Why Harbaugh came home

Jan 2, 2015

Credit Bentley Historical Library / University of Michigan

The private jet eased onto the airstrip at Detroit Metro Airport, just a few miles from where Charles Lindbergh once tested World War II bombers.

This plane’s mission wasn’t nearly so serious.  But the joy it gave to the people below might have exceeded just about everything since VJ Day.

The jet’s cargo was James Joseph Harbaugh.  He’s just a football coach, but he was doing exactly what many experts said he would never do: leave the bright lights of the NFL for the college towns of the Big Ten.  This decision – mystifying to most NFL reporters -- explains why the masses might be forgiven if they mistook Harbaugh for their savior. 

But why did Harbaugh do it? 

Michigan fans have been searching for a savior ever since their leader, former coach Bo Schembechler, passed away in 2006. Back then, Michigan stood atop the college-football world.

But after Schembechler died, the news has been almost nothing but bad.

Once the pride of a powerful conference, the Wolverines have become also-rans in an overlooked league.  

What’s most striking is how many of Michigan’s problems were self-inflicted.  Even the faithful were fading.  Students, alumni and even former players started dropping their tickets.

From the start of the coaching search, Interim A-D Jim Hackett was determined to bypass the minnows to go after the person everybody wanted: Jim Harbaugh.

The reasons were many. Harbaugh had been Michigan’s All-American quarterback, who guaranteed victory before the 1986 Ohio State game – and delivered it – before embarking on a 14-year NFL career. After retiring in 2000, he turned around the University of San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers – establishing himself as one of the few star players who might be better at coaching.

Why Harbaugh might want to return to his beleagured alma mater was harder to see.  Most NFL reporters dismissed the possibility that Harbaugh would leave the highest league in the land to captain Michigan’s sinking ship. If he wouldn't stay in San Francisco, surely he would accept the riches of another NFL team.  

This set off a surreal daily drama. While NFL reporters maintained there was virtually no chance of Harbaugh returning to Michigan, those closer to Michigan and Harbaugh himself insisted otherwise.  In the middle were desperate Michigan fans, trying to discern why Harbaugh did not wear his college t-shirt at a practice when his players did, the meaning of Michigan ties being sent to California, and every tea leaf in between.

The cynical assumption was simple: Hackett must have offered Harbaugh a record contract.  Harbaugh repeatedly told his friends, however, that “It’s not about the money.” 

Harbaugh’s Michigan contract is roughly the same as his deal with the 49ers – about five million a year for seven years, plus incentives.  He insisted that he not be the highest paid coach in college football, or even the Big Ten. 

This news will no doubt leave the experts more confused than before.  But if you knew Jim Harbaugh, and the hold Michigan has always had on him, the idea of turning down the big cities for Ann Arbor isn’t so far fetched.  

Harbaugh's father Jack was one of Schembechler’s trusted assistant coaches, which is how Jim became the team’s ball boy in junior high – ties that no NFL team could replicate.  

But the best reason Harbaugh bypassed the NFL for Ann Arbor might be this: If he had gone to New York, Chicago or Oakland, he’d still be a great coach -- and he would likely get fired one day.

But if he returned to Michigan, he’d be greeted as a savior – and that is exactly what happened in Ann Arbor this week. 

It’s worth remembering that Harbaugh’s record at Michigan currently stands at 0-0.  But for Michigan fans, their long nightmare is already over.  Their family is reunited, and their faith restored.