When Jim Harbaugh spoke at a Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Clinic in mid-January, he displayed a slide outlining his goals.
“Do not be scared of any man, moment, circumstance or of being fired,” the final one on the list read.
In the moment, just a week after he had signed an extension through the 2025 season, it felt like a pointed response to the waves of criticism directed at him during Michigan’s 2020 season. Harbaugh has always had a particular way of stirring the pot in his public comments, picking his spots carefully and deliberately.
On Thursday, asked about that goal in particular, and whether it was anything new, he said this: “Those have been my goals for the last, I’ll say eight or nine years, those have been my personal goals. Something I learned from Bo Schembechler, always had a goal packet as players. It’s something I’ve always done, ever since my freshman years in college, making team goals and personal goals every single season.”
To take Harbaugh at his word would mean he came up with that goal in 2012. That’s when, as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he controversially benched Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick and rode the former backup to Super Bowl XLVII before coming up short against his brother John’s Baltimore Ravens.
It’s his most successful moment as a coach at any level, one that anyone defending Michigan’s decision to bring him back will fall back on. Right now, it feels like it happened every bit of nine years ago. Harbaugh, though, has no problem living and coaching by the philosophies that got him there.
There’s something instructive in that. Michigan is coming into the spring with a new defensive staff, a new recruiting philosophy, a new quarterbacks coach and an unclear situation at the quarterback position. When push comes to shove, though, Harbaugh is still every bit himself. That’s not changing.
“Wanted to attack every single day,” he said of his mindset coming out of last season’s 2-4 debacle.
“No, I didn’t find any kind of disconnect (between the staff and team),” he said later, asked about what seemed evident to outside observers last season. “Wanted to be strong in all areas. Making improvements to everything.”
What could be construed by talking heads as nepotism hires — Harbaugh taking two coaches off his brother’s staff in Baltimore, including the new defensive coordinator — is, to him, logical. Of course he values his brother’s recommendation more than anyone else.
“Many coaches and people that I trust and respect, get their advice, take very seriously when they recommend somebody,” Harbaugh said. “No one more than my brother John. He’s at the top of that list. That’s the way we went. Glad we did.”
If there’s ever been a time for Harbaugh to revise his methods, it would be now.
2020 was his first year coaching a team below .500 since 2008. For the first time, the contingent of people questioning his credentials to return as Michigan’s coach went beyond the fringes of a fan base prone to reactionary outbursts. 2021 will be his seventh year in Ann Arbor, the longest time he’s spent coaching at any place, and it feels like an inflection point.
The extension he signed — halving his salary to just over $4 million on average with a buyout that starts at $4 million and drops by $1 million each year — served as a signal to anyone paying attention. No longer can Harbaugh operate the Michigan football program with impunity.
Harbaugh shuffled around the staff. He can’t change himself. He doesn’t want to, either. Athletic director Warde Manuel didn’t bring Harbaugh back so he could be a different man. It would have been naive to do so.
He’ll keep doing things this way. His way.