College Football Writer
The collective football world spent three years preparing for the news that unfolded on Wednesday evening and the realization that it was finally time to refer to Jim Harbaugh as the former Michigan head coach.
Yet the news that Harbaugh was officially making the jump to the NFL to take over the Los Angeles Chargers doesn’t sting any less for the sport he is leaving behind just a few weeks after reaching its peak. Wolverines fans are doubtless running the gamut of emotions — appreciation, understanding, maybe a tinge of anger — over something they knew was coming, as it dampens the joy of the school’s first national title since 1997.
It is college football in general, though, that will really regret the departure of last season’s central character. Michigan, after all, will have a new coach, but college football won’t have another Harbaugh stirring things up in ways both infuriating and amusing.
He is, or rather was, one-of-one.
With all due respect to the throngs of Ohio State or Michigan State faithful, it’s a bummer that Harbaugh won’t be back on the sideline of a college game with his trademark khakis.
He was part of a sport’s uniqueness that makes Saturdays special and differentiates it from the buttoned-up brethren in the NFL. Say what you want about the 60-year-old — and there is plenty to espouse on both sides of the coin — but there was never a dull moment around Harbaugh, whose aura was quintessentially odd and unique even in a sport filled with the odd and unique.
College football will miss a coach who was so comfortable pushing the envelope of what was possible, instead of reacting to the change that is inherent in the sport. He was a breath of fresh air amid the strategic soundbites and carefully curated media images crafted by his peers. Harbaugh leaned into thinking outside the box and was rarely swayed by the groupthink permeating the industry.
How else do we get a full offseason’s worth of headlines about satellite camps?
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Some painted Harbaugh as a northern invader when he leaned into the idea that seemed to take off one boring summer years ago, bringing the Michigan brand to the far reaches of the country to both mine for talent and ensure the program stood out beyond its onfield accomplishments. The lasting legacy of the camps will not be any new NCAA bylaws, however, but rather the indelible image of a shirtless head coach reaffirming that he doesn’t get out in the sun at all.
Hopefully, that version of Harbaugh will form the basis of the statue that is sure to be built in the coming years, either on the doorstep of the Big House or opposite Bo Schembechler outside the Michigan football building. If not, fans of a certain vintage will keep the unforgettable picture buried in the back of their minds, easily enough to recall whenever something quirky happens at the next level involving the coach.
College football is going to miss the same guy who doesn’t think it’s abnormal to go to a sleepover at a recruit’s house — even if said recruit is a kicker. Harbaugh preached the value of “the team, the team, the team,” and that played out in practice from the star quarterback to the last few on the bench.
We’re going to miss the guy who attempted to stall a media session ahead of the Rose Bowl because his chair on a harshly lit dais was too low — prompting an all-too-comical effort by staffers to find an additional platform to boost the viewpoint of the former NFL quarterback. Though it lacked the Benny Hill theme music that would have been wholly appropriate, Harbaugh passed the time by chatting about chickens as he watched it all unfold, a conversation with reporters that was only topped a half-hour later when he called Jesus a five-star player.
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“No doubt about it,” Harbaugh added, the seriousness of his tone belying the meandering line of questioning that prompted such a response.
One wonders if that was what was also on his mind when he took the whole team to Italy and met the Pope.
Such antics aside, Harbaugh the coach will be tough to replace — not just at Michigan but in the grand scheme, too. He had a keen eye for talent, as his lengthy list of draft picks attests, and relished developing relationships to an unheard-of level at times. Who else but Harbaugh would spend several NFL offseasons as a regular recruiter for his father at Western Kentucky, prompting plenty of stories about “Captain Comeback” showing up to high schools in an attempt to land overlooked players for an FCS team?
Harbaugh later transformed San Diego into a Pioneer League powerhouse in his first head coaching gig. He didn’t just make lowly Stanford respectable a few years later, but into a West Coast force that prompted others to question what, exactly, his deal was.
It turned out that his deal was winning, with a side of eccentricity layered on top.
Not everything about Harbaugh is worth trumpeting, of course. His final legacy at both Michigan and in college football is still unwritten and won’t be fully known until the NCAA passes final judgment on the multiple scandals that unfolded under his watch. It’s possible that any resulting sanctions could hamper his former program moving forward — the cost for going all-in on a campaign where the head coach’s absence from the headset on gamedays was a storyline for half the regular season.
It’s also notable that Harbaugh’s departure comes a few weeks after he made the great Nick Saban one of his final victims, a true seismic event in college football. The aftershock of that event was Saban’s retirement, which history will note as the defining event of this offseason of change.
But despite the gulf in overall professional accomplishments while leading marquee bluebloods to new heights, it might be Harbaugh’s withdrawal that stings more — especially in the short term — than the exodus of the greatest of all-time.
The lack of Saban lording over college football with his finely tuned process is cause for hope across the sport — acutely so in the SEC — as a dozen other programs are likely to look towards 2024 with optimism that playing for a national title will not mean a road that directly or indirectly results in crossing the guy who has won it all on seven different occasions or frequently has the most talented roster in the land.
Such expansive rejoicing, outside of Ryan Day’s office in Columbus, is unlikely to follow in the wake of the news that Harbaugh was trading Ann Arbor for L.A. It does, though, put a restraint on the number of unique storylines that result from the often aloof personality wading into waters that his peers rarely venture toward.
Who will advocate paying players as zealously as the chief Michigan Man did during his time as a college coach? Who will prompt uncomfortable situations out of thin air as reliably as the man in those thick, black-rimmed glasses?
Harbaugh is not gone, and he’s definitely not forgotten like some aging figure from yesteryear. But he’ll no longer be the central tenant in college football that he has been for much of the past decade.
Harbaugh was a character. In college football, especially lately, he was very often the character.
It’s a bummer he won’t be back for an encore in the role he was born to play.
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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