Long before the Los Angeles Chargers had offered him millions of dollars and possible levels of power limited only by the imagination to return to the NFL, Jim Harbaugh’s legacy was already etched in the brick and stone of Michigan Stadium.
Harbaugh is a legend, and not just for becoming the first coach in history to miss half his team’s regular-season games and still win a national championship. He’s a legend for lasting the nine years it took to accomplish the mission. He’s a legend for leading one of the most traditional programs in existence back to the top.
At times, Harbaugh’s tenure was clunky, awkward and maybe even embarrassing. But it was also done his way.
The same coach who hired Connor Stalions also won 10 games with Jake Rudock at quarterback. In an age of flashy offensive evolution, Michigan won with a punishing rushing attack and a defense that would make a boa constrictor blush. Sure, it was boring at times, but it was also damn impressive.
He’s a legend who went from almost being run out of town by rival Ohio State to running the Buckeyes into the ground. A legend for (possibly) outdoing his mentor, Bo Schembechler. A legend for reintroducing such worn cliches as player loyalty and a daily practice grind that had meaning. (Michigan quarterbacks were tackled to the ground during his first spring game in 2015.)
Never mind the questions about how Harbaugh led his alma mater back to prominence. Coach Khaki does leave town as two ongoing NCAA investigations hang over the program, after all. But, if you claw your way through all the layers of Jim Harbaugh, one thing becomes clear: He leaves places better than he finds them. San Diego, Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers, Michigan — they all improved during their encounters with Harbaugh. They’d all kill to have him back, which might serve as the benchmark for measuring a truly legendary coach.
Never mind that Harbaugh can be, ahem, an acquired taste. When he accepted the Michigan job, I asked a former Stanford administrator for a pithy Harbaugh anecdote. That person demurred, having a difficult time coming up with a positive quote to be used on the record.
The bigger story is Harbaugh bending the program, the school and the sport to his will. The man negated parity’s gravitational pull on college football, the spread offense and the mighty SEC.
Little else matters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. If time and countless underwhelming NCAA investigations into other programs have taught us anything, the other stuff eventually won’t mean much. The NCAA can’t take the Wolverines’ 2023 national championship away; remember, the association doesn’t sponsor a championship at the FBS level. That would leave the decision in the hands of the College Football Playoff, who, quite frankly, wouldn’t have the stones to take such action.
Stalions could have been handing out Big Ten playbooks inside the football building. Michigan didn’t need to cheat; the Wolverines went 15-0 while outscoring opponents by almost 30 points per game
Harbaugh will be long gone before the NCAA potentially vacates wins. When and if a punishment is handed down, they’ll still be toasting his name up and down State Street in Ann Arbor.
Reaching nearly a decade into Harbaugh’s tenure, the restoration of the Michigan football program took longer than expected. It was doubly tough because the only standard is beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten and contending for a national championship — in that order. It wasn’t too long ago that Harbaugh was a major part of the problem as his teams were responsible for the last half of an eight-game losing streak to “The Team Down South.”
As Harbaugh bottomed out, then came the season affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wolverines went 2-4 in 2020 and his job was on the line. He accepted a 50% pay cut in an amended contract in an effort to help right the ship and keep the mission on track.
“It was some dark days because you’re playing for Michigan and you’re supposed to be on the biggest stage,” offensive lineman Trevor Keegan told CBS Sports.
In the depths of that depressing 2020 season, Harbaugh sent out an email to his players. Details are still sketchy years later, but the missive detailed how Michigan was going to dig its way out.
Since then, Michigan has lost three times in three seasons. That number also matches the number of consecutive Big Ten titles, CFP appearances and wins over Ohio State during that stretch.
That must have been some email. Only one coach could have written it.
With Harbaugh, you also get Jim World. In Jim World, the coach is/was a man followed by both his loyal players and … his hand-raised chickens. His press conferences could veer into the stratosphere.
He climbed trees to impress recruits. Learning about his love for the restaurant chain, Cracker Barrel sent Harbaugh a rocking chair inscribed with his name. That spring, the coach kept the gift closer to his desk than the TV remote.
After returning to his alma mater in 2015, Harbaugh hired the Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator to be his first QB coach. That man was Jedd Fisch, who recently accepted the head-coaching job at Washington after executing an impressive turnaround of the Arizona program.
Never mind the man himself might have used a plastic spoon and dentist’s drill to carve his name into the side of The Big House. His way worked — for him.
Oh, he might break some china (figuratively), confound his athletic director (really), deflate some egos and put a program on probation, but college football has always been a zero-sum game. You either achieve or you don’t.
“He’s not perfect,” Schembechler’s son, Shemy, once said of Harbaugh, “but he’s the closest thing we have around here.”
Harbaugh did it at such a level that one day — maybe soon — he will be considered the greatest coach in Michigan history. Heresy? Schembechler never won a title. Lloyd Carr shared his. Fritz Crisler’s national championship in 1947 — the last outright title win for Michigan prior to this past season – was achieved in 10 games. The 2023 Michigan team won all 15, not allowing any opponent to score more than 24 points. That boa constrictor never relented.
It’s hard to remember that, as a player, Harbaugh was Michigan’s first 300-yard passer. His career passing efficiency number was tops for 12 years in the NCAA record books. A Big Ten MVP, he was third in the 1986 Heisman Trophy voting. He was more Michigan than the Great Lakes.
It bears repeating that Harbaugh can wear on you. At San Diego, Stanford and with the 49ers, Harbaugh had lasted no more than four years. During his run with San Francisco, he took the Niners to three NFC Championship Game appearances and the Super Bowl.
In each case, Harbaugh led those programs to unprecedented heights. In the 68-year history of San Diego football, no coach has achieved the back-to-back 11-1 seasons Harbaugh did in 2005 and 2006. He kicked off the greatest run of success in Stanford football history. The 49ers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since Harbaugh’s final year in 2012, where he was pitted against his brother, John Harbaugh, and the Baltimore Ravens in a losing effort.
Now, Jim and John Harbaugh could win championships in their sports within 34 days of each other. John is coaching Baltimore in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. Jim, meanwhile, is returning to the pros where he could become the fourth coach ever to win a national championship and a Super Bowl.
I was asked on CBS Sports HQ if there was a path for Harbaugh to one day return to Michigan. A path? There would be a parade rivaling that following the national championship win.
Reaching the national title milestone had to factor into Harbaugh’s decision on Wednesday. He’d done everything he could at Michigan. When Harbaugh finally left Houston’s NRG Stadium shortly before midnight following his final on-camera interview after the CFP National Championship, turns out it was literally and figuratively a walk-off.
Could you blame him?
“No. He’s a competitor,” Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy said before the Rose Bowl. “Having a national championship year and [another shot at] a Super Bowl, I could see him trying to get that. Finish his career off in the sunset.”