Since he was a child, Jim Harbaugh has imagined leading Michigan to a win over Ohio State.
“I’ve been thinking of (playing Ohio State) since I was eight years old,” Harbaugh told the Daily before the 1986 season. “Playing against the Buckeyes in Ohio State’s stadium for the Big Ten title — that would be a dream come true.”
During the week before The Game that year, Harbaugh guaranteed Michigan would beat the Buckeyes in Columbus. So confident was the quarterback that he and co-captain Andy Moeller had purchased a plaque for coach Bo Schembechler commemorating his 166th victory in Ann Arbor — a result that would put him ahead of Fielding H. Yost as the Wolverines’ all-time leader.
And Harbaugh backed up his guarantee, playing game manager for Jamie Morris as the running back slashed Ohio State for 210 yards to key a 26-24 victory.
“I didn’t say it to be cocky or arrogant or anything,” Harbaugh said of his promise after the win. “I just said what I felt.”
Then he and Moeller presented Schembechler with his plaque.
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Now that he’s Michigan’s coach, Harbaugh isn’t making any more bold predictions.
“I made a guarantee a long time ago, and I’ve learned from that,” he said last Tuesday.
But it isn’t hard to imagine greatness with Harbaugh at the helm. After all, he has succeeded everywhere he has been, including at Michigan as a player from 1983-86, at San Diego and Stanford as a college coach from 2004-10, and with San Francisco fom 2011-14.
And there is returning talent across the board. The offensive line, which was passable despite its inexperience in 2014, returns in its entirety. The running back trio of Derrick Green, De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson will be joined by a former five-star recruit, Ty Isaac, who transferred from Southern California and sat out last season. The secondary corps is solid, as are the linebackers and the receivers — though the Wolverines will need to replace Devin Funchess.
Get a decent defensive line and forge a reliable quarterback out of either sophomore Shane Morris, freshman Wilton Speight or early enrollee Alex Malzone, and suddenly you have pieces for what could be an elite team.
And have you seen Harbaugh’s track record of improving quarterbacks? Can you imagine how good Michigan’s defense could be with D.J. Durkin at coordinator and Greg Mattison coaching the linebackers?
“There are no turnarounds at Michigan,” Harbaugh said during his introductory press conference last Tuesday. “This is greatness and a long tradition of it.”
Maybe Harbaugh hasn’t been following the Wolverines since 2008. Then again, maybe Harbaugh’s Michigan will look more like the Michigan of 1986 than anything we’ve seen lately.
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Harbaugh can’t win the big game. That’s what his critics say.
His 49ers reached the NFC Championship in three consecutive seasons but never won the Super Bowl. He didn’t go out a winner at Michigan, either — he lost the Rose Bowl his senior year.
But he’s the right man for the job. And — with apologies to Jim Hackett — it’s not just because he’s a “Michigan Man,” either. He turns mediocre quarterbacks into great ones and turns losing teams in championship ones.
“There is no quarterback in the country that I’d rather go into the season with than Jim Harbaugh,” Schembechler said in 1986.
There’s no coach Michigan would rather go into the 2015 season with, either.
One recruit expects Harbaugh to land several big-name recruits before signing day. Many current players expressed their disbelief and excitement that Michigan had hired such a big name. A former player said he wished he could re-enroll and run onto the Big House turf again.
What would Schembechler say of Michigan and Harbaugh now?
“ ‘You got the right guy,’ ” Lloyd Carr imagined. “ ‘Hackett, you did a great job. Harbaugh, get to work.’ I think that’s what he’d say. He’d be awfully happy.”
As for Harbaugh? Well, he isn’t making any promises. But it’s time to get to work — starting with a team meeting Wednesday night. After all, Michigan hosts Ohio State in just 325 days.
Harbaugh has been preparing for that moment since he was a child.
Alejandro Zúñiga can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ByAZuniga.