Long before the Los Angeles Chargers offered him millions of dollars, the possibilities of a power limited only by imagination to return to the NFL, Jim Harbaugh's legacy was already etched in the brick and stone of Michigan Stadium.
Harbaugh is a legend, not just because he became the first coach in history to win a national championship after missing half of his team's regular season games. He is a legend for taking nine years to complete the task. He is a legend for bringing back one of the most traditional programs in existence.
At times, Harbaugh's tenure has been confusing and embarrassing. But it was done his way.
Connor went on a 10-game winning streak with Jake Rudock, the same coach who hired the Stallions. In an era of spectacular offensive evolution, Michigan won with a punishing rushing attack and a defense that would put a boa constrictor to shame. Of course, it was boring at times, but it was also very interesting.
He's a legend who has run the Buckeyes into the ground ever since they were nearly run out of town by rival Ohio State. A legend to surpass (perhaps) his mentor, Bo Schembechler. A legend for re-introducing worn-out clichés like player loyalty and the daily training grind. (Michigan quarterbacks were tackled on the field during his first spring game in 2015.)
Never mind questions about how Harbaugh made his alma mater popular again. After all, Coach Khaki is leaving town with two NCAA investigations hanging over the program. But if you claw your way through all the layers of Jim Harbaugh, one thing becomes clear: He leaves better places than he finds. San Diego, Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers, Michigan — they all improved during meetings with Harbaugh. They would all kill to get him back, which is perhaps the yardstick by which to measure a truly legendary coach.
Never mind that Harbaugh can be an acquired taste. When he accepted the Michigan job, I asked the former Stanford executive for the Harbaugh story. The man grumbled as he struggled to come up with a positive quote to use on the record.
The big story is the Harbaugh program, school and school bending game to his will. Man defied the gravity of balance College footballThe spread offense and the mighty SEC.
Ann Arbor, Michigan is like no other. If time at other programs and countless NCAA investigations have taught us anything, it's that other things ultimately don't mean much. The NCAA can't take away the Wolverines' 2023 national championship; Remember, the association does not sponsor a championship at the FBS level. That would leave the decision in the hands of the College Football Playoff, who, quite frankly, wouldn't have the stones to make such a move.
The Stallions can deliver Big Ten playbooks inside the football building. Michigan doesn't need to cheat; The Wolverines went 15-0 outscoring opponents by 30 points per game.
Harbaugh will be long gone before the NCAA wins. When, and if, the sentence is handed down, they will be roasting his name up and down State Street in Ann Arbor.
Nearly a decade into Harbaugh's tenure, the rebuilding of the Michigan football program has taken longer than expected. It was doubly difficult because the only standard in that streak — beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten and competing for a national championship — was the goal. It wasn't long ago that Harbaugh was a major part of the problem as his teams were responsible for the last half of an eight-game losing streak to “The Team Down South.”
As Harbaugh went down, the season was marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wolverines went 2-4 in 2020 and his job was on the line. He accepted a 50% pay cut in a revised contract in an effort to help fix the ship and get work on track.
“It's some dark days because you play for Michigan and you have to be on the biggest stage,” offensive lineman Trevor Keegan told CBS Sports.
In the depths of that tragic 2020 season, Harbaugh sent an email to his players. The details are still sketchy years later, but the missive described how Michigan was going to dig its way out.
Since then, Michigan has lost three times in three seasons. That number matches the number of consecutive Big Ten titles, CFP appearances and wins over Ohio State during that stretch.
It must have been some email. Only a coach could have written it.
With Harbaugh, you also get Jim's world. In Gym World, a trainer is/is a man followed by both his loyal players and … his hand-raised chickens. His press conferences can go into the stratosphere.
He climbed trees to impress recruits. Knowing of his love for the restaurant chain, Cracker Barrel sent Harbaugh a rocking chair engraved with his name. That spring, the coach kept the prize closer to his desk than the TV remote.
After returning to his alma mater in 2015, Harbaugh hired the Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator as his first QB coach. That man is Jed Fish, who recently accepted the head coaching job at Washington after running the Arizona program.
Never mind, the man probably used a plastic spoon and a dentist's drill to carve his name into the side of The Big House. His way worked — to him.
Oh, he might break some china (figuratively), confuse his athletic director (literally), stroke some egos and experiment with a scheme, but college football has always been a zero-sum game. You either achieve or you don't.
“He's not perfect,” Schembechler's son Shemi once said of Harbaugh, “but he's the closest we have here.”
Harbaugh made it to the point where he will one day — maybe soon — be considered the greatest coach in Michigan history. Bigotry? Schembechler never won a title. Lloyd Carr shared his. Fritz Chrysler's national championship in 1947 — the last outright title win for Michigan before this past season — was achieved in 10 games. The 2023 Michigan team won all 15, never allowing any opponent to score more than 24 points. That boa constrictor never gave up.
As a player, it's hard to remember Harbaugh being Michigan's first 300-yard rusher. His career passing efficiency number topped the NCAA record books for 12 straight years. A Big Ten MVP, he finished third in the 1986 Heisman Trophy voting. He's more Michigan than Great Lakes.
Harbaugh says it over and over again that it can wear on you. With San Diego, Stanford and the 49ers, Harbaugh lasted more than four years. During his run with San Francisco, he led the Niners to three NFC Championship Game appearances. Super Bowl.
In each case, Harbaugh took those programs to unprecedented heights. In the 68-year history of San Diego football, no coach has accomplished the 11-1 seasons that Harbaugh did in 2005 and 2006. He had the biggest win in Stanford football history. The 49ers have not been back to the Super Bowl since Harbaugh's final year in 2012, where he lost against his brother John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens.
Now, both Jim and John Harbaugh can win championships in their respective sports within 34 days. John coaches Baltimore in Sunday's AFC Championship game. Jim, meanwhile, returns to the pros to become the fourth coach to win a national championship and a Super Bowl.
I was asked at CBS Sports headquarters if there is a path for Harbaugh to return to Michigan one day. One way? A national championship victory will be followed by a parade competition.
Reaching the national title milestone factored into Harbaugh's decision Wednesday. He did everything he could at Michigan. When Harbaugh finally left Houston's NRG Stadium shortly before midnight following his final on-camera interview after the CFP National Championship, it turned out to be a walk, literally and figuratively.
Can you blame him?
“No. He's a competitor,” Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy said before the Rose Bowl. “A national championship year and [another shot at] A Super Bowl, I could see him trying to get it. Finish his business at sunset.”