchise will be located. The Raiders could have matched or exceeded Michigan’s contract offer. Awesome. The trouble is Harbaugh resurrecting the Raiders was the 49ers’ worst possible outcome.

 The “King’s Ransom” required to facilitate that crosstown deal may have proved an understatement. It would not be worth it for either party.

We can concoct narratives. We can shoehorn the outcome into extant ones. But, the most plausible explanation is simple. Harbaugh cares about Michigan.

Michigan made itself the best option for him and his family. The timing worked out. Part of Harbaugh will feel he left unfinished business in the NFL. Much of him will feel very excited to be the head coach at Michigan.

What does hiring Harbaugh mean for Michigan? It transforms everything. Alabama hiring Nick Saban in 2006 is the paradigm. The impact could reverberate conference wide.

Harbaugh was the best coach available. He has deep ties to the program. He will restore the intensity absent since the waxing Carr era. Most importantly, he will win. Harbaugh built San Diego into a two-time 11-game winner. He inherited a 1-11 Stanford team and left a 12-1 one. He brought the long floundering 49ers to a Super Bowl. He did it playing the physical brand of “Michigan football” Brady Hoke tried to restore.

Harbaugh was Michigan’s obvious, instant panacea. Landing him was a coup. No more national media rubbernecking. No more stories about an athletic department in “disarray.” He’ll assemble a top notch staff in the next few days. Conversion from punchline to national power could be rapid.

Yes, Harbaugh comes at a premium. But, this ain’t amateurism. How valuable is Harbaugh when Michigan tickets go on sale? How valuable is Harbaugh when Michigan negotiates a new apparel deal after 2015? How valuable is Harbaugh’s impending rivalry with Urban Meyer when the Big Ten’s first-tier rights get renegotiated in 2016? Paying $7-8 million for a college football coach is absurd, but not much more so than paying the industry standard $4 million.

Will college football provide enough for Jim Harbaugh? Absolutely. Bachelor party laser tag gets this man fired up. Are we suggesting he won’t make it his unnerving personal mission to end Urban Meyer or to send Mark Dantonio back to manning his punt on the River Styx? Recruiting is not fun. But Harbaugh will be great at it. He’s the guy who spent offseasons as a player scouting and recruiting to help out his father.

Now, for the ultimate media debate: is Michigan an “elite” job? It is now.