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SportsTuesday Column: The making of a champion

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 22, 2013

After an injury-shorted sophomore season, Jim led Michigan to a 10-1-1 record, a Fiesta Bowl victory over Nebraska and a No. 2 ranking in the final polls in 1985 — the highest ranking in Schembechler’s tenure.

That wasn’t good enough. Jim bolted into the Heisman Trophy conversation after rattling off nine consecutive victories to begin his senior season.

But the wheels fell off on Nov. 15, 1986 and the dream came to an end. The lights on the Michigan Stadium scoreboard blinked: Minnesota 20, Michigan 17. The wild-eyed Harbaugh was beside himself. Two days later, he made a guarantee. He had to.

“I guarantee you we’ll beat Ohio State and be in Pasadena on New Year’s Day,” Jim said. “People might not give us a snowball’s chance in hell to beat them in Columbus. But we’re going to.

“We don’t care where we play the game. I hate to say it, but we could play on the parking lot. We could play at 12 noon or midnight. We’re going to get jacked up, and we’re going to win.”

Despite Schembechler’s furious efforts to dismiss the guarantee, Jim’s words were plastered throughout the football building at Ohio State. In front of 90,674 frenzied faithful in Columbus, Jim threw for 261 yards and engineered an offense that — thanks to a 210-yard rushing effort for running back Jamie Morris — gained a total of 529 yards against the Buckeyes.

Michigan leapt Ohio State in the Big Ten standings with a 26-24 victory and punched its ticket to the Rose Bowl.

And, most importantly, Jim’s statement held.

“I’d have said it myself if I had any guts,” Schembechler told Sports Illustrated the next week.


The Harbaugh boys never were champions.

They took vastly different routes to the mountaintop — one carving out a lengthy NFL career, the other was following a more difficult route, climbing the winding coaching ladder — but that one, final victory eluded both.

Jim finished third in the Heisman voting. He spent 15 years in the NFL. He was one play away from the Super Bowl with Indianapolis in 1995. But he was never a champion.

After injuries hampered his career at Miami, John took to the sidelines. The mild-mannered older brother was an assistant coach for five college teams in 10 years before landing in the NFL as special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles. He spent a full decade with the Eagles in that position. But he was never a head coach. Though the pieces were in place, he was never a champion.

Neither was Bo, you’ll remember. The Harbaughs were ballboys for him, they’d throw on the sideline during practices when their father was an assistant coach at Michigan.

But they’ve been fighters, innovators, winners every step of the way.

If you look at Jim’s résumé, you’ll see that he was an assistant coach for Western Kentucky from 1994 to 2001. It doesn’t match up, does it? He was in the NFL then, suiting up for Indianapolis and Baltimore and San Diego and Detroit and finally Carolina before retiring in 2001.

Jim was never on the sidelines for the Hilltoppers, but he and his brother shaped the program. Their father, Jack, was the coach, and in 1994 his program lost funding, scholarships and had to dock two coaches.

As they told Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated in this, the definitive story of the Harbaugh brothers, they picked up the slack. John, working for Cincinnati, helped create recruiting lists from afar while Jim signed on as an assistant coach to help scout and recruit.

“(Jim) saved us,” Jack told Rosenberg. “He saved the program.”

It was Jim’s first taste of coaching. But he never won that championship. Jack did, but only on account of his sons. The Hilltoppers won the NCAA Division I-AA title in 2002, when Jim was a quarterback coach with the Oakland Raiders.

Jim jumped into the head-coaching vacancy at Stanford in 2007 after just three years as head coach at the University of San Diego, a Division I-AA program, and took a 1-11 Cardinal team to 12-1 in just four years. He walked to his own beat.