Harbaugh's mentors give their approval as prodigal son introduced

Luna Anna Archey/Daily
Former assistant coach Jack Harbaugh, former head coach Lloyd Carr, and interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett during a press conference to announce the appointment of Jim Harbaugh as the next head football coach at the Junge Center Tuesday. Buy this photo

By Jake Lourim, Managing Sports Editor
Published December 30, 2014

Not far, maybe 20 feet, from Jim Harbaugh as he accepted his dream job sat the people who helped him get there.

Harbaugh took questions from all over the room, from some of the couple hundred reporters in attendance, but he kept sneaking glances at the few rows in front of him to his left.

Lloyd Carr, the Michigan football coach from 1995-2007, was on the aisle in the third row. Gary Moeller, the coach from 1990-94, was three seats down. His father, who raised him and mentored him as a coach, both at Michigan and at Western Kentucky, was in the front row.

A reporter asked what he thought legendary coach Bo Schembechler would say to him if he were there, and Harbaugh looked down at the host of football legends in front of him.

“That’s a great question,” Harbaugh said. “I feel like he is here. When I’m standing next to Lloyd Carr and Gary Moeller and my dad and Jerry Hanlon and Jon Falk, to me, that’s the same feeling. They said they were happy to have me here, and also that they would be willing to do anything to help.”

In all the hype that has surrounded the Wolverines’ quest to land Harbaugh, the phrase “Michigan has its man” has resonated.

And the men who helped make that man sat and beamed with pride.

* * *

The first and foremost of those men is Harbaugh’s father, Jack. When Jack was an assistant coach at Michigan from 1973-79, Harbaugh grew up in Ann Arbor, learning to love the traditions that are still held dear.

It’s those years, Jack says, more than even his playing days, that shaped Jim’s return.

“He’s always talked about what those seven years meant for him,” Jack Harbaugh said. “Talking about St. Francis Elementary School, experiences at Tappan Junior High School, experiences at Pioneer High School, sitting in Bo’s chair, sneaking into the IM Building to play pickup basketball with some of the students when he was a freshman and sophomore at Pioneer High School — those were the moments in his life that kids have that they remember forever.”

Those were the moments in Jim’s mind Tuesday when he said he had dreamed of becoming Michigan’s football coach since he was nine or 10 years old.

Long after the press conference ended and most of the crowd had filed out, Jack was still smiling while doing impressions of Schembechler, the longtime face of the program.

It won’t be long before his son has a chance to do the same to his team.

* * *

When Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor as a player, he received guidance from many people whom he said he will ask again for guidance today, as a head coach. One of those people is Lloyd Carr, an assistant on the Michigan staff during Harbaugh’s playing career.

Carr, of course, went onto become a head coach and coached the Wolverines in their most recent Rose Bowl appearance and to their most recent Big Ten championship.

Tuesday, seven years after retiring from the position, he expressed full faith that Harbaugh would bring similar success. Carr — like Moeller and Schembechler — is an old-school, mild-mannered leader, but he didn’t hesitate to set high expectations for Harbaugh.

“Jim is about championships, and he’ll bring championships back to Michigan,” Carr said.

“I don’t think Jim would want it any other way. He’s very confident, and he knows what this tradition means, and I don’t think anybody doubts what he will accomplish here.”

At Harbaugh’s three head coaching stops, he has resorted to exceptional intensity to spark success at San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers.

That intensity was on display again when Harbaugh took the podium Tuesday, as it was in the 1980s when he quarterbacked the Wolverines.

“On the practice field, which is where I think you really get to know whether a guy’s a great competitor or not, our defense would line up against our offense every day in some way or another,” Carr said. “And every single day, Jim Harbaugh was trying to win.

“What I know I’m going to see in a Jim Harbaugh team is great competitiveness. That’s how you win.”

* * *

If it sounds like Michigan has said this before, it’s in part because it has — four years ago, when the program hired Brady Hoke, a former assistant on Carr’s staff, after three years of Rich Rodriguez.

Tuesday brought change again, and Moeller thinks everyone in Michigan’s camp believes in Harbaugh.

“I think he’ll have an easy time (being the unifying factor for the program) because of his personality,” Moeller said. “He just stands up there and talks to you. He doesn’t try to BS you. He’s going to be a fun guy to be around.”

In his press conference Tuesday, Harbaugh spoke about the sentiment that lured him back to Ann Arbor.

He recalled childhood lessons he took from the program, those that stayed constant between Schembechler and Moeller and Carr.

“I think one big thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to see a lot of the old things that used to happen — bring the tradition out of the old walls. Bring it out,” Moeller said. “This is how we do it at Michigan. This is the way we want it done. I’m sure Jim’s going to approach it that way, because that’s all he knows.”

Like Carr, Moeller wasn’t reluctant to set expectations, and former offensive tackle Jon Jansen said the program will compete for a Big Ten championship next season.

“I think they’re doing that within reason,” Moeller said of the outside expectations. “I think he knows what he’s getting into, too, because he’s been there before.”

So when Hoke was fired Dec. 2, many of the people around Michigan set their eyes on Harbaugh.

“I think everybody around here really did,” Moeller said. “That was the way a lot of people were leaning.”

* * *

Any discussion of the Michigan faces who made Harbaugh has to include the most legendary one in the history of the program — Schembechler.

After Harbaugh walked in 10 minutes late to his first team meeting as a Michigan player, Schembechler vowed he would never play a down as a Wolverine.

Instead, Harbaugh wound up a first-team All-American and a Heisman Trophy finalist.

When Harbaugh was a boy, he walked into the Schembechler’s office and sat down. The coach asked what he was doing, and he simply answered that he was sitting in Schembechler’s chair.

Now he really is. Schembechler wasn’t there to see him introduced, but an empty seat in the third row was reserved for his wife. Later, Moeller was asked if Schembechler would’ve approved.

“Somewhere, yep,” Moeller said. “He liked Jim a lot.”

Schembechler was the one who once again popularized the term “Michigan Man” once upon a time. Four weeks ago, Interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett tried to put it to rest, saying that it took the old coach’s words out of context and applied only to men and not women.

But Tuesday was a reunion of Michigan men, with Harbaugh at the podium smiling down at Carr, Moeller, his father and so many others.

Those men made Harbaugh. Now, they stand behind him.