Editor’s note: Chris Howard is a former running back for the University of Michigan. He was the starting running back for the Wolverines’ 1997 co-national championship team.
Every week it seems there is a “Is Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh going to the NFL?” discussion by various sports talk personalities, who give their reasons why he is headed back to pro ranks.
I’ve heard everything from “He never stays at one place more than three years” to “He wants to be reunited with his quarterback Andrew Luck,” as if he and Andrew Luck Facetime to talk about the latest Game of Thrones episode.
For a coach who is called average or overrated, it’s ironic that Harbaugh is the go-to guy for pundits to suggest would be perfect for a head coaching job in the NFL. But, let’s face it. Every year, Jim Harbaugh’s name is going to be mentioned among potential coaching candidates, just like Jon Gruden is mentioned for every college and NFL vacancy. Just because the job wants you doesn’t mean you want the job.
I must admit that I didn’t believe Harbaugh would leave the NFL for Michigan. And as he begins to prepare for next season after a 26-19 loss to South Carolina on Monday in the Outback Bowl, two things are obvious: 1. Boy, was I wrong; and 2. I didn’t really know who Jim Harbaugh was.
I think the reasons for him staying at Michigan are far more compelling than the ones suggesting he will leave. Here are my reasons he will stay longer than some people suggest:
When Jim Harbaugh’s name was floated around for the job as head coach at Michigan, a small advisory group of former players was assembled by Jim Hackett to insure Harbaugh was the man everyone wanted.
Former Michigan football player and two-time captain Jarrett Irons, who was part of that advisory group, shared that Hackett wanted to put together a group of former players because he wanted to go after Harbaugh and wanted to make sure that everyone was on board.
“Harbaugh was our first and only choice, and we were going all in on that,” Irons told Land of 10.
Yes, some relationships needed repairing and some old wounds needed to heal to move forward, but I don’t believe it took a lot to convince Jim to come back to his alma mater. I think it took some assurances to get Jim’s wife, Sarah, on board. Not because she didn’t like Ann Arbor, but because she was looking for some stability.
In a 2015 article for Ann Arbor Family Magazine, Sarah Harbaugh talked about how important it was for the family to be together.
“I am really excited about raising my kids here and they are really excited about it. Especially now, because we are going to see him every day,” Sarah Harbaugh said. “He will be able to drive home in a few minutes. Before he could never do that. For a good five months ― he works seven days a week during the season ― they [the kids] wouldn’t really see him. It would really wear on the kids and they did not know how to express it.
“I think as a family unit, it is going to be so good. The kids are so much happier when he is around. And I can take the kids to the office. They love it, running around on the field. … They are already way more involved with his life, and that is going to be really good.”
Irons recalled speaking with Sarah after Harbaugh’s introductory news conference.
“She was very happy they wouldn’t be moving any more after he took the job,” Irons said. “She said she has young kids and wanted to raise them in Ann Arbor.”
A happy wife equals a happy life.
NFL coaching carousel
The NFL coaching carousel is an unforgiving ride of uncertainty that has left in its wake a pool of castoffs and experiments gone wrong. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk set the over/under for open jobs this offseason at 7.5. Six coaches were hired last year. On my podcast, I constantly talk about patience and managing expectations among the Michigan fan base.
I haven’t had much success with that, and I doubt patience among NFL fans is less intense. At Michigan, Jim Harbaugh has complete control of the program and, barring some sort of cataclysmic collapse, he will be given more than enough time to win. Harbaugh doesn’t have to deal with an owner breathing down his neck or having to acquiesce to a CEO or a GM on a power trip. There is nothing an NFL team can offer him that he doesn’t already have at Michigan.
Back to having fun
Aside from Harbaugh not having won a Big Ten title or reaching the College Football Playoffs yet, I believe he’s having the most fun he’s had in his coaching career. After speaking with John U. Bacon, The New York Times bestselling author of Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football, who has known Harbaugh since the third grade, I’m even more convinced.
“He’s more fun when he’s winning, I can tell you that,” Bacon said. “Food taste better after a win, but absolutely, he’s having more fun now and it’s because he really loves feeling connected to the campus. He’s involved in the University of Michigan Musical Society, he’s done [a] podcast hosted by regular students. He just loves being involved in the community.”
Jim’s passion for football is undeniable, but he is a teacher at his core. His true passion, in my opinion, is teaching and affecting the lives of young people. College affords him the ability to do both and not just with his athletes, but with the student body. If you pay attention, you will see a man who has truly entrenched himself in the university.
B1G offers Jim Harbaugh a challenge
It’s no secret that Harbaugh is an intense competitor. Just listen to or read the story his brother John Harbaugh recalls of a “friendly” family basketball pickup game where Jim goes over the back of his young daughter, Addie, to get a rebound. The guy is as competitive as they come, and the Big Ten is loaded with outstanding coaches.
Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio, James Franklin, Paul Chryst and Pat Fitzgerald are the premier coaches in the league, making it one of the toughest conferences to win. Do you really think he’s not challenged or driven by the success of his peers?
Coaching NFL players vs. college players
In the NFL, coaches deal with players who are grown men with kids, wives, bills to pay, strong personalities and, in some cases, more valuable to the team than the coach. Just ask Ben McAdoo, former coach of the New York Giants. NFL players respond differently to coaching. I witnessed this firsthand during my rookie year in Jacksonville when Tom Coughlin berated our All-Pro offensive tackle for missing a block on Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith that led to a game-ending sack, knocking us out of the playoffs. The player lunged at Coughlin and needed to be restrained by several players.
In college, Harbaugh doesn’t have to worry about offending his multimillion-dollar franchise player. He doesn’t need to worry about a player doing interviews criticizing his coaching philosophy. The head coach in college is more revered. There is a greater bond between the college coach and his players.
The grass isn’t greener on the other side
People talk about his short tenure at programs as if it’s a phenomenon only associated with Harbaugh. In fact, a coach’s aspirations to advance in his career is no different than the guy working in the mailroom of a corporation who dreams of one day being the CEO. Pay your dues and you will get an opportunity that will propel you to a better situation, leading to your dream job.
This is the path taken by every coach who wants to advance his career. Did anyone really expect Harbaugh to stay as an assistant for the Oakland Raiders or remain as coach at the University of San Diego after winning back-to back Pioneer League titles? Did anyone really believe Scott Frost would stay at UCF after his successful season?
I believe Harbaugh is content with where he is in his personal life and his coaching career. I don’t know that he will retire at Michigan, but I know he’ll be there for a while.
As Harbaugh likes to say, “God willing and the creek don’t rise, that’s the way it’s going to be.”