Why Michigan should pursue Jim Harbaugh, despite some clear hurdles


In May 2011, just four months after Brady Hoke was named Michigan’s head coach, he secured a verbal commitment from a high school sophomore named Shane Morris, a five-star quarterback recruit from the blue-collar suburbs of Detroit.

Michigan's Brady Hoke reacts on the sideline during his team's loss to Minnesota. (AP)
Michigan's Brady Hoke reacts on the sideline during his team's loss to Minnesota. (AP)

This was to be the perfect old-school Wolverine marriage, a coach who understood the culture – “It’s Michigan for God’s sake” – and the return of the great pro-style passer that drove the program for decades. The spread was going to be dead.

By the time Morris was a senior at Warren De La Salle, things began to fade. He missed much of the season with mononucleosis and the bloom began to fade with scouts. By signing day, Rivals.com had downgraded him from five stars to four.

Then Morris reported for duty and within days, sources say, the Michigan staff was concerned. This wasn’t a five-star, sure-bet NFLer, the next in the line of Jim Harbaugh, Chad Henne, Elvis Grbac or Tom Brady.

This was a project, a major project. How, they wondered, did he ever get a five-star ranking in the first place? Where was the sophomore with so much promise? On the recruiting trail, sources said, elite quarterbacks were told not to be frightened off because Morris wasn’t that good.

So even as fans wondered how soon Morris would start, especially as Devin Gardner proved turnover prone and the Wolverines sunk under Hoke, inside the program that was never a reasonable option.

Well, on Saturday, Shane Morris, now a sophomore, finally started for Michigan. It was the surest sign Brady Hoke is simply out of ideas because the project hasn’t progressed a bit, and Morris looked undeveloped, unprepared and surrounded by equally undeveloped and unprepared talent.

He went 7 of 19 for 49 yards, with a fumble and a pick. He left the game in the second half, physically beaten up and possibly concussed, which Hoke apparently didn’t realize.

Minnesota crushed the Wolverines 30-14.

Michigan (2-3) is going to be in the market for a new football coach, at season’s end or sooner. Hoke’s team is startlingly bad and hasn’t even faced Michigan State or Ohio State. About the only drama is if athletic director Dave Brandon, who is unpopular in his own right, is also shown the door.

"I think this team can still win the [Big Ten] championship," Hoke told reporters after the loss. "I really do."

Delusions, or miracles, aside, this is over.

Former players are bashing the team publicly. Social media is nuclear. Fans are apoplectic (and more troubling, staying away). They are going to have to give away a lot of tickets (and Cokes) to keep the school’s proud streak of attendance topping 100,000, which dates back to 1975, from ending soon.

The question is, who replaces Hoke at one of the highest-paying and premier jobs in the country?

Or maybe, more precisely, just how committed is Michigan to getting this right again?

There is one, and only one prime candidate for this job … Jim Harbaugh, who grew up in Ann Arbor as the son of a Michigan assistant, was a star quarterback for Bo Schembechler and is now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Yes, former player and current LSU head coach Les Miles is a viable hire, but Miles turns 61 this fall and would be heading to Michigan as much because his run in Baton Rouge is winding down (albeit from a remarkable high). Good hire? Sure.

Not Jim Harbaugh, though.

There is zero question about Harbaugh’s ability to recruit, teach, motivate, game-plan, coach and win. None.

Jim Harbaugh back at his alma mater will undoubtedly result in a national title contender. He’s won big everywhere he’s ever coached and proved to be a master at not just bringing in talent, but properly evaluating it first.

Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier (L) talks to Brady Hoke during the Wolverins' loss to Utah. (AP) NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier (L) talks to Brady Hoke during the Wolverins' loss to Utah. (AP) NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

He built a powerhouse at Stanford when no one thought that was even possible because of the school’s culture and academic requirements. Harbaugh turned it all into a positive.

There is no guarantee Michigan can lure Harbaugh back to the college ranks. He might have no interest in it under any circumstance. It’s the school’s job, however, to make a full and forceful push.

Harbaugh comes with red flags of sorts, but how seriously these are considered will say plenty about Michigan. He is intense, runs hot and has a way of wearing out nearly everyone around him.

There were reports he was almost traded to the Cleveland Browns last offseason and while the Niners denied that, there is little doubt the tension there is real and could result in him leaving the franchise at the end of this season.

It’s worth remembering we’re talking about a coach who, in his three full seasons in San Francisco, lost a NFC title game in overtime (2011), lost the Super Bowl in a final-minute goal-line stand (2012) and lost another NFC title game on a final-minute Richard Sherman deflection (2013). And the Niners still reportedly were willing to trade him.

That’s apparently how difficult he can be.

Michigan isn’t naturally a place looking for that kind of coach. Schembechler was an oversized personality, but this hasn’t been the kind of school that cedes all control and power to the head coach. Of late the Wolverines are known more for the gentlemanly Lloyd Carr or the undeniably likeable Hoke.

They’ve won more games than anyone in Ann Arbor, but a football factory they are not.

Perhaps, this is when that changes, at least a little.

It’s not like Harbaugh’s track record at Stanford suggests he wants to run some outlaw program. He won with high-quality kids and topline students. He simply commands a wide berth to let him do as he wants, which isn’t unlike how Nick Saban operates at Alabama.

The arrival of Harbaugh may require the removal of Brandon, as the two wouldn’t seem to be able to coexist. Is Michigan willing, and capable, of moving that many parts quickly? Do the Wolverines have the leadership to organize it?

Michigan knows how tough Harbaugh can be, having feuded with him a few years back when he stated the academic requirements at Stanford were tougher than at Michigan. That rankled some old guard. When Carr retired, Harbaugh was passed over and Rich Rodriguez was hired. Things haven’t been great since.

Can Michigan lure Jim Harbaugh back to the college ranks? (USAT)
Can Michigan lure Jim Harbaugh back to the college ranks? (USAT)

None of this is beyond repair, though, at least if the school is ready to get headed in a single direction in an effort to restore what’s been lost.

There’s more, of course. If Michigan can get Harbaugh to return home, is it willing to deal with the inevitable, if unpleasant, annual coaching rumor mill that has him returning to the NFL?

Michigan is used to being the destination, not the stepping-stone, but no one who has coached in the NFL, let alone come so close to winning a Super Bowl, gives up on that dream quickly. Harbaugh’s name would be floated and the back-and-forth would go on. Perhaps he’d even leave.

That happens with Nick Saban, among others, too.

That’s just modern reality. Michigan might prefer it was a different way, the old way, but no one is calling to hire Brady Hoke away, and how is that working out?

Jim Harbaugh is Michigan’s Saban, a sure-bet winner but not a simple hire. 'Bama didn’t immediately settle on Saban (coincidentally, they wanted Rich Rodriguez). Then through a prolonged and winding process – “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach,” he famously said – before Alabama figured out, via money, freedom and complete control, how to get it done.

It hasn’t looked back.

How far is Michigan willing to go to do the same as the losses mount and the attendance dwindles?