ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Harbaugh had everything he could have wanted at Michigan: an adoring fan base, a house next to his parents, a program contoured to his specifications and, as of two weeks ago, a national championship.
It’s tempting to ask what went wrong, how a coach who wanted to be buried as a Michigan Man could have been persuaded that anyone had it better than him. That’s the wrong question. The real question is what went right during these past nine years that allowed Michigan to do what none of Harbaugh’s previous employers could accomplish.
Remember the scene at Michigan’s championship parade. Burn it in your memory. Go back to it next year when you see Harbaugh standing on the sidelines at SoFi Stadium, coaching the Los Angeles Chargers. A championship was the dream when Harbaugh arrived at Michigan in 2015. The dream had plenty of delays and detours, but Harbaugh and Michigan stuck together long enough to make it a reality.
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Stanford couldn’t do that. The 49ers couldn’t, either. Perhaps the Chargers will, but here’s a word of caution to everybody in L.A.: It will be harder than you think.
The qualities that make Harbaugh a brilliant coach and team-builder are the same qualities that make every day a tug-of-war. People have tried through the years to have one without the other, but it doesn’t work that way. When you hire Jim Harbaugh, you sign up for the whole package. Harbaugh will build a championship-caliber team while exhausting every ounce of patience, and it’s a race against the clock to see which happens first.
These past nine years at Michigan were the longest stretch Harbaugh has spent in one place as a coach or player. For some at Michigan, it felt longer than that. But if you ask those people now, they would say it was all worth it. The highs, the lows, the headaches, the sleepless nights — all of it paid off that night in Houston when Michigan beat Washington to deliver the Wolverines their first national title since 1997.
Harbaugh’s nine years at Michigan can be summarized as a play in three acts:
• Act One: The triumphant arrival. The shrieks and hosannas, the headline-grabbing stunts, the force of personality that altered the entire sport.
• Act Two: The winter of discontent. The cumulative toll of five consecutive losses to Ohio State, including the agonizing one in 2016 that came down to an official’s spot. The miserable 2-4 season in 2020 during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. The mounting frustrations over Harbaugh’s contract and the feeling among many that his time at Michigan had run its course.
• Act Three: The renaissance. The breakthrough in 2021, the encore in 2022, the ultimate triumph in 2023. And, along with all of that, the NFL rumors, NCAA allegations and deafening noise that Harbaugh once compared to an air-raid siren.
If the play had ended after the second act, it would have gone down as a tragedy. With any other coach or any other school, that’s probably what would have happened. Instead, Harbaugh and Michigan negotiated an unusual contract that slashed Harbaugh’s pay in half while giving him a final chance to reboot the program.
That decision was the best thing that could have happened to both sides. Without it, there’s no way Michigan is celebrating a national championship and no way Harbaugh is coaching the Chargers. Instead of asking why Harbaugh would leave at the height of his tenure, it’s better to ask why he stayed through the depths. The answer is that neither side gave up when the road got rocky.
Many of the fans who criticize athletic director Warde Manuel for failing to lock up Harbaugh on a long-term contract are the same ones who wanted Harbaugh gone after the 2020 season. Whatever fans think of Manuel’s track record as AD, he deserves credit for getting the best out of Harbaugh.
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Harbaugh deserves credit, too. It’s hard for old-school coaches to change, but Harbaugh did. He became more open with his players, gave them more ownership of the program and allowed their personalities to shine. He became a voice of moral clarity on players’ rights and the need to overhaul the NCAA model. He did it while staying true to the core philosophies that made Michigan so successful the past three years.
It may strike some as ironic that a coach ensnared in two NCAA investigations could be described as a voice of moral clarity on anything. That’s part of the contradiction with Harbaugh: He comes across as both immensely principled and willing to do almost anything to win. He follows his own compass, which sometimes points in strange directions. But when everyone is willing to get behind him, he can lead a team to glory.
That’s what Harbaugh did at Michigan. He leaves behind plenty of baggage, including two unresolved NCAA cases. He also leaves a national championship trophy and a logical successor in offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, a coach who’s been primed for this moment. It’s not exactly a clean ending, but endings rarely are. Compared with the alternatives, riding out of Ann Arbor on a parade float is one of the best ways Harbaugh could go.
As good as Harbaugh had it at Michigan, it was inevitable that the two sides would part ways eventually. The miracle is that they made it this far.
(Photo: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)