As Jim Hackett studied Jim Harbaugh’s postgame comments regarding the officiating in the Michigan-Ohio State game, he swelled with pride.
Hackett, who hired Harbaugh to coach the alma mater they share, has moved on since being the interim athletic director who changed Michigan’s athletics. He hired Harbaugh when most NFL pundits said it would be impossible, and he negotiated a lucrative apparel deal with Nike and secured rights for Michigan football to be the first to wear the Jordan Brand Jumpman logo.
Now, Hackett is the Chairman of Ford Smart Mobility, delving into a whole new world of transportation. But he is still very much in tune with Harbaugh and the football program.
Hackett visited with Harbaugh in Columbus before the Michigan-Ohio State game late last month.
“I needed to see him and tell him how proud I am of the job he’s done in such a short time,” Hackett told The Detroit News. “And he wanted to talk about how things are going at Ford. The bond is pretty thick. I don’t want to trivialize the relationship. It’s too personal.”
‘He speaks his mind’
Harbaugh led Michigan, which failed to reach a bowl the previous season, to a 10-3 record in 2015, his first season, and the Wolverines, who were very much in the College Football Playoff hunt until losing two of their final three games, are 10-2 and looking to reach 11 wins when they face Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30.
Michigan lost to Ohio State in double overtime, and Harbaugh spent much of his postgame news conference discussing his disappointment in the officiating. A few days later he was reprimanded and fined by the Big Ten.
“I was so proud of him before the game, and I was even more proud of him after the game,” Hackett said. “I felt he was the kind of man I know him to be. He speaks his mind. I went back and watched the whole interview after the game, and if you watch the whole interview, the stream of when he speaks about being bitterly disappointed is in the flow of questions about how do you feel. This is a man who can’t lie.
“No threat of a fine or a detention where they’re treating an adult with a technique like they would treat him in high school. If he had been disrespectful or vile that’s different, but he was speaking his mind about how he felt. During the heat of the game, can you imagine the comment he got from an official? He competes authentically like no one I’ve ever been around. It just reinforces why we’re lucky to have him because of his authenticity and being a step ahead in the art of being a coach. We have fully realized the value that was promised.”
Two years later, as Michigan closes in on the anniversary of Harbaugh’s hiring, Hackett still doesn’t take a bow for making it happen.
“I don’t want to take any credit for it,” Hackett said. “I haven’t had to coach a down of football. That’s where the hard work is. I was committed to the success of it, so I’m proud of that.”
The former CEO of Steelcase, who played for Bo Schembechler, was determined, though, to land the big fish. Once a competitor, always a competitor.
“I didn’t want to be denied what was best for Michigan,” he said. “That’s the way I thought about it. It wasn’t Jim Hackett, it was Michigan. This was a cause for me.”
Hackett obtained Harbaugh’s cell phone number from his father, Jack Harbaugh, whom he had known when Jack was an assistant coach under Schembechler.
“Jim was 10 or 12 when I played, and Jack was the coach that I would talk to often,” Hackett said.
“I had to reacquaint myself. I called Jim and identified myself, ‘This is Jim Hackett.’ He said, ‘Is the Jim Hackett who taped me into the locker?’ I didn’t hesitate, ‘No I cut you out.’ ”
The story has been told many times that Michigan players would tape the younger Harbaugh boys, Jim and older brother John, into the open lockers as a joke.
“I feel like we’re back’
With Harbaugh’s attention, Hackett got to work.
“I said to him, ‘Jim, I’m starting down a path here trying to figure out what to do, and you’re the first guy I’d like to talk to about this,’ ” Hackett said. “We didn’t talk about the job. We talked about Michigan. Philosophically what Michigan needed and how we both saw it.
“These talks were just spectacular. It was so easy. It was incredible because of his zest for life and how he sees people and values them. It was really easy. It was a similar philosophy about things. I was surprised actually how aligned we are and still are (considering the) difference in generation. And he was a football coach and I was a business guy.”
But because they were both coached by Schembechler, Hackett said they had the ability to communicate on a different plane.
“He didn’t want to sign the agreement until the season was over,” Hackett said. “Because of who he played for and I played for, how we were both raised, I just needed to hear him. If you want to tell me you’re coming, that’s all I need. He said, ‘I’m coming.’ ”
Hackett was busy during his short tenure as interim athletic director but he also inked the Nike deal. Thanks to a call from Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, who suggested he explore the Jordan Brand possibility, the Jumpman logo on the football uniform became a reality.
“I love seeing the Jumpman logo play out as we envisioned,” Hackett said. “I have reflected back on how fortunate I was that Charles called me with that idea. That’s why it takes a village. The coincidence of Jim’s arrival and Charles’ call — that’s one of the things I do revel in, the momentum.
“That does feel good. There were people who had lost faith in our history and our unique position. And how monumental the university is in some of the things it has achieved. This is an area it has been monumental.”
It is difficult to imagine that two years ago, coming off a 5-7 season, the resignation of an athletic director and the firing of a head football coach, the recovery would be this quick.
“This period that was so tenuous has turned out to be very solid. We have more work to do. Jim’s drive is like mine, so you take this advantage to the next level. He’s demonstrating yet again with recruiting he’s starting to get the commitments that are going to put us at the top. I feel like we’re back.”
Does Hackett, the man who won’t take credit for the hire two years ago, feel good about the direction of the program?
“More than good,” he said. “I would say it’s like a feeling of contentment. And pride. Just pride in the team the coaches, and I’m proud of our (university) president to have the vision to leap into this.”