In Harbaugh, Michigan hopes to find its Saban
RALPH D. RUSSO
Dec. 31, 2014
Michigan needed a game-changer. A coach who could restore the shine to one of college football's jewels. The Wolverines needed their Nick Saban, who pulled Alabama from the muck of mediocrity and made the Crimson Tide champions again.
Jim Harbaugh could be that man for Michigan.
The former Wolverines quarterback is returning to Ann Arbor to coach his alma mater. The 51-year-old signed a seven-year deal to become the new coach at Michigan that will pay him $5 million per season.
Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers parted ways after Sunday's season finale, clearing the way for him to make the wishes of so many Michigan fans come true.
"There are no turnarounds at Michigan," he said Tuesday at his introductory news conference. "This is greatness."
Not lately. The program that has won more games than any in college football history has been searching for answers the last seven years.
Since coach Lloyd Carr stepped down after the 2007 season, Michigan is 46-40 with no Big Ten titles under Rich Rodriguez, who never fit in, and Brady Hoke, who seemed in over his head.
Harbaugh, who played for the revered Bo Schembechler at Michigan, turned Stanford into a West Coast powerhouse after years of Pac-10 cellar-dwelling for the Cardinal.
Then he tried the NFL and his success was resounding and immediate. In the four years Harbaugh was with the 49ers, he won 44 games. In the eight years before Harbaugh got to San Francisco, the 49ers won 46 games.
Michigan fans expect Harbaugh to do for the Wolverines what Saban has done for Alabama. In the 10 years before Saban left the Miami Dolphins and returned to college football with the Tide, Alabama was 67-55. The Tide have won three national titles since Saban took over in 2007.
Michigan fans expect Harbaugh to put Michigan on equal footing with Ohio State and Urban Meyer, who has gone 36-3 in three years with the Buckeyes, beating Michigan every time.
"Of all the rock-star coaches that have been hired in recent years," said Gerry DiNardo, the former LSU coach who now works as an analyst for the Big Ten Network, "if Jim is hired, he will have the biggest challenge, relative to Nick and Urban."
What awaits Harbaugh at Michigan?
Michigan has talent.
Hoke brought some highly touted recruiting classes to Michigan, and the players from his best ones are becoming upperclassmen.
There are building blocks in running backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith, tight end Jake Butt, guard Kyle Kalis, linebackers Joe Bolden and Mike McCray, and defensive backs Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers.
Hoke showed Michigan can still recruit at an elite level. If Harbaugh can develop the four- and five-star recruits Hoke brought in, Michigan should take a step forward next season. Big Ten contention could be just a quarterback away.
Michigan has a huge question mark at quarterback.
Shane Morris was a big-time recruit but has not proved worthy of the hype.
Under Harbaugh, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith went from No. 1 overall draft pick bust to capable NFL starter who took his team to an NFC championship game. In the short-term, Harbaugh will have to make the most of what he's got at quarterback. In the long-term, Michigan fans can dream about Harbaugh bringing an Andrew Luck-level passer to Ann Arbor the way he did at Stanford.
When Alabama hired Saban, the administration pledged its support and got out of the way.
Michigan needs to do the same with Harbaugh. It is doubtful Harbaugh would have accepted the job if he wasn't assured autonomy and support.
It's not just Ohio State that has been dominating Michigan. Michigan State has won six of seven against the Wolverines.
Michigan State is a program built on toughness and player development. Harbaugh needs to bring to Michigan some of what Michigan State has if he is going to flip the in-state rivalry back toward Big Blue.
Harbaugh coming back to college is also huge for the Big Ten.
Michigan has beaten Ohio State once in the last 11 years. When the league's marquee rivalry is one-sided, the conference suffers.
With Harbaugh at Michigan, joining Meyer at Ohio State, James Franklin at Penn State and Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, the Big Ten East has the potential to have four national powers capable of consistently contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/RalphDrussoAP