Ending weeks of speculation, Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh as its coach Tuesday in hopes that its former star quarterback will lead the Wolverines back to national prominence.
Once the grinning Harbaugh got to the podium, he apologized for his raspy voice, which he attributed to the Gatorade bath he received from his players after a victory Sunday in his final game coaching the 49ers. He also joked that he nearly tripped entering the news conference but that a lesser athlete would have gone down.
He said he started dreaming when he “was a young boy of 9 or 10 years old” about coaching at Michigan.
“I feel like I’m standing on this foundation that is so rock solid,” he said. “You have my pledge that I will carry forward the tradition of excellence of the Michigan football program.”
“Top to bottom, Michigan is about excellence, is about greatness, and you have my pledge that I will carry forward the tradition of excellence of the University of Michigan football program,” he said at a packed news conference, introducing his family one by one.
Interim athletic director Jim Hackett said Harbaugh agreed to a seven-year deal worth more than $35 million. He also received a $2 million signing bonus.
“Our guy came home,” Hackett said.
The 51-year-old Harbaugh coached the San Francisco 49ers to three straight NFC championship games and San Francisco lost the 2013 Super Bowl to a Baltimore Ravens team coached by his brother, John. After the 49ers slipped to 8-8 this season and missed the playoffs, he parted ways with the team Sunday in what both sides called a mutual decision.
Harbaugh went 58-27 overall as a college coach at San Diego and Stanford, including a 29-21 record in four seasons with the Cardinal. He took over a 1-11 team when he was hired in December 2006 and quickly turned the program back into a winner and bowl contender.
Harbaugh’s first Stanford team went 4-8 in a season highlighted by a 24-23 win over No. 1 Southern California, a game in which the Cardinal was a 41-point underdog. Stanford was 5-7 the following season, then improved to 8-5 and earned a Sun Bowl berth in 2009 — the school’s first bowl appearance since 2001. They won the Orange Bowl with quarterback Andrew Luck his final season.
The 49ers hired Harbaugh four days after the bowl, and he went 44-19-1 with two NFC West titles in four seasons.
As a starting quarterback for three seasons under Bo Schembechler, he is well remembered for delivering a victory he guaranteed over Ohio State in 1986, the same season he was Big Ten player of the year and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.
He played 15 years in the NFL, earning the nickname “Captain Comeback” for leading fourth-quarter playoff rallies for the Indianapolis Colts. Harbaugh later coached quarterbacks for the Oakland Raiders in 2002-03 before returning to the college ranks.
Big Ten Network analyst and former college coach Gerry DiNardo said following the televised press conference that Michigan, the only school with more than 900 all-time wins, was bringing in a “rock star” capable of returning the Wolverines to elite status in a short time.
“This gives Michigan a chance to catch up,” DiNardo said.
But the famously confident Harbaugh had already declared: “There are no turnarounds at Michigan. This is greatness.”
Harbaugh definitely has his work cut out for him in a Big Ten East Division that’s only getting tougher.
Urban Meyer is preparing the Buckeyes for this week’s semifinal against Alabama in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio has built a program that has staying power. Penn State’s James Franklin is a celebrated recruiter who looks to have the Nittany Lions on the rise.
This past season was the third time in seven years Michigan finished with a losing record. The program’s most recent sub-.500 season before this dismal stretch came in 1967, two years before Schembechler began his run as coach.
The 2014 season was particularly dreary. Empty seats became a common sight at Michigan Stadium. Athletic director Dave Brandon stepped down at the end of October and Michigan dipped to 5-7 under Brady Hoke, among only four Big Teams to not earn a bowl bid. The Wolverines were 31-20 in Hoke’s four seasons and declined steadily after an 11-2 mark in his first year.
Nothing Michigan has tried lately seemed to work for any extended period of time. Rich Rodriguez had tremendous success at West Virginia before taking the Michigan job, but the transition was shaky, with the Wolverines going 3-9 in his first season. Even after his spread offense began to click, his team was too porous defensively to challenge for a conference title.
Rodriguez is now at Arizona, and he took the Wildcats to the Pac-12 title game this season. Hoke took his place at Michigan in a move that was supposed to signal a return to smash-mouth football at the Big House, but after a promising first year, the Wolverines slipped. Hoke was fired with a 31-20 mark over four seasons.
Michigan’s offense wasn’t particularly impressive to begin with, and now the Wolverines must replace two key players before next season. Quarterback Devin Gardner was a senior, and junior wide receiver Devin Funchess is leaving early for the NFL draft. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is gone, too, headed back to the SEC for the offensive coordinator job at Florida after a single season in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh said he wasn’t worried about selling the program after some poor seasons.
“I know Michigan football. I believe in Michigan football. That will not be a hard job,” he said.
The longer the Wolverines go without a turnaround, the more ordinary the program looks despite all of its tradition. Competition for top coaches is fierce and nothing can guarantee a successful season in a landscape much different from when Schembechler coached the Wolverines.
Harbaugh is being looked to as the coach who can finally return Michigan to prominence. His $5 million annual salary includes 10 percent raises after years three and five, along with various performance bonuses.
DiNardo, whose coaching resume includes stops at LSU, Indiana and Vanderbilt, said he doubted Harbaugh would have taken the job if he weren’t promised to have full autonomy in running the program.
“You don’t pay someone millions of dollars and tell him what jersey number the quarterback should wear,” DiNardo said. “This coach has to be left alone, whether that’s the size of the recruiting staff or facilities or non-conference schedule. All those decisions have to be Jim Harbaugh’s. No one told Bo Schembechler what to do. He sees the big picture.”