Jim Harbaugh is the best hire in the history of Michigan football.
Let me repeat: Jim Harbaugh is the best hire in the 135 years of Michigan football.
No, this isn't a guarantee that Harbaugh will be the best Michigan coach to ever grace the Michigan Stadium sidelines. Bo Schembechler (21 seasons, 79.6 win pct., 13 Big Ten titles) and Fielding H. Yost (25 seasons, 77.8 win pct., 10 Big Ten titles, six national titles) have a strong grip on that honor. Heck, this isn't even a guarantee that Harbaugh will be successful at Michigan, though you'd probably be a sucker to bet against it.
But the Wolverines have never hired a better head football coach than Harbaugh.
As a head coach, Harbaugh has had incredible success at every level, including what's considered to be the pinnacle of football. His first gig was at San Diego, an FCS program, where he led the Toreros to back-to-back 11-1 seasons that still are the best in program history. His next stop was Stanford, a place where academics always have been a priority over athletics. Yet, in Harbaugh's fourth year there, the Cardinal capped a 12-1 season with a 40-12 thrashing of Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Harbaugh then made the leap to the NFL and joined the San Francisco 49ers, where, in his first three seasons, he coached them to three NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl appearance.
How many coaches at any level have that resume? You can count it on two hands.
Now name a previous Michigan coach that had that resume before arriving in Ann Arbor. You can't because none did. Yost was a head coach for four years, all for different schools, before he dominated the college football landscape at Michigan. Harry Kipke spent one year as a head coach at Michigan State before he led the Wolverines to two national titles. Schembechler was Miami's head coach for six seasons, where he won two MAC titles, but the Detroit News' headline when Michigan hired Schembechler was "Bo Who?" Brady Hoke had a sub-.500 record at Ball State and San Diego State before he was tabbed as Michigan's head coach. And Bennie Oosterbaan, Bump Elliott, Gary Moeller, and Lloyd Carr were all U-M assistants before they were promoted to the top job.
The only two former Michigan coaches that could argue they're Michigan's best hire are Fritz Crisler and Rich Rodriguez. Crisler won two national titles at Princeton before bringing the winged helmet to Ann Arbor, and Rodriguez was college football's hottest coaching commodity after transforming West Virginia into a national championship contender with three straight 11-win seasons from 2005 to 2007. But neither Crisler nor Rodriguez coached in the NFL, let alone were successful there, and the cultural tension between Rodriguez and certain Michigan factions has been documented extensively.
There will be no such tension between Harbaugh and Michigan. Though I'm not a fan of what the term has become, Harbaugh is the "Michigan Man" that will -- or already has -- unite the Michigan factions, eliminating the behind-the-scenes politics that have submarined Michigan football for too long. Harbaugh spent his teenage years in Ann Arbor, playing football at Pioneer High School while his father, Jack, coached at Michigan Stadium across the street. He played his college football at Michigan, where he was one of the best, most impassioned quarterbacks to don the winged helmet, leading the Wolverines to a Fiesta Bowl win in 1985 and delivering on his guarantee that Michigan would beat Ohio State in Columbus and win the Big Ten in 1986. He patterns his coaching style after Schembechler, his former college coach and the Michigan legend that he reveres. It's one reason why Michigan alumni, donors, students, former players, and fans have been publicly pining for Harbaugh to come home.
Jim Harbaugh to Michigan
Jim Harbaugh to Michigan
Another reason is that, not only is Harbaugh one of the five best coaches in college football, he is the perfect coach to return Michigan back to national prominence. Harbaugh has never had the privilege of inheriting a football program or franchise that was already humming. At all three of his previous stops, he was handed rebuilding projects. And, at all three, he rebuilt them and then added another story or two. San Diego was 30-29 (50.8 win pct.) in the six seasons before Harbaugh arrived. With Harbaugh: 29-6 (82.9 win pct.). Stanford was 16-40 (28.6 win pct.) under its two coaches prior to Harbaugh, Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. With Harbaugh: 29-21 (58.0 win pct.). The San Francisco 49ers were 39-73 (34.8 win pct.) in the seven seasons before Harbaugh took over. With Harbaugh: 44-19-1 (69.5 win pct), making him the fifth-winningest coach in NFL history. Harbaugh has created a reputation for himself as a rebuilding specialist.
And it's no secret Michigan is a rebuilding project. The Wolverines have been mired in mediocrity, registering only a 46-42 record overall (52.3 win pct.) and 2-12 record against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State the past seven years. They haven't won a Big Ten championship since 2004, which is the longest conference-championship drought Michigan has suffered in a half-century. What we've seen from Michigan the past decade or so has not resembled what you would expect from college football's all-time winningest program. Michigan needed a home-run hire to escape this rut, reinvigorate the fan base, and return U-M to where it belongs: the upper echelon of college football.
The Wolverines did more than that when they hired Harbaugh away from the NFL.
They also made the best coaching hire in the history of their football program.