CHICAGO — The road back to Michigan football prominence will run through more than satellite camps and rap videos, although those might not be the worst places to start.
Jim Harbaugh’s impact on the culture on and off the field at his alma mater has been pretty instant, and it’s not hard to see the gap has already somewhat closed. Michigan went 10-3 last season and would have beaten Michigan State if not for the most disastrous botched punt in football history.
It was by all means a thunderous step back for the prodigal son with the brute working style built on both outward and inward aggression, but any measure of those characteristics will show that third place in the Big Ten East will never be what he hangs that Michigan baseball hat on.
He’s here to take dead aim at everyone, which means targeting his biggest rivals, Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio. Any high-arching target will shoot directly at the Ohio State and Michigan State coaches, and playing catch-up won’t be easy — not with their championships, their proven consistency or their years of fostering recruiting connections in the Midwest and beyond.
But the new figure in the Big Ten East’s power triangle has an advantage over the other two, a recruiting edge they and the other division coaches simply can’t match: He’s played and coached in the NFL. He’s won there to a ridiculous degree.
And so the road back to prominence at Michigan might run through the bitter one that sent him here. It might well be in how he reconciles his years of chasing the biggest football trophy in the world and falling just short and how he leverages that to wide-eyed teenagers who grew up with Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson on their TVs.
Recruiting is an intense game of salesmanship, and Harbaugh is working with less as a college coach than his two biggest rivals are. In stops so far at Stanford and Michigan, he has yet to win a division title, whereas Meyer and Dantonio have multiple conference titles to their names. Harbaugh is trying to sell a program that hasn’t won something like that in 12 years.
But Harbaugh does have something neither Dantonio or Meyer will get without leaving where they are. It’s the NFL, where he logged 14 seasons and 140 starts as a quarterback and most recently reached three NFC championship games as the 49ers head coach. It’s where he has learned what it takes for players to deliver at the level of football that makes a career and a livelihood.
“If (NFL players) are Olympians, then what’s the next level below that, the trials maybe? The Olympic trials? So they’re there,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve got the chance to be there just one more step and helping them get there, giving them the advice, giving them the coaching and the motivation to do that, I look at that as one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, that they get that dream realized and then showing them how to work for it.”
Michigan’s decline as a football power has aligned perfectly with its fall as a pro factory. In the 2008 NFL Draft, the one following Lloyd Carr’s final season, the Wolverines turned out six selections. In the eight years that have followed, no class has featured more than three players from Michigan.
Five-star recruits are going to believe they can reach the NFL wherever they go. But by playing up what he can do for a player’s NFL prospects, Harbaugh can appeal to underrated three-star recruits and transfers.
He has to fight for guys like Jake Rudock, a former Iowa quarterback who had a year of graduate eligibility left, in need of a fresh start and one last crack at extending his football career. In Michigan, and specifically in Harbaugh, Rudock found a plan to maximize his toughness and smarts, elevating his throws to all ends of the field and developing his poise under pressure. He’s now in Detroit Lions camp, competing for a backup spot as a sixth-round pick.
Rudock was an easier target, playing Harbaugh’s most natural position. The Michigan coach is going to need to grab and master these kinds of fringe players at all spots on the field to catch up to Ohio State, which placed a record 12 players in the first four rounds of this year’s draft; and Michigan State, which has become a quarterback factory for the pro game in recent years.
Maybe then, he’ll finally have Michigan back.