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Ann Arbor — Four weeks ago, Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett had a big task in front of him.

After firing Brady Hoke, Hackett had a big position to fill, with the football program coming off another loss to Ohio State and with a 5-7 record, missing a bowl game. Hackett looked to be a fisherman going out on an excursion with very little bait and looking to catch a whopper.

Twenty-eight days later, Hackett has returned with a whale of a hire, signing Jim Harbaugh to a seven-year contract, sending the campus and the worldwide Michigan fan base into a frenzy.

In many ways, they believe the prodigal son has returned to Ann Arbor to right the ship.

"One particularly famous coach, who had done broadcasting for many years, told me this: 'You know, Jim Hackett, you didn't just get a great coach — you got the best coach in football today, college or pro, in Jim Harbaugh."

Hackett utilized a search firm but also used a cadre of former players and coaches, alums and others to help him in finding the right coach. That group was tight-knit, as its plans were kept secret for the most part, until all the final preparations were made.

Among the confidantes was former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who admired the way Hackett handled the entire process.

"He was able to do it in a way that every single day, you didn't have things being leaked — and therefore the pressure that comes from everybody knowing what keeps you from making a good decision," Carr said. "It's pretty clear (Harbaugh) was the lead candidate from the beginning, but there was a lot of things going on."

An advisory council of former players, including Jon Jansen, Derrick Walker, John Wangler Marlin Jackson and Jarrett Irons — along with some consultation from Brian Griese, Charles Woodson and Marcus Ray — also aided Hackett in the process.

"When he got us together, the one thing he said to us was that we're entrusting him to find a new head coach and he wanted us to come along in the process," said Irons, an All-America linebacker who played from 1993-96. "He said, 'I want to be open-book and want you guys to know exactly what I'm doing and how I'm doing it.'

"He had a list of all the guys he wanted — in the beginning stages, it was about 20 candidates."

With Hackett's background as a former CEO of Steelcase, he used a business mentality to aid him in laying out the framework for the process and stuck with it throughout. That enabled him to stay in constant contact with all of those involved.

It differed from the previous regime, where Dave Brandon reportedly wasn't as open about the hiring process when Brady Hoke was brought on board.

"If you look at the process (Hackett) took, he ran it like a CEO would run it. Coming from Dave Brandon, a former CEO as well, we weren't privy to a lot of this information," Irons said. "The one thing that Hackett wanted to make sure is that we knew everything that was going on and we were a part of the process."

While Hackett utilized the search firm Korn Ferry to assist in the process, Irons said that Hackett did a lot of homework on his own and was well versed on the potential candidates.

"He was very knowledgeable before he even hired the firm. I don't want to put too much credence on them — he did a lot of work on his own," Irons said. "It was done in a short period of time — and that's what's so impressive about it."

That extensive preparation included a command center with plenty of data on all of the 20 or so candidates, so that it would be easy to process and everyone could see the big picture.

"He had a war room of everybody's background — what they make, pros and cons, the type of offenses they run, what would fit and what wouldn't," Irons said. "For a guy who doesn't have a lot of experience in college athletics, to run it the way he did, I was very impressed."

Landing Harbaugh is a big notch in the belt for Hackett, who could have the interim tag removed from his title soon. UM president Mark Schlissel will make the final call on that determination, but Carr is on board, seeing what Hackett has accomplished in his short time on the job.

"I'm not the president of the university, but you'd be hard pressed to do a better job and to create the enthusiasm," Carr said.

"Jim Hackett's a brilliant guy. I was very confident before he took the job when the speculation it was going to be him, I felt very good because I've known him for a long time. He's been a great leader in the business world. Did I doubt he would land Harbaugh? I knew if anybody could do it, Jim Hackett could. Hackett can hack it."

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard

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