Wojo: Harbaugh is fiery leader UM needs

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Jim Harbaugh quarterbacks Michigan during its loss to Arizona State on Jan. 1, 1987, at the Rose Bowl.

It was never implausible, no matter how many times you heard it was. But getting to this day, when Michigan football landed one of the biggest names in coaching, required an incredible series of events — some fortuitous, some planned — all wrapped in a singular mission.

Michigan was sick of getting humbled, tired of sitting on stashes of untapped passion and desperate to compete again. And Jim Harbaugh was ready to return to a place that wanted him and understood him, and would not be denied.

How could Michigan afford to dole out a reported $48 million over six or eight years for Harbaugh? Please. How could it afford not to?

Harbaugh will be introduced at noon today as Michigan's head coach, a move that has spurred almost spiritual giddiness in Ann Arbor. He's expected to make an appearance at the Michigan-Illinois basketball game, and tickets were gobbled up at premium prices. Across college football, Harbaugh news superseded almost everything, including the buildup to the inaugural playoff Jan. 1, because it's virtually unprecedented for a successful NFL coach to return to college.

This was the culmination of stealth and savvy by interim athletic director Jim Hackett, who will stay around for a while after pulling off this coup. He was backed by key donors and former players, as well as former coach Lloyd Carr. It was a low-key search that really was a recruitment, with backup candidates rumored but never substantiated.

Now, Captain Comeback is coming back, and the task is much larger than merely guaranteeing victory over Ohio State, as Harbaugh did in 1986 as Michigan's quarterback. He delivered then and seems equipped to deliver immediate results now. He's hard-driven and quirky, known to stock up on his trademark $8 khaki pants at Wal-Mart. Early in his coaching career, he famously ran sprints with his players until he vomited.

Harbaugh, 51, may be difficult for some to handle, as evidenced by his mutual parting from the 49ers. But as stated repeatedly here, Michigan needed a fearless, ruthless leader, and he uniquely fits. This was the loudest statement Michigan could make — short of, you know, actually winning Big Ten titles again — and it had to be made.

It was a statement to rivals that had taken over, to Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Mark Dantonio at Michigan State. It was a statement for the Big Ten, whose profile is raised by Harbaugh's arrival.

The statement wasn't made against all odds, but they were stacked odds. Consider that the new school president, Mark Schlissel, arrived from Brown University with notions that college sports were getting too big. Then came the ouster of athletic director Dave Brandon, after a series of gaffes that included the mishandling of quarterback Shane Morris' concussion. And oh by the way, Brandon's hand-picked coach, Brady Hoke, was on his way to a 5-7 record in his fourth season.

When Brandon resigned under pressure on Halloween, did anything positive seem remotely possible? And yet actually, that turned out to be the event that set everything in motion. Hackett was named the interim, and showed the guile and patience to deliver what Michigan needed. Heck, if the Wolverines had played football with such determination, they wouldn't have needed Hackett or Harbaugh.

Hackett knows Harbaugh's dad, Jack, very well, and played at Michigan when Jack was an assistant under Bo Schembechler. Connections only work if they're genuine, and by all accounts, Hackett is a sincere and gifted communicator. But remember, Michigan was barely halfway through its season, and the 49ers were 7-5 and still considered a playoff contender.

The Wolverines kept falling, including a 23-16 home loss to Maryland that effectively killed their bowl hopes. At the same time, the 49ers were stumbling, and a long-simmering dispute between Harbaugh and 49ers executives was lit anew. After San Francisco lost to Seattle 19-3 on Thanksgiving, owner Jed York tweeted out an apology for the team's performance, a not-so-veiled shot at Harbaugh.

Hoke was fired Dec. 2, three days after losing to Ohio State. If the Wolverines had squeaked out one more victory, they'd have spent December practicing for a bowl, with Hoke likely still in charge and overtures to Harbaugh on hold.

If the 49ers had won a couple more games, they'd be preparing for the playoffs, with Harbaugh still in charge. Amid all the imperfections, it became perfect timing for Michigan, which simply could wait as the 49ers' situation deteriorated.

On top of that, Michigan was the only viable suitor in position to talk to Harbaugh or his agents. He had a year left on his contract, leaving NFL suitors on the sideline to avoid tampering charges. Hackett and others at Michigan used the advantage wisely, and did it quietly.

Finally, after seven years of listing and losing to its rivals under Hoke and Rich Rodriguez, Michigan made a direct, authoritative move, consequences be damned. As recently as a week ago, many in the NFL still scoffed at the idea of Harbaugh heading to Ann Arbor, but Hackett's people obviously knew more.

Schlissel apparently stayed out of the way. Other candidates stayed out of the fray. The Board of Regents let Hackett do his job, and it probably didn't take the hardest sell. Harbaugh's affection for Schembechler is well-documented. Once asked about performance-enhancing drugs, Harbaugh responded, "If you cheat to win, then you've already lost, according to Bo Schembechler. Bo Schembechler is about as next to the word of God as you can get, in my mind."

Quotes like that make everyone goose-pimply in Ann Arbor, and Harbaugh's NFL exploits surely will resonate with recruits. He's considered one of the top coaches in football, leading the 49ers to a 49-22-1 record and reaching the NFC title game three straight times. Before that, he turned around Stanford. Before that, he turned around the University of San Diego.

It's as if Harbaugh kept graduating — three-to-four years at each stop — until the timing was right for a post-graduate degree. It took wooing, no doubt. It took dollars, making Harbaugh among the highest-paid coaches in the country, up there with Nick Saban and Meyer. It took relentlessness, amid nagging insistence from NFL types that Harbaugh would never, ever leave the pros.

More than anything, it took a connection, and people driven to make it work. There's no guarantee Harbaugh will win big or stay forever, and Michigan's return to contention has suffered false starts before. But this one feels about as real as it gets.