Spielman: Harbaugh is coach UM needs to rival Meyer

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Chris Spielman remembers playing against Jim Harbaugh, one game in particular.

Michigan, Ohio State, 1986, in Columbus, and Harbaugh, Michigan's brash quarterback had guaranteed a victory.

The Wolverines backed up their quarterback, winning 26-24.

"I loved to play against (Harbaugh) because he's a competitor," Spielman, the former OSU linebacker now an ESPN college football analyst, said. "Everybody is competitive to a certain level, but then there's uber-competitive. I consider myself that way, (OSU coach) Urban Meyer, (Michigan State coach) Mark Dantonio are, too, and so is Harbaugh.

"Harbaugh's a tremendous competitor, very similar to Urban in a lot of areas, intense, very competitive and embraces everything about football."

Harbaugh has been targeted by interim athletic director Jim Hackett to bring his uber-competitive style back to Ann Arbor as head coach, replacing Brady Hoke, fired earlier this month after four seasons. Harbaugh is about to work what is expected to be his final game as the San Francisco 49ers coach on Sunday.

What would Harbaugh at Michigan mean?

"It would be great for Michigan, great for the Big Ten," Spielman said. "It restores some of the history of the rivalry of two great coaches with two great schools doing battle.

"He's a guy Michigan needs to rival Urban as far as name, coaching ability, and recruiting —he can probably go toe-to-toe with Urban in recruiting. That's vital for Michigan to start getting guys on the national level that are highly rated who want to be Michigan guys, and Jim can do that."

It is sometimes difficult to talk about Michigan without talking about its archrival, Ohio State, which has won 10 of the last 11 in the rivalry, but Harbaugh's potential impact would be felt beyond one game.

Gerry DiNardo, a Big Ten Network analyst, knows, as every conference fan knows, the Big Ten has taken a beating nationally. Ohio State is one of four playoff teams, and Michigan State had a strong season, but DiNardo believes one of the complicating issues has been the fact Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan have had their share of recent struggles.

Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten championship since 2004 and has had three losing seasons —and no bowl trips those years — since 2008. The Wolverines were 5-7 this season.

"I think the assumption is, Harbaugh is the guy who can get Michigan back the fastest," DiNardo said. "That's why this is so important not only for Michigan but for the Big Ten."

DiNardo calls coaches who have had been able to arrive at programs and have instant success, like Meyer, "rock stars".

"There aren't many of those around, and certainly not many who will move," DiNardo said, including Harbaugh in the "rock star" category.

"It's fair to say we can predict the 2015 (Michigan) roster will be similar to 2014 as it relates to Michigan opponents. What someone like Jim Harbaugh can do is stabilize the program by winning all the games that Michigan has better personnel than, and that's most likely nine teams. I think the Michigan fan base would accept, 'Let's beat everyone we have better resources than, and in a couple years, it's a fair expectation to win a Big Ten championship.' Jim Harbaugh answers that call."

Spielman has watched plenty of Michigan games over the last several years. What he sees is a team that needs an injection of something that will return the Wolverines to relevancy.

"This is an honest critique and from my time as an ESPN college football analyst — they've turned into an average program, and Michigan shouldn't be average with the resources and with the finances they have. One of the biggest things to me, when I look back at Michigan, they had some nice recruiting classes, but it seems to me like they never played like what they were touted as. I don't know if they developed players at the rate Mark Dantonio does at Michigan State and Urban Meyer does at Ohio State.

"I think (Harbaugh) can (turn things around). All indications are that he can when you look at his track record, his history, what kind of football coach he is, his Michigan roots. The only concern I'd have if I were a Michigan fan and I were a player, and whoever is doing the hiring, they have to make sure it's not a one or two and done and he's back to the NFL. The NFL is going to come call because he's worthy — they don't care about Michigan. But I can't think of a better scenario for Michigan — Jim or John (Harbaugh) would be ideal."

DiNardo said the elite programs need elite coaches, particularly because the game and overall challenges have become more difficult to handle. Big Ten teams are playing nine conference games and that will evolve to 10, there are divisions and a Big Ten title, certainly a far cry from Harbaugh's playing days with the Wolverines.

"It's harder these days," DiNardo said. "To the point you think, 'My God, this is so much harder than any previous coach at Michigan has ever had it.'"

Attacking recruiting will be vital for Michigan, whether it's Harbaugh or another coach.

"There's a lot of college football players that are Division I players around the Midwest, in Ohio, but you have to go to California and Florida," Spielman said. "(Michigan does) have a strong base in recruiting, but I don't know if every college kid in Florida knew who Brady Hoke was. I guarantee you, everyone knows who Jim Harbaugh is.

"The other thing he carries — and don't underestimate this, I wouldn't — he could go in to any kid's house and say, 'I'm an NFL coach, and I know what it takes to get you there.' I would think that would be his selling point."