Wojo: Harbaugh could still end up coaching Michigan

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

NFL people scoff at it. Why would Jim Harbaugh leave the highest level of football to embark on some crazy back-to-school adventure? Ha-ha. Please.

Michigan people scarf it up. Of course Harbaugh would come back to old Ann Arbor town. He loved Bo! He'd be embraced as a prodigal son with a prodigious jaw!

Dream or pipe dream? It's impossible to say anything definitive today, barely 72 hours since Brady Hoke was fired. Some people are believing what they want to believe, and some are following theories that may be outdated.

I don't pretend to know what (or who) is inside his head, but I'm confident of this: Harbaugh to Michigan is not a pipe dream. And the overriding reason Michigan has a shot (I'm sticking with a 40 percent shot) at luring Harbaugh from San Francisco is because the school actually will take a strong shot this time.

Interim athletic director Jim Hackett knows it can't be cursory, which was the case four years ago. Dave Brandon didn't want to play the wooing game and cede control. But now Michigan football sits at another dangerous juncture, and while Harbaugh isn't the only prime candidate, he's the first and best one, an instant infusion of energy and credibility. And I doubt he'd use his alma mater simply to get a better deal elsewhere. I think he'd tell Michigan if he weren't interested, and he hasn't done that yet.

There's time for this to play out, as Nebraska and Florida just hired coaches who weren't candidates here. Prepare for a dizzy ride and other intriguing names, from Oklahoma's Bob Stoops to Stanford's David Shaw and LSU's Les Miles.

The back-channel machinations have been underway, including the financial aspect. A report a few weeks ago said Michigan billionaire booster Stephen Ross, who owns the Miami Dolphins, would rather see Harbaugh in Ann Arbor than Miami, which could be telling. My sense is, Michigan would pay the prevailing price, in Urban Meyer's $5-6 million salary range.

49ers bosses not happy

The only reason Harbaugh is a possibility for any team is his tenuous standing with the 49ers, where he has clashed with GM Trent Baalke, and where owner Jed York tweeted a public apology after the 49ers' loss to Seattle last week. Harbaugh has one year left on his contract, sparking rumors of the 49ers' trading him to the Raiders, or the Jets, or the Giants, or any NFL team expected to have an opening.

That's why NFL observers are convinced Harbaugh will stay in the pros, because he'll have so many options. But will he? Would he really accept a trade to awful teams in Oakland or New York? Would the 49ers really deal him to a conference foe such as, theoretically, Atlanta or Carolina?

Taking a college job is the only way Harbaugh can stick it to the 49ers, if he so desires, as they seem intent on sticking it to him. After three straight NFC championship game appearances, as well as a Super Bowl loss to the Ravens and his brother John, the 49ers are 7-5 and currently outside the playoff picture.

The traits that could end Harbaugh's tenure in San Francisco — unrelenting intensity, abrasive nature, ego — are the traits Michigan has lacked. Harbaugh grates on pro players, and his style might be better suited for college kids. Is there risk in hiring a coach who, at 50, still could have eyes on the NFL and could burn just as hot here? Sure. But Michigan is in such disarray, a big move is needed.

If you read between the lines of Hackett's comments the other day, you might discern carefully crafted clues directed at Harbaugh himself. Hackett spoke of patience. That's a vital element with the NFL regular season running to the end of the month. He advocated the demise of the Michigan Man moniker. That's interesting, because the label was used against Harbaugh in 2007, when his unflattering comments about Michigan's academic standards were lambasted for being un-Michigan Man-like.

So what to make of the adamant talk that Harbaugh is a pro coach, with no intention of returning to college? It's not an uncharted path, after all. He revived Stanford and went 29-21 in four seasons, and his connection to such a prestigious school probably would resonate with new Michigan president Mark Schlissel.

The theory is, Harbaugh is a pure football guy, a maniacal competitor, and only the NFL embraces that single-mindedness. In college, there are boosters and professors and alumni functions.

An unpredictable winner

There might be legitimate reasons virtually nobody in the NFL believes Harbaugh would take the Michigan job. One possibility — and I'm sorry to point this out, Blue people — is he has indeed become a pro guy, and while Michigan is the only college job he'd consider, recruiting and glad-handing make him queasy. His wife also reportedly loves the San Francisco area, and the family is not inclined to move.

OK, now the flip side. Harbaugh might not have a choice but to move if the 49ers' situation continues to deteriorate, unless he wants a gigantic rebuild with the Raiders across the Bay. Also, it's plausible he has not, personally or publicly, embraced the Michigan job because it just opened, and the Harbaugh family has tons of respect for Hoke.

Perhaps Harbaugh tells Michigan people he'd be interested and tells NFL people something else. In a weird way, it could be like LeBron James, who had NBA observers convinced he'd never go back to Cleveland, and confidants convinced he'd return.

And maybe — here's an odd thought — Harbaugh has no idea what he wants to do because he has no idea what his options will be. In that case, Hackett should be willing to wait, as long as he deems it a reasonable chance. The old spat over Michigan's academics spurred some nastiness, but fences apparently have been mended. If Harbaugh doesn't say he's out anytime soon, that means he'll listen, and Michigan will talk.

There's no need to rush this. Michigan's recruiting class is small, and shrinking, but can be salvaged. And it's not like Michigan has a lot of competition from other college openings. Nebraska just landed an under-the-radar guy in Oregon State's Mike Riley, a good coach who happens to be 61. Florida got Colorado State's Jim McElwain, who has SEC connections.

The 49ers' record the year before Harbaugh got there: 6-10. Stanford's record the year before he got there: 1-11.

Whatever personality quirks and ego traits Harbaugh possesses, he wins. He confounds people sometimes and can be thoroughly unpredictable. That's why you shouldn't believe everything you hear, and why Michigan will keep pressing unless told otherwise.