Let's say Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers coach, arrives in Ann Arbor as the next Michigan coach.
The impact of that hiring could be measured in how quickly Michigan fans play their personal seat donations for Michigan Stadium — there's a deadline at the end of January — whether there's an increase in season-ticket demand, and then there's always the potential for skyrocketing merchandise sales with a renewed, rejuvenated interest in football.
That's how significant Harbaugh's hire could be in terms of marketing and economic value to the school and football program, which Forbes indicated this week is the third most valuable program in college football, generating $117 million with a profit of $65 million.
Harbaugh is a former Michigan quarterback very much in the mix to take over the head coaching job at his alma mater. He will coach what is expected to be his final game with the 49ers on Sunday, and then? From all accounts, his options include remaining in the NFL or returning to Michigan, which has had a vacancy since Dec. 2 when Brady Hoke was fired.
While most sports business experts have studied the impact of a star player on a franchise or organization using criteria like whether the player is a star beyond the local sphere or a local hero who has come home, there hasn't been much research on a coach with that kind of star appeal.
That said, Norman O'Reilly, chair of the department of sports administration at Ohio University, one of the nation's most well-respected programs, said Harbaugh easily would fit that description used to study the impact of big-name players.
"If you ask a football fan to name the 32 coaches in NFL, I think very few could," said O'Reilly, also a visiting professor at Stanford where Harbaugh also coached. "But Harbaugh would be on the list of most of them. He has name recognition like Mike Ditka had. These kind of coaches, like (former Red Wing coach) Scotty Bowman, those are the few everybody knows."
O'Reilly used soccer star Ronaldo as an example of mega-status among athletes. Ronaldo has world-wide fame, but a vast majority of his fans, according to O'Reilly, don't even know what position he plays. Harbaugh, he said, has name recognition beyond those who know him as a current NFL coach.
Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, said the Harbaugh impact at Michigan would be widespread, way beyond Ann Arbor.
"It's the perfect storyline for a program that needs some renewed relevancy in its own fan base and nationwide," Swangard. "It would bring the kind of attention the institution and athletic department want to have."
While O'Reilly said he never has researched the impact a star coach can have on a community and organization, he believes much of what he has learned studying the role of star athletes can be applied to Harbaugh.
"(Harbaugh) would meet the star status where he has attention outside of the local market in which he works," O'Reilly said. "He clearly would fit that bill. When you look at the local-hero category on the players' side (of research), maybe the second best guy on your bench happens to be from your town. He will drive increased sponsorship. Harbaugh covers both (the star with national appeal and the local hero)."
O'Reilly believes Harbaugh's coaching star-building began while at Stanford, where he had many opportunities to observe the coach.
"He came in as a former player, and he has charisma off the charts," O'Reilly said. "You have a chance to see him do his thing, and he's unbelievably motivating."
The Michigan football program, Swangard said, has benefited from a great deal of "goodwill" from the fanbase. And as the coaching search enters its fourth week, there is a clear sentiment among Wolverine fans who they expect to be the next coach.
"It has seemingly reached the point that goodwill has almost all been tapped out," Swangard said. "Bringing someone in is more about rebuilding that goodwill and with that momentum comes the sustainability of the business.
"There's inherent risk — if (Harbaugh) doesn't come and you go out and find another suitable candidate, well, there's seemingly a large amount of Harbaugh-or-bust feeling in the fanbase. That's the danger, right? Right now everyone believes Jim Harbaugh is the answer."
If Harbaugh is the answer to interim athletic director Jim Hackett's search, then what could follow, according to O'Reilly, would be an enormous boost for the Michigan program.
"In college football, the coach has an enormous impact," O'Reilly said. "On multiple levels, Harbaugh would have the potential to increase sales. I would say with supreme confidence there would be a significant increase in revenues because of his status and star value."