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Wojo: Harbaugh could be around for long haul

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh believes Midwestern ties trump Big Ten rivalry when it comes to the National Championship game, which is why he is rooting for Ohio State on Monday.

Ann Arbor — He parted the sea of faces and bodies, of former coaches and former teammates, and strode to the podium with a wave and a stumble.

"Don't know if anybody saw me trip on the way in," Jim Harbaugh said with a grin. "A lesser athlete would've gone down!"

With that, Harbaugh was back, confident and self-deprecating, recognizing the fervor without bathing in it. Michigan got the coach it coveted, capping a relentless courtship, and that's one side of it. The other side is, Harbaugh got the job he coveted since he was 9, sitting in Bo Schembechler's chair sparring with the old coach.

Amid the loud and rightful raves for Harbaugh, that has been the only question. How badly did he want it and how long would he stay? It didn't really matter Tuesday, as Michigan football received a staggering jolt of energy, even in the midst of basketball season. When Harbaugh was introduced at halftime of the Michigan-Illinois game, the Crisler Center crowd stood and roared, and cheered to the end of the Wolverines' 73-65 comeback victory.

It was a noisy day in Ann Arbor, that's for sure, and Harbaugh didn't even feed the fever. In a low-key news conference tinged with humor, he deflected all the savior talk and rivalry talk about the Buckeyes and Spartans. There was nothing showy or boastful, and his voice was practically gone before he started, the result of a chilling Gatorade shower after winning his final game with the 49ers.

But Harbaugh didn't hide his passion for the position, or the purpose of his return. He was surrounded by his wife and kids, his parents, and enough friends and former teammates to pack the Junge Center. He has won in college at San Diego and Stanford and in the NFL at San Francisco, never staying longer than four years. Michigan has been a destination in his mind, and now he gets a chance to show it was his ultimate destination, after building programs all across California.

"There's been times in my life when I've thought about it, dreamed about it, and now it's time to live it," Harbaugh said. "I look at it like, I'm going to construct a home. Hopefully it's a great cathedral, and then afterward, they tell you to go build another one. I'm at that point, even though you've done well and built some pretty nice homes, you have to do it again. And you have to prove it again. But I'd really like to live in one permanently; that's what I'm very hopeful for here."

If he wins as most people expect, he can stay as long as he wishes. And he could win fairly quickly, once he settles on a quarterback and toughens up some of Michigan's young, promising talent. No one doubts Harbaugh's ability and no one debates how desperately Michigan needed him. And apparently, it didn't take as much convincing as some thought, especially those who considered him a pro coach for life.

As it turns out, Harbaugh didn't come to be the highest-paid coach in football (at least not yet). His seven-year contract starts at $5 million per season, not the oft-reported $8 million. Deferred compensation and bonuses would push it higher, but it's safe to say, he could've made more sifting through NFL offers.

Interim athletic director Jim Hackett, who skillfully directed the process, said Harbaugh specifically stated he didn't want to make the most money. That didn't fit the narrative that Michigan brought its prodigal son home, but it fit the idea this was where he wanted to be.

"The market we find ourselves in with football coaches has escalated greatly," Hackett said. "Michigan got a really good deal on the best coach in America."

Expectations will escalate greatly too, fair or not. It won't take much to improve on the 5-7 mark in Brady Hoke's final season, but it will take a significant intensity upgrade. Restoring competitive respectability is Harbaugh's first task, and while he declined to make any predictions, he didn't beg for patience, either. When I asked about his plans to turn around the program, he disagreed with the assertion it's a turnaround project.

Harbaugh, 51, grew up with Michigan football while his father, Jack, coached under Schembechler. He played quarterback here, and several times called this a homecoming. Fans call it the arrival of a program saver, or savior, but Harbaugh isn't biting.

"I'm not comfortable with that at all," he said. "I'm standing on a foundation that's been built for over 100 years by some great men. I feel like I'm standing on their tall, tall shoulders."

This was different than the brash Harbaugh from his playing days, and he's going to be a fascinating, unpredictable character. But remember, the games are nine months away, and he has no idea what type of team he really has.

So while Ohio State and Michigan State have beaten up on Michigan the past seven-plus years, Harbaugh isn't prepared to lob any volleys. The first shots probably will come on the recruiting trail, not from the coach's mouth.

"(Michigan State and Ohio State) are outstanding programs," Harbaugh said. "I make no guarantees. I made a guarantee a long time ago (as Michigan's quarterback) and I've learned from that. I've grown."

Fans hope he hasn't grown up too much to forget what Michigan football was, and craves to be again. He's young in coaching years, young enough to stay on his feet after a slight stumble, driven enough to inspire college players.

In San Francisco, Harbaugh clashed with the front office, and his intensity reportedly grated on pro players. That shouldn't be a problem with kids who want to win and get better, and maybe get to the NFL.

Harbaugh molded Andrew Luck, now one of the top quarterbacks in football, and developed a raw Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers. Michigan has no certainties among its quarterbacks, but it has some eager students.

"It's just awesome," said Shane Morris, a junior-to-be who will compete for the job. "I'm really excited to learn from him. Harbaugh's a big name around the world, and especially in Ann Arbor. Having him as our head coach really magnifies everything."

Magnifies and amplifies. Harbaugh is here for many reasons, for family and legacy and a tremendous opportunity, financial and otherwise. It appears he's here for the right reasons, which means this homecoming could last a while.