The University of Michigan may have just found their “Michigan Man”.
Just two day after coaching the San Francisco 49ers to a 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Jim Harbaugh signed a seven-year, $35 million deal to become the head coach of his alma mater, the University of Michigan.
He leaves the 49ers after one of the best four-year coaching stints in NFL history. He led the 49ers, who had been a laughing stock for the past several years, to three straight NFC Championships in his first three years. The team won the game in 2013, and nearly won Super Bowl 47 against the Baltimore Ravens. Prior to that season, they fell in the championship game to the New York Giants, and in early 2014, they lost the conference championship against the Seattle Seahawks. Each of those years, the 49ers’ season ended with a loss to that year’s Super Bowl Champion.
But this past season was a different story. Prior to the season even starting, rumors about a potential split between the coach and team were swirling, and potentially sabotaged the season, along with injuries to various players.
Still, Harbaugh led the team to 44 wins in his four seasons. He has also had success in his two previous college coaching stints. First, he led the University of San Diego to 29 wins in his three years from 2004-2006, including a pair of 11-1 seasons in the latter two season.
Over the next four years, Harbaugh led Stanford University’s football program back to relevancy. The team went 4-8 and 5-7 in his first two years, highlighted by a massive 24-23 road upset at then top-ranked USC in late 2007, keying his high profile rivalry with then USC, and current Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
In 2009, the Stanford Cardinal really started to resemble what Harbaugh had envisioned, going 8-5, and making it to the Sun Bowl. The record may not be anything special, but the team was much better than that. They defeated then eleventh-ranked USC on the road, by a score of 55-21, just a week after upsetting seventh-ranked Oregon 51-42. Running back Toby Gerhart nearly won the Heisman Trophy, freshman quarterback Andrew Luck garnered heavy praise, and the Harbaugh regime was fully flourishing.
This was never more prevalent than the 2010 season, in which the Cardinal went 11-1 in the regular season. The team’s lone loss came at eventual NCAA runner up Oregon, in a game where the Cardinal led 21-3 after the first quarter. However, the Ducks outscored Stanford 49-10 the rest of the way, prevailing 52-31.
Barring that loss, the success for Stanford was sensational. The team scored at least 31 points in all but one game, and at least 40 in six. They won the Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech by a score of 40-12, and finished the season ranked fourth overall.
However, Harbaugh decided to leave Stanford for the San Francisco 49ers in January 2011, and had his best success there. Now, he heads back to his alma mater, where he quarterbacked the team to a Fiesta Bowl win after the 1985 season, and a Rose Bowl berth in 1986. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year, and had a solid NFL career thereafter.
In 2002, his first year after retiring from playing, Harbaugh became the quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders. That year, Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon won the NFL MVP award, and led the team to the Super Bowl. After spending one more year there, Harbaugh agreed to become the University of San Diego’s football coach, and the rest is history.
Whether or not Harbaugh will lead the Michigan Wolverines back to respectability is a very intriguing storyline, the reality is that he has been successful wherever he’s gone. Success may not come immediately, but if history serves to be a reliable reference, Jim Harbaugh just might be the coach that can restore the decaying walls of the once hallowed football program.