"We’re going to play in the Rose Bowl this year, I guarantee it. We’ll beat Ohio State and we’ll be in Pasadena on January 1st."
That was Jim Harbaugh as a quarterback at the University of Michigan, always confident in his abilities and always believing in the team. The concept of a team might’ve come naturally for Harbaugh, but the ideas and best practices were hammered home by legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler and father Jack, a former assistant coach under Bo.
This is Jim Harbaugh now, a man who has been through all areas of football and has succeeded. He could’ve stayed in the NFL, became a legend rebuilding another organization.
He didn’t. He decided to come home.
He’s had his moment to shine as a player, to lead his team as a quarterback. Now, after all the years gone by, it's time to quarterback Michigan in a different way. This is his time. This is his moment. This is his team as a head coach.
And what a winding path it was to get here.
The end of the Lloyd Carr era
On November 19, 2007 Lloyd Carr announced to the world that he would be retiring as head coach at the University of Michigan effective after the bowl game. Carr finished his career with a 122-40 overall record at Michigan, which included a National Championship.
The pressure was on Michigan to find its next "Michigan Man" to succeed Carr and to continue Michigan’s tradition of winning. The logical answer was LSU’s head coach Les Miles. He was a proven winner with deeply entrenched history with Michigan and Schembechler. It was a home run, a sure thing and even a "can't miss" situation.
Or so they thought.
For reasons that are likely deserving of its own story, Miles turned down Michigan and elected to sign a contract extension with LSU shortly before its National Championship game appearance. Michigan missed out on their Michigan Man. It was a shocking development.
What was even more shocking was the hiring decision that came next.
Michigan would come to terms with West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez, an up-and-coming offensive genius that many thought would dominate the Big Ten Conference.
Again, so the Michigan faithful thought.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Harbaugh was getting a chance to prove him at the highest level of college football.
A young Harbaugh was rising through the ranks as head coach at the University of San Diego. After spending three seasons there, while compiling a 29-6 overall record and losing only once to a conference opponent, the Stanford Cardinal came calling.
Stanford was a mess, coming off a one-win season in 2006 and the task of fixing the program would not be an easy one.
However, just like at Michigan, no moment is too big for Harbaugh. He won four games in his first year. Nothing overwhelming, but it’s a start. Harbaugh would also increase the teams overall record each year until finishing his coaching career at Stanford in 2011 with a 12-win season, a BCS bowl victory, and coaching a certain quarterback named Andrew Luck.
Harbaugh, the head coach, was increasing his value quickly. Others didn’t waste any time noticing.
Rich Rodriguez was fired by Michigan on January 5, 2011 after finishing three seasons with a lackluster 15-22 record.
After hiring someone that was outside of the "Michigan family", many believed that getting back to its roots was important. A familiar face once again popped up on the radar, LSU’s Miles was again subjected to intense rumors and speculation that he would accept Michigan’s offer the second time around.
Just like in 2007, the outcome did not change. Miles would once again decline the Michigan job and accept another contract extension from the Tigers.
Finally, an opportunity, was this Harbaugh’s chance to come back home and coach for a program he adores?
No one knows exactly what happened between Harbaugh and Michigan during the coaching search of 2011. Were there real discussions between the two sides? Did Harbaugh "flake" out to pursue other opportunities? That might forever be a mystery. To add to the reocurring theme of coaching search misfortune, Michigan once again missed out on a former player as head coach.
Regardless of affiliation, the NFL was calling. To top it all off, he didn’t have to leave the state he's lived in for years.
Harbaugh was announced as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers on January 7, 2011 to help bring back an organization to its glory days. On the other end of the spectrum, Michigan announced Brady Hoke, a former assistant coach at Michigan, as head coach on January 11.
At first, it appeared the two sides would be fine without each other. However, after a few years, it would be clear who needed the other more.
Both Hoke and Harbaugh hit the ground running with their teams in the first year. Hoke finished his first season at Michigan with 11-wins and a BCS Bowl victory and was making an impact on the recruiting trail. Meanwhile, Harbaugh finished his first season as an NFL head coach with 13-wins, only to lose in the NFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl Champions New York Giants.
After Hoke's first season, which included a victory over arch-rival Ohio State, success was hard to come by for Michigan.
Post-Hoke/The Perfect Storm
The events that led to Hoke’s firing at Michigan were well documented. After continuous embarrassments and teams that were regressing every year, it’s clear that Michigan needed to make a change.
For Harbaugh, things were riding high. He was a coach that made three-straight appearances in the NFC Championship game and was practically a play away from winning the Super Bowl in his second season as a NFL head coach.
There’s no possible way he would even consider the college ranks, he’s an NFL coach now, right?
At first, that could be considered a legitimate thought. However, when mama is calling you home, you listen.
By Harbaugh’s fourth season in the Bay Area, the relationship between him and the 49er front office was wearing thin and it was also highly documented publicly. As the season wore on, that relationship was non-existent and many thought, and reported, he would not return to the team regardless of what the 49ers did that season.
Thus the winds of the perfect storm start to blow.
As Michigan’s season was faltering, noise within the athletic department was deafening to the point of distraction, which concluded with the resignation of athletic director Dave Brandon.
Michigan tasked Jim Hackett, who played at Michigan while Jim’s father was an assistant coach, to play the interim role and help facilitate change within the football program and athletic department.
Surely, with Brandon out of the way, does this open up opportunities with Harbaugh?
Let the slow breeze of the perfect storm blow.
First thing comes first; Michigan’s head coach spot wasn’t vacant … yet.
The 2014 season ended for Michigan with another loss to Ohio State and without a bowl game appearance. The odds of Hoke doing anything to salvage his chances at staying on for a final year were dwindling by the day. Many were waiting around idly for the proverbial axe to fall in Ann Arbor.
Rumors started to fly that Harbaugh would consider the Michigan job if it opened. Lo and behold, that position opened on December 2.
The winds of the perfect storm grow stronger.
During this time of Michigan football turmoil, the 49ers season slowly started to erode away. The 49ers eventually were eliminated from playoff contention late in the season, which opened the way for Hackett to pursue Harbaugh. That is exactly what Hackett did, who happened to blow Harbaugh away with his presentation.
The howls from the gusts of winds from the perfect storm are almost too much to handle.
Throughout the season Harbaugh was asked by reporters of his interest in Michigan, he dodged every single question. Radio silence from the Michigan camp signaled it had something clever up its sleeve.
Rumors of former Michigan players and those in the athletic department are finally united with the idea of Harbaugh coming back to fix the problems.
It all made so much sense in so many ways.
The perfect storm has hit land and mama has called Harbaugh home.
The Aftermath of the Perfect Storm
All the years of learning through his father and all the tough and grueling years spent with Bo have trained him for this moment. Harbaugh is meant to be here, he knows it. What happens next is history and those following Michigan closely are waiting impatiently to see it unfold.
The skies have opened, the sun is shining and the winds have calmed. The storm that has blown through Ann Arbor for almost a decade will not be remembered fondly, but known as the necessary events that had to happen to unite two lost souls together again.
Harbaugh is home.