These days, that word feels like it carries a different meaning when it comes to the lexicon of college football. OK, during these strangest of college football times, every word feels like it carries an altered definition from the one it was assigned oh so many years ago. Like, I dunno, 2019?
As Jim Harbaugh departs the college game for the NFL Cinematic Universe, completing his trilogy of transitions from campus to the big leagues — Michigan to the Chicago Bears as a QB in 1987, Stanford to the San Francisco 49ers as a head coach in 2011 and now Michigan to the Los Angeles Chargersalso as head coach — we find ourselves tasked with characterizing the legacy of a decidedly different sort of college football character.
Earlier this month, that was an easy task when it came to Nick Saban (the GOAT!) and even Jerry Kill (the scrappy program reviver!). But when it comes to the Michigan Man who just left Michigan, it’s not that simple. Nothing about Jim Harbaugh ever is.
He is as befuddling as he is beloved. Misunderstood by at least as many people as he is revered. If the college football world were a Facebook page, we would all — Wolverines and otherwise — have to click on the relationship status line that reads, “It’s complicated.”
I’m willing to wager that most people reading these words right now might think Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor was a relatively short one. But it was not. He spent nine full seasons on the sidelines of The Big House. That is three times longer than his first head-coaching stint at San Diego and more than twice as long as his four year terms on The Farm and up the road with the Niners.
Those same people might believe he struggled mightily during the first half of his near-decade at Michigan. Again, he did not. His teams posted three 10-3 records and averaged more than nine wins per year over his first five seasons, earning five straight New Year’s bowl berths.
That perception of failure comes from that handful of games in which Harbaugh did struggle, the 18 losses that countered those 48 wins, most of which came in the only games anyone dressed in blue truly cares about, a pile of defeats against Michigan State and Ohio State and a 1-4 record in those postseason games through 2019. His 2020 pandemic season brought an abysmal and abbreviated 2-4 mark.
But the three years since represent what might very well be the greatest multiple-season run in the Wolverines’ 145-year history: a record of 40-3 with three straight wins over Ohio State, three consecutive Big Ten championships, three College Football Playoff appearances in a row and, this year, and the program’s first unanimous national title since 1948.
All of that time, all nine years, was punctuated with a seemingly endless litany of stories that felt bizarre as they happened; but with the benefit of even some short hindsight, we can now view them as images of a man with willingness to buck the college football system.
Call it pioneering. Call it wild. Just as long as you wind up calling it all unique.
Since June 2015, his first year on the job, our brains have been seared with the vision of shirtless 51-year-old Harbaugh slinging passes during his coaching staff’s “Summer Swarm” barnstorming football camp tour. But what you might have forgotten since is the mission behind that road trip, holding workouts in Florida, California, Pennsylvania and — gulp — Alabama. His QB skins game was held in Prattville, about 90 minutes from Tuscaloosa. Even now, the Yellowhammer State message boards are crimson with anger.
It was two years later that he led his team into Rome. The one in Italy — not the ones in Alabama or Ohio — where Harbaugh sang opera and gifted Pope Francis with a maize and blue helmet.
There is no word to describe the inner beauty that shines through the eyes of our Holy Father and his words… “Pray for me” pic.twitter.com/doUpeajuRp
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) April 26, 2017
In the years that followed, the Wolverines walked alongside their coach onto the beaches of Normandy and through the streets of Paris and South Africa. The trips were pricey (the tabs were picked up by Michigan donors) and were criticized by non-Wolverines as grandstanding. But at worst, they were unconventional, and as Harbaugh himself pointed out, college basketball programs had made similar trips for decades.
Then, as we all remember, there were the wacky recruiting tales. Harbaugh mimicking DJ Khaled’s “How’s business? Boomin’!” to try to lure a California defensive back. Harbaugh climbing a tree in a recruit’s front yard to prove his own NFL-honed upper-body strength. Harbaugh sleeping on the couch of top-ranked kicker Quinn Nordin so they could have a conversation the moment the recruiting dead period ended at midnight that night, only the first of a slew of sleepovers he’d planned for that winter.
And we haven’t even mentioned the khakis.
But while we were all cracking jokes about the coach’s quirkiness, all of those goofy stories proved to be building blocks for what was to come. The barnstorming into the Deep South and out West? This year’s national championship roster included eight players from Georgia, seven from Florida, five from Tennessee, at least one representative from Louisiana and South Carolina and even one from Alabama. Those overseas trips resulted in days of live coverage on “SportsCenter” and, in the words of Wolverines assistant coach Mike Hart, “So many recruits asking us, ‘Where are we going next year?”‘ And as for those kooky social-media-saturating tales from the recruiting trail, Harbaugh’s inaugural 2015 Michigan haul was ranked 40th by ESPN. By 2019, it was up to eighth, having finally made a run through the SEC talent blockade. The next year’s group included Blake Choir, Roman Wilson and the core of this year’s CFP-winning roster.
Then again, that class came with an accompanying NCAA investigation into recruiting violations that ran afoul of the restrictions implemented because of the pandemic. This is also the part where Harbaugh critics will remind us of his two separate three-game suspensions this season, with investigations ongoing into both the recruiting violations and, of course, the sign-stealing mess that doesn’t show any, ahem, signs of going away anytime soon. Even now, after the man who was CEO of the program accused of implementing a way-too-nuanced signal-deciphering network, has packed up his khakis and headed back to the pros, the cloud hangs over the program.
So, we find ourselves once again staring at that trisyllabic word that, these days, carries so much more heft and complication than its six little letters would suggest.
If you rise and fall each day humming “Hail to the Victors,” then the Jim Harbaugh legacy might very well be simple to you. He came home pledging to return his alma mater to college football’s top rung, and he did just that. There’s a big ol’ silver and gold trophy that was just put in Schembechler Hall to prove it. But the reality is there won’t be a period at the end of his block-M chapter until the investigators are done and their final reports are read aloud. When that will happen, no one knows. When it does, it might all prove to be much ado about nothing. But it could also go in a very different, very destructive direction.
Then, and only then, will we truly know what the Jim Harbaugh legacy will be. All we know for certain right now is that he will not be in Ann Arbor when that happens.