Published August 20, 2016
Timing is everything.
Jimmy Harbaugh, when he was hired in December 2014 by the University of Michigan to run its football program, was exactly what U-M needed at that moment.
There had been some winning seasons in Ann Arbor post-Lloyd Carr, who retired after the 2007 season, but nothing that was eye-grabbing. The Rich Rodriguez Era was brief (three years) and forgettable. The Brady Hoke Era (four years) was angst-filled.
Michigan wasn’t Michigan.
Teams weren’t scared to play in the “Big House” any longer. When Toledo walks in there and comes out victorious, something’s not right.
There were some bowl games after Carr but there were also too many oddball losses—of both football games and of mystique about the program that roiled the alumni.
Harbaugh, meanwhile, was flaming out in San Francisco with the 49ers. Both he and management were rubbing each other raw.
It all conspired to create the perfect storm for Harbaugh to bolt the NFL and return to his alma mater, where his hiring was hailed by the victors valiant.
Harbaugh was what Michigan football needed.
He proved it in his first season, when only a fluke loss to Michigan State marred what would have been an unquestionably outstanding first campaign.
He proved it on the recruiting trail, where his sometimes unorthodox methods have helped him reel in one big blue chip fish after the other.
And he’s proved it in the 24-hour news cycle, where you almost can’t open up the Internet without seeing Harbaugh splashed all over it.
But if you have ideas that this is Jimmy’s last coaching stop before he hangs up his khakis for good, you’re delusional.
Harbaugh is what Michigan needs—now.
And when he leaves—and I give him five years, tops (and probably less)—that will be what Michigan needs, as well.
Now, this isn’t to say that while he’s at Michigan, the Harbaugh-led Wolverines won’t have any big time success. In fact, they might even win a national championship.
But make no mistake—sooner or later, Harbaugh will rub folks the wrong way in Ann Arbor and/or the NFL will come calling again with some big bucks and another perfect storm will have been created that sends Harbaugh into the sunset.
Have chalk, will travel.
Or in Harbaugh’s case, have a hot motor, will travel.
This isn’t Harbaugh’s fault. It’s who he is. He can’t help that.
Coaches like he don’t plant roots, they plant stakes.
Harbaugh is 52 and he’s already been the head football coach at four different stops, the first three of which lasted an average of 3.7 years.
Even if you want to toss out the University of San Diego (2004-06) as a stepping stone program, Harbaugh still hasn’t shown the proclivity to stay anywhere for any significant amount of time.
But this is Michigan! It’s where he went to school and played quarterback for Bo Schembechler! This is what he’s always wanted to do!
Maybe it’s Harbaugh’s dream job—for now—but the thing about dreams is that you wake up from them, often rudely.
In full disclosure, I didn’t think Harbaugh would leave the NFL for Michigan. I wrote as much and I wasn’t wishy-washy about my views.
I thought the allure of chasing the Vince Lombardi Trophy was too intoxicating. I didn’t think Harbaugh wanted to dive back into the recruiting wars—at least not just yet. Not even for Michigan.
I muffed that one.
So I might not appear to be the best soothsayer out there when it comes to portending Jim Harbaugh’s future.
But I do know that just because he surprised me and left the NFL for Michigan, that doesn’t mean that he won’t take another head coaching job somewhere else, and sooner than Go Blue fans would like to think.
Harbaugh runs hot. He doesn’t idle. His internal governor isn’t wired to idle.
This was on display last week when Harbaugh got miffed at reporters’ questions about suspended players and their length of punishment. Legitimate questions that required answers, even if the answers were destined to be pat.
But Harbaugh’s hot engine without the ability to idle kicked in and he came off looking petulant and in mid-season, evasive form—in August.
I give Harbaugh three more years at Michigan, four max. His contract signed on December 30, 2014 was for seven years. He’ll never fulfill it.
Harbaugh will determine that his work at Michigan is done—or others will determine it for him. There’ll be a buyout, an amicable split. Maybe it will be contentious behind the scenes. Whatever.
Then it will be back to the pros, most likely. I don’t see another college job luring him away.
By then Harbaugh will be in his mid-50s, still young enough to make his mark elsewhere. But maybe at that point the engine will start to run a little cooler.
Jim Harbaugh is the kind of coach whose last job won’t be known until he stops coaching. Until then, it will be anyone’s guess how many more stops he has left in him.
Again, that’s not his fault. I’m not criticizing him for it. That’s just who he is.
But he’s what Michigan needed on December 30, 2014. And vice versa.
Timing is everything.