Jim Harbaugh lords atop college football, critics be damned

HOUSTON — Nine years ago, Jim Harbaugh left the NFL and returned to college football with a single focus — to restore a then-struggling Michigan program.

He immediately began throwing elbows and inviting controversies. He set up satellite recruiting camps. He accused the SEC of cheating. He held sleepovers at prospects’ houses. He feuded with coaches and scraped with officials. He walked around asking, “Who’s got it better than us?” even when he was losing three games a year, including to Ohio State.

He was unlike anything the sport had seen, because Jim Harbaugh is unlike anything the world has seen — a millionaire who once refused to wear anything but khaki pants, who would work youth camps shirtless, who once decried chickens as “nervous birds” only to begin raising them himself.

He was odd and unorthodox and unusual. It made a lot more sense when he could only manage to get Michigan back to respectable, but far from the scene that played out here late on Monday.

There was Harbaugh, standing on a makeshift stage under falling national championship confetti. A man who almost never appears comfortable was suddenly perfectly content, silently scanning all that was in front of him — hugging players and beaming parents, proud alums and dancing fans.

And an entire sport beneath him.

Michigan 34, Washington 13.

The Wolverines — Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines — were 15-0 and national champions.

“Glorious,” he would say. “Took on all comers. We’re the last one standing.”

They called him Captain Comeback when he willed himself to a 16-year career as a NFL quarterback, a player with more grit than talent. Here he is Coach Chaos, a man walking casually, almost oblivious, as mayhem, much of it his own creation, erupts around him.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 8: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates after defeating the Washington Huskies 34-13 in the 2024 CFP National Championship game at NRG Stadium on January 8, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

Time will tell if Jim Harbaugh leaves Michigan for the NFL. But he and the Wolverines have etched their names into history either way. (Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

This could be the end of the Harbaugh Era of college football. The NFL beckons again and he would make no promises on returning to Ann Arbor — “I just want to enjoy this,” he said. “I just want to enjoy this. I hope you give me that. Can a guy have that? Does it always have to be what’s next, what’s the future?”

If he leaves, he will leave a glittering trophy behind him, a spot atop the mountain that Michigan has rarely achieved.

The Wolverines are the only football team at any level to win over 1,000 games, but its modern national championship trophy shelf is fairly barren — just a shared title in 1997. Prior to that, nothing since the 1940s. Harbaugh’s dad coached for Bo Schembechler and Harbaugh himself played for Schembechler but Schembechler never pulled off anything like this.

He would also leave swirling scandals on multiple fronts, two separate NCAA investigations ranging from mid-level violations turned into a major case because Harbaugh was deemed to have been “misleading” to investigators to a wild advanced scouting controversy that engulfed the sport this season.

Harbaugh sat three games to bookend the season for each scandal, but more sanctions are likely coming. Not that he ever really flinched. During his suspensions, he was spotted running a chain gang at one of his son’s youth games, making McDonald’s runs and watching the action on television with his brother, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

He seemed to revel in being the villain, fighting “enemies” real or imagined.

What was it like dealing with a season full of setbacks and lawsuits, some players were asked.

“It couldn’t have gone better,” Harbaugh interjected. “It went exactly how we wanted it to go to win every game. The off-the-field issues, we’re innocent and we stood strong and tall because we knew we were innocent … and these guys are innocent. And to overcome that, it wasn’t that hard because we knew we were innocent. So yeah … it went exactly how we wanted it to go.”

Neither case has been fully adjudicated and Harbaugh has a right to maintain his innocence but … eh. Then again, maybe he actually believes all of that. Or he simply doesn’t care.

It doesn’t matter. This is how and why Jim Harbaugh is such an agent of anarchy.

This is how and why he took a program that went just 24-32 in Big Ten play in the eight seasons prior, that was getting dominated by Michigan State, that couldn’t dream of toppling the Buckeyes, that lost to Toledo and turned it into this … all those coaches in Tuscaloosa and Athens, in Columbus and Clemson, sitting at home watching him bask in the glory.

It wasn’t with the best recruits; they tend to sign elsewhere. It was with the best recruits for him, a band of brothers that find a connection in his quirks, that believe in the program and the school, that are drawn to his bulldog mentality and his focus on fundamentals such as blocking and tackling and blocking some more.

Or maybe even the way he tends to talk like a 1930s radio host.

“Trusted agent and known friend,” he described Donovan Edwards, who rushed for two touchdowns.

“Amazing stalwart of a player,” he called Mike Sainristil, who had a game-clinching interception.

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 08: Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and J.J.McCarthy #9 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrate during the trophy presentation after the CFP National Championship between University of Washington and University of Michigan at NRG Stadium on January 8, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The Wolverines finish the 2023-24 college football season with a perfect 15-0 record — the only undefeated team in college football. (Steve Limentani/Getty Images)

Harbaugh does nothing like anyone else, which is probably why he is constantly painting outside the lines, finding himself in trouble with the NCAA, ruffling feathers from friends and foe. He’s an experience; an exhaustive, enticing experience.

Back in 2020, the program suddenly bottomed out with a 2-4 record in the COVID-shortened season. There was plenty of frustration and calls for his firing. Where other schools would have quickly pulled the trigger, athletic director Warde Manuel wouldn’t budge. Harbaugh is a coach, but managing the protocols of a pandemic are far beyond his skill set.

“That was a covid season,” Manuel said of giving Harbaugh more time. “He was a great coach before COVID and all of the naysayers who were judging me during that time were absolutely wrong and this proves it.”

Proving them wrong is Harbaugh’s oxygen. He’s never seen a fight he didn’t think he could, or should, win. As a player he proudly feuded with both Bo Schembechler and Mike Ditka — to name but a few, including most of the 49ers organization.

That’s him. It rarely ends well. It might not with Michigan, either. But the run is like nothing else, like a gunslinger raiding a town in an old western.

Yet no matter the wake he leaves behind him, no matter the distaste he inspires in opposing coaches — “our rivals and enemies” — there can be no denying what Manuel knew. He may not be able to play nice with anyone, but he sure can coach ball.

These Wolverines, they were all of it. They beat Penn State by rushing 32 consecutive plays. They beat Ohio State with Harbaugh suspended. They outmuscled Alabama and then ran away from Washington. The bigger the stakes, the brighter the spotlight, the better they got.

“Nothing fancy here,” Harbaugh noted. “It was just good old-fashioned teamwork, good old-fashioned hard work.”

He came in like a hurricane. He may leave with the same energy, everything torn up around him, big waves and big victories and big nights of delirious fans screaming into the night about destiny calling them.

And there was Jim Harbaugh, one of a kind, in every kind of way, standing atop the podium, surveying it all.

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