One month and a lifetime ago, Jim Harbaugh sat at a podium with a backdrop of College Football Playoff logos, expressing vigorous optimism for the future of the Michigan football program.
“It’s still a beginning for this team,” Harbaugh waxed, his outlook unchanged in the wake of Georgia’s 23-point drubbing in the Orange Bowl. “That’s when it began last year, and it’ll begin anew this year. Start of a new year.”
Harbaugh continued, his voice firm.
“To me, it feels like a start. Feels like a beginning.”
A beginning, indeed.
In a stunning turn of events, Harbaugh will return to Michigan for the 2022 season. He informed an “elated” Warde Manuel of his decision Wednesday evening, on the heels of traveling to Minnesota to interview for the Vikings’ head coaching vacancy earlier that day. After a month-long craze of NFL rumors and boundless speculation, Harbaugh will remain in Ann Arbor.
Each of Harbaugh’s seven years as the Wolverines’ coach began with the same tired song and dance: Will Harbaugh leave? Baseless rumors swirled. TV personalities and pundits prattled alike. It was, if anything, a tired yet entertaining ritual.
Each time, Harbaugh remained in place.
Though interest from the NFL hardly waned, the sentiment was unrequited. Harbaugh had yet to accomplish what he first set out to do.
In 2014, at his introductory press conference, Harbaugh deflected questions about expectations. In typical Harbaugh-speak, he preferred to stress the importance of the first day of practice, the first meeting and the first week at his new job. One day at a time.
But, to borrow a phrase from Harbaugh’s vernacular, sometimes the questions answer themselves. The expectations were already set in stone; the beloved former quarterback had come home to rescue Michigan’s sputtering football program from the abyss. Harbaugh — ballyhooed, quirky and charismatic — would be the savior.
It took seven long years, a herky-jerky roller coaster ride of thrill and disappointment, for that vision to materialize. But this past year felt like a climax, Harbaugh’s program at last delivering upon the unspoken promise. He vanquished Ohio State, captured a Big Ten Championship and led Michigan’s inaugural foray into the College Football Playoff. He had, at last, returned the Wolverines to their long-vacant spot on the sport’s grandest stage.
In December, underneath a drizzle of maize and blue confetti, Harbaugh stood triumphantly on a makeshift stage and reached deep into his soul to unleash a “Go Blue” that rang throughout Lucas Oil Stadium. He hoisted the coveted Big Ten Championship trophy high above his head, a Christmas-morning grin plastered across his face. Charles Woodson joined him for a resounding rendition of “The Victors,” beckoning cheers from the giddy Michigan faithful on hand. This felt like the glory days; this was pure euphoria.
As of Wednesday morning, the growing consensus was that the moment would become a culmination of Harbaugh’s Michigan tenure, his final triumph as a Wolverine. NFL interest appeared to be building to a crescendo. Tuesday evening, reports surfaced that Harbaugh to Minnesota was a formality; he had allegedly exchanged a handful of “goodbyes” and “thank yous.”
Harbaugh is 58. NFL interest won’t last forever; much of it is tied to his year-to-year success at Michigan. These past two seasons — a 2-4 campaign followed by a Big Ten Championship — certainly emphasized the sport’s fickle nature.
On the heels of the Wolverines’ best season in decades, one that Harbaugh rightfully called one of the best in the storied program’s history, Harbaugh’s personal stock may have never been higher. NFL speculation long inundated Harbaugh because people had a hard time believing he could live without chasing that coveted Lombardi Trophy again. Temptation, then, made sense. Perhaps the lightbulb never died.
But it certainly flickered. And with Harbaugh informing Manuel that NFL speculation would not become a reoccurring issue, effectively deciding to commit to Michigan for the long-term, it appears to have died.
Few disputed Harbaugh’s proclamation that this was merely the start, a full-fledged restoration of a sleeping national power. It’s an arduous task to stack successful seasons in college football, particularly in the Big Ten. But everything seemed to be trending upwards for the Wolverines, a revelation following years of tumult.
This time last year, without significant NFL interest, Harbaugh preoccupied himself by overhauling the program’s culture with a youthful coaching staff, a seismic shift that paid immense and immediate dividends. In December, he capitalized on Michigan’s on-field momentum with a top-10 recruiting class and seemed poised to reel in touted prospects in droves. Michigan’s future was tied to a tantalizing nucleus of young talent, headlined by freshmen J.J. McCarthy and Donovan Edwards and sophomore Blake Corum.
And Harbaugh himself appeared revitalized. His quips — about George Patton and Neil Armstrong, about “Clint Eastwood wins” — returned with fervor. He seemed, at last, genuinely happy. This was the Harbaugh who wanted to wear cleats into the Mormon church, who orchestrated sleepovers with recruits, who waged war on SEC satellite camps, who reveled in his fictional character Freddy P. Soft. This Harbaugh brought the old Michigan back with him.
It’s all here to stay.
Michigan’s disastrous performance in the Orange Bowl revealed just how far the Wolverines, as a program, have to go to entrench themselves in college football’s upper echelon. A product of the many inequities that mar college football, there’s a chasm between mere playoff contenders and championship contenders, and Michigan has yet to cross it. Harbaugh knows that. Of the many traits that Harbaugh embodies, ignorance is not one of them.
It’s impossible to overstate how losing Harbaugh may have cratered this program. Michigan is littered with people — current players, incoming recruits, high school prospects, assistant coaches — whom Harbaugh sold on a vision. He convinced them that he would take care of them, that he would ascend them to new heights, that he would usher them from boys to men.
When those promises are stripped, loyalty often goes with it. Perhaps, in the alternate universe in which Harbaugh leaves, the doomsday scenario never materializes. But it’s difficult to imagine this beginning, absent the man who patented it.
With Harbaugh in tow, the proclamation is alive and well.
Goalposts have shifted. Michigan, finally, is over the hump. If this is a beginning, then Harbaugh’s vision lies on the other side, beyond restoration and into sustainment, a prolonged stay in the upper echelon as opposed to a guest pass. That carries with it a new set of goals for Harbaugh to accomplish in the second stage of his tenure.
Perhaps Michigan permanently closes the gap with Ohio State, capitalizing on the program’s surge on the recruiting trail and vibrant culture. Perhaps the Wolverines restore their glory days. Perhaps they crack that elusive group of championship contenders, joining Clemson, Alabama and Georgia with a spot at the sport’s most coveted dinner table.
We can’t be certain which path Michigan will follow. But what we do know is that Michigan has a legitimate shot to turn all of those hypotheticals into reality. Without Harbaugh, they are mere fantasies.
At the aforementioned introductory press conference, Harbaugh likened his different coaching destinations to building houses. At each stop — first San Diego, then Stanford, then the 49ers — Harbaugh had built what he called “pretty nice homes,” doing so from the ground up.
At Michigan, though, he aspired for more. A beginning, but not necessarily an end.
“I would really like to live in one permanently,” Harbaugh said, fully immersed in his metaphor. “That’s what I’m very hopeful for here.”
A chorus of applause followed.
Seven years later, as the Wolverines grapple with this new reality, so will Harbaugh. He can finally move in for good.
Managing Sports Editor Jared Greenspan can be reached at email@example.com.