Jim Harbaugh smiles behind a table with a microphone.
After serving his three-game suspension, Jim Harbaugh will return to the sidelines on Saturday against Rutgers. Emily Alberts/Daily. Buy this photo.

Jim Harbaugh spent the last three weeks watching the No. 2 Michigan football team from three different places. 

In week one during the East Carolina game, he sat on offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore’s couch, watching the game on TV while eating Panera Bread sandwiches. For the Wolverines’ second game against UNLV, the Michigan coach watched from his own living room, sneaking out for a McDonald’s run at halftime and mowing his lawn before and after the game. Last week against Bowling Green, Harbaugh was out of town and watched the game on a computer. 

Long story short, Harbaugh was anywhere but the sidelines for the Wolverines’ first three game days. 

But the guessing game of where Harbaugh will be on game days is over. The coaching carousel is done, and Harbaugh’s Saturday adventures are done with it. He has now fully served his university-imposed suspension, and although he’s still been leading practices, he’s back to assuming full command of the team when Big Ten play opens against Rutgers this Saturday. 

Harbaugh previously equated the suspension to a “baseball bat to the kneecaps” as opposed to a slap on the wrist, but he still used it for his own personal growth — despite how much he claims it hurt. 

“Seeing the game in a different way, through a different lens, I think it’s made me a better coach,” Harbaugh said Monday. “And as a result (I’m) going to implement some new things … as it relates to a few policies around here to make sure I never get sidelined again, I’m ramping that up to a gold standard.” 

Previously asked time and time again about the NCAA investigation, suspension talks — you name it — Harbaugh remained mute, finding a host of different ways to say “no comment.” On Monday, he gave more insight than ever before when pressed on what exactly he’s changing to ensure he isn’t sidelined again. It starts with taking extra effort to make sure analysts on staff are following NCAA rules.  

“One of (the changes is) just analysts, and making sure that there’s absolutely just no coaching whatsoever,” Harbaugh said. “And you say that over and over to guys and it’s just that natural coaching instinct. You know, they gotta protect us, I want to protect them, I want to protect me. And we’ve done an incredible job — I mean gone to the nth degree — to follow every rule.”

No matter how much Harbaugh learned about himself or how much growth he experienced as a coach during his suspension, he clearly didn’t enjoy it. Implementing a bevy of changes to avoid that in the future — an especially important note as the NCAA will still conduct its investigation in the coming offseason — suggests he’d rather not be enjoying Panera Bread during a Michigan game. 

After being forced to hop from place to place each game able to do nothing but watch, Harbaugh is now showing more respect to NCAA rules and regulations — despite his belief that the organization isn’t doing enough to support student athletes. While the suspension led to changes in that regard, it also forced him to see his coaching role from a new perspective, especially when it pertains to his offense. 

“Watching it on TV, you can see the things,” Harbaugh said. “… When I’m there and I’m in it, and doing everything in real time and more telling people what to do, how (I) see it. (Now I got) the perspective, for them to see it, for them to watch it, and then (I ask) ‘Hey what did you do right, what did you do wrong, how did you see this?’ ”

While Harbaugh will be leaning on his players’ perspectives now more than ever coming out of his suspension, it’s the players who seem most excited about his return. They’ve heaped praises about the interim staff all season, but the group still benefits from the stability of having its full-time head coach on the sidelines, week after week, especially as the season ramps up. 

“I’m super excited to have Coach Harbaugh back,” senior running back Blake Corum said. “It’s going to be exciting going back down the tunnel with Coach Harbaugh, having him on the sidelines. I’m amped up, I’m fired up.” 

Harbaugh’s excited too, so much so that his calendar is feeling a little busier than usual. 

“If I seem a little bit distracted, that’s because I have so much on my mind,” Harbaugh said near the start of the presser. “Hopefully we keep this a little bit short, because there’s so much to do. … If you asked me ‘Hey what are you doing, you seem out of breath,’ (it’s because) there’s a lot on the plate right now.” 

There’s plenty on Harbaugh’s plate, and this time it doesn’t concern what he’ll eat during the game on Saturday. His suspension is over, and for the first time since last December, Michigan will be led on the field by its head coach.