Column: It would be foolish to bet on Jim Harbaugh bolting Michigan within four years
I may have underrated head coach Jim Harbaugh’s devotion to Michigan football, where he once served as quarterback/presumed Big Man On Campus in the mid-1980s.
I might have taken for granted Harbaugh’s desire to become a sustainable fixture at the college level. Again.
I may have forgotten that former Michigan QB Rick Leach has been a long-time staple and co-star of Harbaugh’s Twitter-account avatar.
And I might have missed how Harbaugh’s hyper-competitive nature easily translates to college ball, especially when big-game coaching targets like Urban Meyer (Ohio State), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) and Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), among others, roam the same conference jungle.
But those feelings have subsided. After observing Harbaugh in Michigan garb for the better part of 18 months, I no longer view his current position as some sort of high-profile rest stop, as a means of simply waiting out the next NFL opportunity.
What’s more, I don’t believe opposing coaches/recruiters in the Big Ten – and throughout the country– have a leg to stand on when making the faux argument that Harbaugh won’t be around for a blue-chip recruit’s college graduation.
Heck, the way things are progressing with the refreshingly accessible, relentlessly energetic Harbaugh, who was 10-3 for Year 1 at Michigan that including an impressive Citrus Bowl rout of Florida, he’ll probably be the keynote speaker at a Michigan player’s commencement ceremony – upon receiving a doctoral degree.
He’s that committed to the process.
Take Harbaugh’s perpetually positive words at this week’s Big Ten Media Days, espousing on a number of topics:
- On Wolverines receiver Amara Darboh (58 catches, 727 yards, 5 TDs last year), a native of war-ravaged Sierra Leone: “… As a gentleman, as a person, as a class act, a winner, a champion all the way, Amara Darboh. He went through our season last year, and he became an American citizen. It was a great moment of pride for Amara and our team that he achieved American citizenship.”
- On the art of players, coaches and staffers getting better every day: “Now, even if it’s can we get (one-hundredth of a) percent better each day, then that would be something that would be worthwhile. That would be worth pursuing, aspiring to. Another way to say is look at the NASCAR boys. They will try to stay up all night long to get one mile an hour faster. Can we get one mile faster each day? That mentality, simply put, is better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today.”
- On the act of freshmen players making their own fate, regarding playing time: “We have some very good freshmen; we believe (they) have the ability and will have the license to play. Everything thereby based on a meritocracy. That’s one of my favorite things, my personal favorite things about our program, is that you’ll be known by your effort and your talent. By your effort and your talent, you will be known.”
The above messages resonate with players and fan bases at the college level, and there’s nothing staged or phony about it. After all, we’re talking about the same kid-at-heart Harbaugh who paired a Block-M Michigan hat with an expensive suit at Big Ten Media Days … simply out of comfort with himself and supposed comfort with his surroundings.
Why would anyone ever voluntarily leave the NFL?
This has always been my stubborn viewpoint regarding elite-level football coaches, with few exceptions:
I understood when head coach Ray Perkins bolted the New York Giants for the Alabama job in January of 1983, as a means of succeeding his lifelong mentor — the iconic Paul Bryant. (‘The Bear’ would die four weeks after retiring.)
I understood when Nick Saban, perhaps impatient with the typical NFL timeline for rebuilding a program in one’s own image, left the Miami Dolphins to fill the Alabama vacancy in January 2007. It easily stands as college football’s most important coaching hire of the last 40 years … even if Crimson Tide fans have chosen to forget how Rich Rodriguez was Alabama’s first choice that offseason.
And had I been old enough to appreciate the complexities of football in 1976 — as opposed to learning the art of riding a tricycle — I would have had empathy for head coach Lou Holtz’s decision to walk away from the New York Jets with one game left … simply because he had been overwhelmed by the pro game.
Free advice for future NFL coaches: The ‘Veer’ offense doesn’t work on a permanent basis.
For everyone else, these alpha-male coaches should want to move heaven and earth to be leaders at the NFL level. It’s the greatest league in American professional sports. It has the most money, the most resources and the most eyeballs tracking the product, year-round.
Plus, it’s not like the NBA, where certain superstar players possess more front-office influence or power than coaches.
Heck, in today’s NFL, even first-time head coaches – the Atlanta Falcons’ Dan Quinn springs to mind – are assigned final say with a team’s 53-man roster. How cool is that?
Regarding Harbaugh’s tenure with the 49ers from 2011 to 2014, Trent Baalke officially presided over the franchise as general manager. But before Harbaugh arrived on the scene, San Francisco had endured eight straight campaigns of seven or fewer victories. Last season without Harbaugh, the 49ers were a 5-11 mess, with head coach Jim Tomsula losing his job after one year.
So, while it may be unfair to give Harbaugh all the credit for the 49ers’ run of one Super Bowl berth and three straight appearances in the NFC title game, the perception exists the franchise had been better off on his watch.
Which brings us to this: What would be the state of Michigan football today, if the NFL’s Browns had successfully traded for Harbaugh, prior to the 2014 season? Would there have been a natural successor to Brady Hoke? Or would the Wolverines have exercised more patience with the affable Hoke, who to be fair, coached three winning clubs in his brief tenure?
For the Cleveland trade to work, Harbaugh would have presumably agreed to a substantial contract extension (negotiations were reportedly tense in San Francisco). In return, Harbaugh (44-19-1 with the 49ers, 5-3 in the playoffs) likely would have been given significant influence within the Browns front office — free to construct his own power structure with football operations.
But alas, that seismic swap never panned out; and the 49ers were essentially left holding the bag 10 months later, when Harbaugh joined forces with his alma mater. Harbaugh family roots run deep, because Jim’s dad, Jack Harbaugh, served under Bo Schembechler at Michigan.
And by all appearances, Harbaugh seems very content with his decision to re-enter the college ranks – he coached at San Diego, Stanford during the 2000s – knowing he can have a greater impact with shaping young lives at this level.
There’s also a personality-driven aspect to Harbaugh’s homecoming. At the college level …
- You can get away with being a lightning rod for social-media attention.
- You can get away with performing a comic-relief rap video during the offseason, without being universally mocked.
- You can continually get under the skin of college football’s best coaches — especially outside the conference — without much fear of on-field reprisal.
- You can get away with hosting a celebrity-driven, made-for-TV infomercial on National Signing Day, which also doubles as a charity event.
- You can put your proverbial eggs in the baskets of four of five games on a college schedule, knowing the other outings — especially at a powerhouse program like Michigan — will be glorified scrimmages by the fourth quarter.
- And you can add five or six program-changing talents to your roster every year, assuming you’re a master-level salesman. By contrast, a productive NFL office would be thrilled to land three contributors, and not necessarily starters, in a single draft class.
How boring is that?
No wonder Harbaugh seems like a decade-long lock to stay at Michigan.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.