NFL analysts rave about Harbaugh's hiring at Michigan

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Gary Horton took a break from gorging on NFL game film to rave about Jim Harbaugh's hiring as Wolverines football coach.

"He's got to have a quarterback he can trust — a quarterback he can build around," said Horton, who heads Scouts, Inc., for ESPN's NFL telecasts. "But I think it (hiring Harbaugh) makes Michigan more relevant immediately."

From his consulting perch with the New England Patriots, former Titans general manager Floyd Reese looks at Ann Arbor and says UM's stewards were "probably wise enough to have known they found their guy and money wasn't an issue."

Not about to disagree was Gil Brandt, the writer and longtime Cowboys personnel man who has been a consultant on scores of hiring searches for college and NFL coaches.

"I think this guy will do really, really well," Brandt said Monday from his vacation retreat in Montana. "It's not like Brady Hoke, when he initially walked into a recruit's living room and a recruit might have said, 'Who are you?'

"This guy's a name everyone knows. And when you take someone who has a good football mind — and Jim Harbaugh has a good football mind — and he's there to work and to make something better, that's a knockout for Michigan."

It was difficult to find an NFL expert who thought Harbaugh, or Michigan, could lose as UM prepared Tuesday to unveil Harbaugh as the Wolverines' newest football general, replacing Hoke, who was fired Dec. 2 in the aftermath of a miserable two-year slide.

Those polled said Harbaugh would make a difference in all the categories a head coach affects: recruiting, discipline, on-the-field tenacity, schemes, and, ultimately, victories.

"He's a no-nonsense guy who can probably wear on some people," said Horton, who has been running ESPN's NFL scouting network for the past 12 years. "He's a perfectionist. But he's really a good coach.

"I'm only surprised the NFL isn't scrambling today to hire him for one of those openings (Falcons, Jets, Bears, etc., who are chasing new coaches)."

Horton also thought UM should cheer, rather than apologize for, its decision to hand Harbaugh a monstrous payday.

"What's really interesting about it to me," Horton said, "is that Michigan has made money a relative topic. So many people stay in the league (NFL) or go to the league because life there is so different, financially.

"But Michigan is paying NFL money. And that was the smartest thing they could have done. Because he's not going to make any more today in the NFL, for Harbaugh it came down to: Do you want to do this?

"And clearly he did. I think he's more excited about this challenge than most people understand."

That could be tied to notions Michigan and perhaps Harbaugh share: that the Wolverines aren't far away. Particularly if a coach can anoint a quarterback, whether it's Shane Morris or another contender, who can run his offense with aplomb.

"If I'm a quarterback at Michigan," Horton said, "my thought is, this is a coach who is going to get me into the NFL. I'll tell you, his strategies at San Francisco were absolutely brilliant. His ability to take advantage of personnel and put certain schemes together — at times, he looked like one of the smartest coaches we (ESPN scouts) have ever seen."

Harbaugh comes to Michigan from San Francisco following four seasons that saw the 49ers flourish and play in the 2012 Super Bowl ahead of an ugly 2014 season that ended in an 8-8 record and no playoffs.

"This year, injuries just killed 'em," Horton said, "but they were doing things ahead of their time all the while Harbaugh was there. Heavy packages, unbalanced offensive lines. I believe he'll hire a great staff at Michigan and you'll see the same things."

Reese joined with Horton in saying Monday that Harbaugh's staggering payday would work for all parties. It would keep the NFL from poaching a man Michigan absolutely requires following failures by Hoke and his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez. And it would tell Harbaugh, and Michigan's football-crazy galaxy, that a coach uniquely crafted for the Wolverines job could, at age 51, think about retiring in Ann Arbor.

"There's probably not a lot of downside when you look at it from Michigan's perspective," Reese said. "Obviously, he's a Michigan man to begin with (Wolverines quarterback 1982-86), plus he's an outstanding football coach who has had success in college (San Diego, Stanford) and in the NFL.

"He understands recruiting in that region (Midwest), and he's great at working with young kids, so you're probably killing two or three birds with one stone.

"It's hard to get more impressive academically than Stanford, so that's a fit with Michigan. And at the same time, the other side is he has no GM he has to deal with on the pro side. He can pretty much pick his own players at Michigan and decide how he wants to recruit.

"If you're a young athlete anywhere in the country, you probably look at Michigan now with a little different perspective," Reese said. "I just love that campus. And now you've got running the football team a pedigreed Michigan guy."

Any man's custody of a college football program satisfies the critics only if you're winning. And for Harbaugh that means retooling a Michigan team that was 12-13 the past two seasons and this week is sitting home while Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and even Minnesota are playing in New Year's Day bowl games.

"With that team right now, he has to hire a really good offensive coordinator and a really good defensive coordinator," said Brandt, who repeated words from last month that Big Ten competition has delivered a different reality to Michigan compared with its 1968-2007 heyday.

"Michigan State is much improved, Ohio State is much improved, and the new guy at Wisconsin is good," Brandt said of Paul Chryst, who replaces Gary Andersen after Andersen moved to Oregon State. "But the guy (Harbaugh) will work. He is a relentless worker. The only thing in life he wanted other than to play was to be a good football coach. And he is."

Brandt created a ruckus on Twitter two weeks ago when he said Duke's head coach, David Cutcliffe, had been offered the Wolverines job. Cutcliffe and Duke later said UM had made no such invitation.

Brandt said Monday he stood by his sources and that, typical of coaching searches and their back-channel overtures, parties are often able to say, with plausible denial, that conversations never took place. Brandt insisted there had been contact between the parties.

Horton, who has seen his share of UM players through the years, acknowledged Monday that the Wolverines this season "didn't look very physical — didn't look like they had the athletes" and that Harbaugh will need to steadily polish his roster.

But as much as one man can influence a team and a university's football pride, Horton said Harbaugh is, at this point in Michigan's timeline, peerless.

"He can grind on you, he's a perfectionist," Horton said. "He stays on you. But his players, and his coaches, respect him. I really don't think Harbaugh cares if he offends anyone if he thinks he's right. He couldn't care less.

"But what I think can happen is that he can stay there a long time. He'll have total freedom, and recruiting isn't the wearing, year-round ordeal it used to be. It's not quite as taxing because the kids are committing earlier, and he'll get most of his recruiting done at summer camps.

"But if I'm Ohio State," Horton said, "I'm scared today. I shouldn't be afraid. But the landscape has changed. There's a new challenge in town, and I just have to believe Harbaugh will relish going against Ohio State.

"If I'm a Michigan fan today, I'm pretty excited."