'Right guy, right time': Ex-players moved by Harbaugh hire

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh hugs former teammate Gerald White, a running back who played at Michigan from 1983-86.

Ann Arbor – Ed Muransky was among the guys who used to chase a young Jim Harbaugh around the University of Michigan practice field. He was also among the guys who would on occasion tape young Jimmy to a locker to keep him out of their way.

"Words cannot express, not just for me but for every Michigan football man or anyone who ever went to Michigan – it's kind of a rebirth," said Muransky, who played from 1979-81. "We're not used to this. We're not used to losing. We're not used to being irrelevant in the national championship race, let alone in the Big Ten.

"To get somebody who gets it like our brother Jim Harbaugh, it's just a special day for anyone who is a Wolverine and it's a lot of hope for the future."

John Duerr was a walk-on outside linebacker who played with Harbaugh at Michigan. He was born in southern California. When Harbaugh and Andy Moeller decided they wanted to head west for a vacation after their final season, Duerr let them roam the Pacific coast in his old, green Volkswagen van, which has become forever known as the "Lime Green Love Machine."

"This is a monumental day," Duerr said. "This is as big a day for Michigan football as we've had since the national championship or since Bo came or since Bo died. I came here today to see history.

"Nobody knows my name. I am not in any of the record books. But I was a teammate of his and I wanted to be here for this."

Jeff Cohen was playing at Michigan when Harbaugh's father Jack was still an assistant coach and he was still there when young Jim showed up as a brash, freshman quarterback. He was in that fateful first meeting when Harbaugh showed up late and Bo Schembechler told him he would never play a down at Michigan.

"I haven't stopped smiling all weekend," Cohen said. "A lot of guys are going to have chills today. It's hard not to get emotional."

Cohen recalled the last time players from all 20 of Schembechler's teams got together before he died. A player from each decade was selected to make a presentation. Harbaugh represented the 1980s. Several players on Tuesday were remembering his speech from that day.

"He told the story," Cohen said. "It was the week before his senior season and he was watching film in (assistant coach) Jerry Hanlon's office. Jimmy said, 'So coach, how do you think we're going to be this year?' And Hanlon said, 'Well, Jim, I don't know.' And Jim said, 'What do you mean you don't know. The season starts in a week.'

"Hanlon said, 'The real mark of what kind of team we are will be known 20 years down the road when we see what kind of fathers you guys become and what kind of husbands you become and what kind of men you become.' That was pretty cool. That's what stuck with Jim and it kind of tells you about his foundation."

Emotional moment

Former Michigan quarterback Rick Leach used to play catch with a 9-year-old Harbaugh before and after practice. There were times when he'd literally have to chase him off the field during practice. Leach was not at Harbaugh's press conference Tuesday but he became extremely emotional during a radio interview on WTKA in Ann Arbor Tuesday morning.

"To watch what he's done and to know his family and to know his background, and for him to come back to Michigan, it's like my own son coming to be the head coach," said Leach, his voice cracking. "I love him and I can't wait to see him operate."

Leach, like so many former players in recent years, has been distraught over the decline of Michigan football – not only in terms of wins and losses, but in the fracturing of the Michigan family.

"Nobody except the guys that have been in that huddle, that have put on that helmet, that have paid the price, made the sacrifice, the commitment and hard work – they know what it's like to be successful at Michigan," he said. "We've gone through some rough times. And now everybody understands you don't just throw your helmet out there and say we're Michigan and win football games.

"There is nobody better in America right now than Jim Harbaugh to come and take our program."

Duerr agreed with that.

"There is nobody they could have hired that would galvanize this program like him," he said. "He has brought everybody in faster than you could have imagined."

Stan Edwards, who played in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said some of the former players had gotten to the point where they were reassessing the expectations for the program, like maybe it wasn't realistic to expect Michigan to compete on a level with Alabama, LSU and others.

"We were asking ourselves, are our expectations really too high for what we think Michigan football should be in this millennium?" Edwards said. "Why are the LSUs, the Florida States and Alabamas up there all the time and should we expect that for our program?

"Not even having to answer that question, Jim coming here today, it's like, OK. We're back. It's a game-changer. It's like game on."

United front

Jon Falk, the legendary equipment manager (and so much more) at Michigan for 40 years who was often responsible for keeping an eye on the rambunctious young Harbaugh in the early days, was so fired up Tuesday he intimated he might come out of retirement.

"It's a time now for everybody to come together at Michigan and get behind everybody here," he said. "We want Michigan to win again and whatever it takes, that's what we have to do. Every one of us, every Michigan person, let's get together and do it.

"I told Jimmy I would do anything I could to help us win games."

John Kolesar played two seasons with Harbaugh. When they would pull into stadiums on game day they would say to each other -- it's a Blue Day, meaning it was time to shine. Kolesar said it again Tuesday -- inside and outside, it was a Blue Day.

"He's the right guy for this," he said. "He knows how to handle pressure. He knows what to do, how to coach, how to get a team together, how to get fans to support it. There are no issues for him to do what he needs to do to be successful.

"He's going to do it the same way he's done it at every step of his career. Clearly that recipe is successful. He's going to energize the alumni. He's going to energize the fan base. But he's got a lot of work to do. This is a great day but tomorrow is a new day and he's got a lot of work to do."

John Wangler, the quarterback at Michigan prior to Harbaugh, had a proud expression on his face as he watched the press conference Tuesday.

"Jimmy was great; he killed it," he said. "What you see is what you get, and we got the best."

Wangler was asked if it was fair to say the hiring of Harbaugh has made the Michigan football program and extended family whole again.

"That's a great way of saying it," he said. "We got the right guy at the right time."

Twitter: @cmccosky