Before Michigan’s Nov. 22 home loss to Maryland, former Wolverines offensive lineman Doug James and an old teammate introduced themselves to interim athletic director Jim Hackett.
Like every Michigan alum, they were discouraged about the state of the football program but supportive of the rebuilding effort, and hoping the school had the vision and wherewithal to fix it. Hackett listened, then asked the ex-players to do something for him that day:
Keep your ticket stubs from the game, and remember the date. He asked them to take a look at Michigan football a year from then, on Nov. 22, 2015, and see if it’s an improved product.
“He said it in a very humble manner, but the confidence he exuded made me feel like this guy had a grip on what needs to happen at Michigan,” recalled James, now a radio advertising executive in New York.
Hackett was confident then. He can be absolutely sure now.
He and the rest of the Michigan administration are on the cusp of hitting the grand slam the school desperately needed by hiring Jim Harbaugh. After enduring a painful slide from prominence, the winningest program in college football history is set to hire the coach it needs to return to the upper echelon of the sport. Harbaugh is expected to be officially introduced Tuesday – and when that happens, Michigan will be back.
This figures to be one of the transformative hires of the 21st century – Nick Saban at Alabama, Urban Meyer at both Florida and Ohio State, now Harbaugh at Michigan. It’s that big. It’s a national championship-caliber hire.
The fact that the school pulled it off is impressive – and a bit surprising.
The season began with plenty of speculation that Brady Hoke would be fired, but there was no certainty that Harbaugh could be lured from the NFL back to the college game. In fact, several people who knew Harbaugh were convinced he wanted to stay in the pro ranks, where he’d come achingly close to winning the Super Bowl two seasons ago and narrowly missed a return trip last year. Besides, there had been a rocky split between Harbaugh and his alma mater years earlier, when the then-Stanford coach questioned the academic rigor for football players at Michigan.
Then there was the leadership team tasked with making this momentous hire. Hackett was a businessman thrust into the interim AD job just two months ago, when the school forced out Dave Brandon. President Mark Schlissel had only arrived July 1 from Brown – an Ivy League school that is completely disengaged from the big-dollar world of major-college football.
But this unlikely duo – undoubtedly aided by a cadre of boosters that included a few of Harbaugh’s old teammates – pulled off the coaching carousel coup of 2014. It should be enough to make Hackett the full-time AD, if indeed he wants the job long-term. He and Michigan did what they had to do: aimed as high as possible, offered a huge compensation package, appealed to Harbaugh’s old loyalties and were willing to wait out the NFL calendar.
Was it risky? Certainly. If Harbaugh turned them down, they’d be starting over from Square One in January – late in the game and up against the recruiting clock. And there would be a crestfallen fan base to deal with – after getting its hopes up that high, delivering anyone other than Harbaugh would have been a huge disappointment.
But they delivered. They got it done. And like Saban and Meyer, this is a hire that checks every box on the Michigan wish list.
Proven winner. Proven recruiter. Knows the school and the league. And, yes, ties to program patriarch Bo Schembechler.
But on that last point, here’s the important distinction: Harbaugh is a great coach who happens to be a Michigan Man. He’s not a Michigan Man whom Wolverines fans hope will be a great coach.
Harbaugh built Stanford into a power out of virtually nothing, and in rapid order. Then he quickly resurrected the 49ers, winning 70 percent of his games at a franchise that had won 35 percent over the previous seven years.
Michigan should follow the pattern, with ripple effects that are felt well beyond Ann Arbor. The downtrodden Big Ten gets a huge boost. Heck, the entire college game, which has suffered some brain drain with the likes of Pete Carroll, Harbaugh and Chip Kelly going to the NFL, gets a boost. And the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, a flat disappointment since 2006, will roar back to life – Harbaugh vs. Meyer has the potential to be the second coming of Bo vs. Woody.
If history is any guide, Harbaugh will relish that. He wasted no time going after Carroll and Pac-12 big dog USC, with good results – Stanford was 3-1 against the Trojans under Harbaugh.
Competitiveness and confidence pretty well ooze out of the guy. James was a senior co-captain in 1984 when sophomore Harbaugh made his first start. It was Sept. 8, and the opponent was No. 1, defending national champion Miami with Bernie Kosar at quarterback. Yet Harbaugh walked into the Big House that day like he owned the place.
“I just remember he was clearly the guy taking the leadership role in the huddle,” James said. “A lot of people would say he was cocky. I would say he was just really confident in his ability, and was going to do whatever he needed to do to win.”
Michigan won the game that day, upsetting the Hurricanes 22-14. He’ll win a lot more big games when he’s back in the Big House as head coach. By Nov. 22, 2015, a year removed from that home loss to Maryland, the Wolverines will be on their way back to glory.