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Ranking the top moments of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.

Michigan National Championship Celebration Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

As fans anxiously awaited an announcement, the news finally broke on Wednesday night that Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh would be leaving Ann Arbor to become the new head coach of the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers.

Harbaugh’s decision comes at the end of a nine-year run at his alma mater, where he won 86 games, three Big Ten titles and one national championship. There were plenty of highs in those nine years, most of them coming within the last three seasons where the Wolverines went 40-3 overall.

As the dust settles from the news of Harbaugh’s departure, we will be taking a look back and counting down the five biggest moments from his tenure at Michigan. As a spoiler alert, this will mostly be focused on the last three seasons, Harbaugh’s most successful in Ann Arbor.

5. Harbaugh’s hire in 2014 and contract extension in 2021

We have to go back to where it all began on Dec. 30, 2014. After years of Michigan football being mediocre under Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez, one of the university’s favorite sons was returning home.

At the time, fans expected Harbaugh to lead the Wolverines to the promised land with instant success, and while Michigan was far from bad (46-22 in his first six seasons), something was left to be desired, particularly when it came to losses against Ohio State.

However, despite calls for Michigan to move on from Harbaugh following an abysmal 2-4 season, the school decided to put its trust in him and bring him back, albeit on a reduced salary. Little did we all know this would be the start of a magical three-year run that included three conference titles, a national championship and three wins over Ohio State.

4. 2021 victory over Penn State

Why would a random victory over a 7-6 Penn State make this list? Well, in my opinion, this was one of Michigan’s most important victories over the last three seasons. If you remember correctly, this was a back and forth affair in which Michigan found itself on the ropes with a still talented Nittany Lion team in a tough road environment. This was a game Michigan teams from 2015 to 2020 very well might have lost, but this one didn’t.

This was a moment where Michigan showed it was truly turning the corner and ready to sit at the grownups table in college football. With this game also coming late in the season, it gave fans some real hope this could be the year Michigan puts it all together and finally gets to Indianapolis and the College Football Playoff. And in the end, it did, and this victory was a major stepping stone.

3. Rose Bowl win over Alabama

The third time proved to be the charm, as Michigan vanquished its playoff demons in 2023 with a win over Alabama. It was far from being Michigan’s cleanest game of the season, but the team showed its resolve and battled back for the win in the end.

The game might’ve involved plenty of mistakes, but fans should also remember some clutch plays from guys like J.J. McCarthy and Blake Corum in the fourth quarter/overtime.

It was truly a testament to the gritty and hard-nosed attitude Michigan has played with in recent years, and in the end, its style of play and mentality won out, further paving the way to a national title. Oh, and Michigan’s win would also send Alabama’s Nick Saban into retirement as a nice bonus.

2. Wins over Ohio State from 2021 to 2023

Take your pick as to which one is your favorite, but they were all amazing nonetheless for their own reasons.

In 2021, Michigan was the team that came out of nowhere to finally vanquish its demons and break an eight-game losing skid to the Buckeyes. Fans will remember Hassan Haskins and Aidan Hutchinson having monster games in the snow, as the Wolverines bulldozed a talented team right out of Ann Arbor.

In 2022, with Ohio State playing on its own turf, Michigan again ran away with the game. Donovan Edwards had two monster touchdown runs, while J.J. McCarthy broke out with 263 yards and three touchdowns.

Then in 2023, back in Ann Arbor, even without Harbaugh on the sidelines, the Wolverines outlasted a tough Buckeye team to secure a second straight 12-0 season and third straight trip to the Big Ten Championship.

Early in Harbaugh’s tenure it seemed like a win over Ohio State was never going to come, especially after blowout losses in 2018 and 2019. But by going back to their toughness and fundamentals, the Wolverines bullied Ohio State three times in a row, giving fans memories they’ll cherish forever.

1. National Championship win over Washington

No real surprise here, as this was the mountain top Harbaugh and the Michigan program ultimately hoped to arrive at. This would serve as Harbaugh’s final game as the head coach of the Wolverines, but he surely went out with a bang, delivering the school its first title since 1997.

As for the game itself, Michigan got off to a fast start, with two long Edward touchdown runs in the first quarter. Washington pulled back within striking distance, but Michigan was able to pull away in the end for a 34-13 victory over a great Husky team.

It was a culmination of all the hard work and effort we’ve seen Michigan’s teams go through for the last few years. It was also a moment many fans have longed for, especially those who have followed along since the Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke, and early Jim Harbaugh days. Undoubtedly Wolverine fans are glad to have a national title this season, and the fact it was won by Harbaugh and a team full of players who were so likable makes it even sweeter.

It also provides Harbaugh with the chance to ride off into the sunset and go out on a high note.

Thanks for the memories, Jim.