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Jim Harbaugh: Michigan Man – For Now

Jim Harbaugh is going home, and suddenly Michigan and the Big 10 are relevant again

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The University of Michigan football program, mired in mediocrity for almost a decade, brought home favorite son Jim Harbaugh Tuesday, making him one of the five highest paid coaches in college football.

It is a stunning move, one promising to make Michigan a player on the national stage again while boosting the perception of the overall strength of the Big 10 conference.

Michigan more than doubled the salary they were paying Brady Hoke to bring Harbaugh back. He could have had his pick of any job that comes open in the NFL.  Michigan has been losing ground in the Big 10 not only to Ohio State but to Michigan State and Wisconsin as well. The Wolverines needed a splash hire and Harbaugh was the only name on a short list that would appease every faction of the program.

Harbaugh is as tough a competitor as you will find. A four-year letterman at Michigan, Harbaugh was 24-5-1 as a starter. In 1986, he led the Wolverines to an 11-2 record and a berth in the Rose Bowl. He was third in the Heisman balloting that season and finished as the NCAA career leader in passing efficiency.

Harbaugh played 12 years in the NFL, leading the Indianapolis Colts to come-from-behind wins in the 1995-96 playoffs over Kansas City and San Diego. He was always a favorite among teammates and is in the Colts Ring of Honor.

His first head coaching job was at 1-AA San Diego where he went 29-6. Then it was on to Stanford (he had graduated from Palo Alto HS) and in four years he turned around a program that had gone 16-40 the previous five years into a legitimate PAC 12 contender, finishing with a 12-1 record and a BCS bowl win in 2010.

Harbaugh should succeed as Michigan for several reasons:


Finding and signing talent is merely an extension of the game for Jim Harbaugh - it is yet another competitive arena to go to battle with other programs and he has the reputation as a tireless recruiter.

In the mid-90's Jack Harbaugh, Jim's father, was the head coach at 1-AA Western Kentucky. In 1994 Jim was named as an unpaid assistant for his dad - while still playing for the Chicago Bears.

He was designated as a recruiter for the Hilltoppers and showed an incredible work ethic from the start.  Harbaugh got Willie Taggart, a first-team-all state High School QB in Florida to come to WKU where he was a 4-year starter. Taggart is now the head coach of South Florida. Western Kentucky won the 1-AA national championship in 2002, and Jim Harbaugh was responsible for recruiting 15 of the players on that squad.

He turned Stanford into a legitimate contender in the PAC 12 by recognizing the strengths and weaknesses that recruiting to the school entailed. He emphasized physicality - concentrating on recruiting tight ends, offensive linemen and running backs at a time when the spread offense was beginning to take hold. Practice was where the culture of physicality was honed. Every day was a competition for playing time.

His NFL background helped land strong armed QB's who saw him as a path to the league. His recruitment of Andrew Luck paid dividends on and off the field as Stanford recruited nationally (Texas, Georgia, Virginia).

Harbaugh's contract calls for deep salary pool for his assistants, and they will be expected to hit the recruiting trail as hard as the head man.

Creative Tension - a situation where disagreement or discord ultimately gives rise to better ideas or outcomes.

Jim Harbaugh thrives in a culture of creative tension - so much so that when it doesn't exist naturally he will invent it. He is a team-based coach who likes a staff of strong-willed assistants not afraid to voice their opinions, but who eventually understand that there is one voice at the top of the food chain. He will battle with administrators and anyone else who doesn't share his vision of how the program should be run.

That vision extends to game time as well. In a 2010 contest against Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons lined up for a field goal right before halftime. Harbaugh called a timeout to try and ice the Wake Forest kicker.

Stanford had a 41-7 lead.

Harbaugh has always enjoyed competition, and he loves conflict.

Just ask Pete Carroll.

Soon after being hired at Stanford, Harbaugh gave an interview where he said that "(Pete) Carroll's only got one more year (at USC)...that's what I've heard. I heard it inside the staff."

Needless to say Carroll didn't appreciate it, and he was at USC for another three years. What Carroll really didn't appreciate was Harbaugh's Stanford team coming to LA that first year as a 40-point underdog and stunning USC 24-23.

Then there was the "What's your deal?" game in 2009. Stanford pounds USC 55-21, going for two after a fourth quarter score, which led to one of the more interesting post-game handshakes in recent memory.

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Which leads us to:

Michigan vs Ohio State: Back to Being Relevant

In 1968 #1 Ohio State pounded Michigan 50-14. After scoring a 4th quarter touchdown, Ohio State went for - and made - a two point conversion. When Buckeye coach Woody Hayes was asked why he called for the two point conversion and replied, "Because I couldn't go for three."

The next year, Bo Schembechler was in his first season as Michigan coach. For the week leading up to the Ohio State game, Schembechler had everyone on the practice squad wear jerseys with the #50. Michigan upset the Buckeyes 24-12, costing them a second consecutive national championship, and allowing Texas to step into vacuum..

The rivalry between Hayes and Schembechler was so intense that it is designated as the "10-Year War.

From 1972-1977 both teams were ranked in the Top Ten for their season ending game. They accounted for every Big 10 title between them during that stretch.  Schembechler and Michigan won the last three games in their battle, giving Bo a 5-4-1 record over Hayes. Weeks after losing his third straight to Michigan, Woody lost his job when he punched a Clemson player during the Gator Bowl.

Urban Meyer vs. Jim Harbaugh.

Michigan leads the series 58-47-6, but the Wolverines are mired in a black hole of despair over recent history: Since 2000, Ohio State holds a 12-3 advantage, including 10 out of the last 11 meetings.

For the first time in almost four decades it seems that the coaching match up will once again equal the intensity of the game itself. Meyer and Harbaugh were born in Toledo, Ohio just six months apart. Both possess a singular focus on controlling every daily aspect of their programs to the point of obsession.

We won't have to wait for next November to see the competition between the two flare up. Michigan currently has just six recruits committed to its 2015 class. The Wolverines had several players de-commit during the slow demise of Brady Hoke this season, so Harbaugh has a lot of ground to make up. One of the players who jumped shipped was a 4-star running back out of Detroit, Michael Weber.  He flipped from Michigan to Ohio State. Harbaugh will obviously use his NFL and Stanford background to pitch Michigan as a place to get a great education and become NFL ready at the same time.

Michigan paid top dollar to bring Jim Harbaugh back because it was a seller's market. Harbaugh wore out his welcome at San Francisco (as is his modus operandi) but he was still highly valued by NFL owners looking for a new head man. Michigan understood he was the only coach in football who could energize the dormant fan base as well as be an instant factor in recruiting. If Michigan is to avoid the dreaded 3-5 year rebuilding plan, then Jim Harbaugh is an indispensable part of the process.

It remains to be seen just how long a ride Michigan will get out of Harbaugh. That creative tension thing seems to always get in the way of longevity for him. He is the son of a coach and led a nomadic existence as a youth. He seems to have embraced that lifestyle in his own career.

Two years as an assistant with the Oakland Raiders. Head Coach at 1-AA San Diego for three years. Four years at Stanford, and then four with the San Francisco 49ers.

He does not suffer fools gladly, and there are always fools to be dealt with in big time college football. While he will have full control over the Michigan football program, he no doubt will run into obstacles, not the least of which will be the 20-hour weekly time limit with his players.

I believe that Jim Harbaugh will win and win big at Michigan. He could take his place next to Bo Schembechler on the Michigan Mount Olympus. He might also piss off enough folks that when he gets tired of the restrictions and petty bickerings that he will have to deal with he may decide to move on.

Like others who have found him a high maintenance hire, Wolverine officials would no doubt thank him for leaving the program in better shape than he found it.

As a Michigan fan with lifelong ties to the University and the program, either scenario is just fine with me.