On the first night of the rest of his life, Jim Harbaugh got snowed in. So he kicked back in a Minnesota hotel room, ate a hamburger and french fries from room service, and made phone calls to the important people in his life, telling them his decision was made: he was a Michigan Man for the foreseeable future.
“In a nutshell, I love Michigan,” he explained in a phone call to me Thursday evening. “I love every player. I love every family.”
Then why, he was asked, had he flown to Minneapolis to interview for the head coaching job with the Vikings?
“There was a tugging at me that I was once that close to a Super Bowl and I didn’t get it. Some NFL jobs came open. I was contacted by the (Minnesota) Vikings.
“For better or for worse, it was something I wanted to explore. I went in thinking, ‘I’m gonna have 100 percent conviction on this, and if they (Minnesota) have 100 percent conviction on this, then it’s something I’m gonna do.”
But like many a job interview, somewhere in the process, he got a sinking feeling. It was all good. “A first-class operation,” he said. “First-class people.” But there wasn’t an equal match of enthusiasm. And for a man whose catch phrase is “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind” — well, that stuff matters.
Perhaps he expected too much. Given his previous NFL success (49-22-1 including playoffs, a Super Bowl appearance) and the fact that the new Minnesota GM, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, was a friend, perhaps he thought this was to be more a coronation than an interview.
But it wasn’t. And while Harbaugh, out of respect, didn’t want to reveal details, sources say no job was offered.
By the time Harbaugh saw the snow falling, realized he wasn’t flying home, and returned to his hotel room, his fluid and freewheeling mind was already revved up about the Wolverines, this coming season, and their chances to go even farther than they did in 2021.
“I called Warde (Manuel, the Michigan athletic director) and I asked him if he wanted me to be the head coach. And he said, ‘Yes, 100 percent.’ And I said, OK then. That’s what I want to do.’
“And I told him, ‘Warde, this will not be a reoccurring theme every year. This was a one-time thing.”
‘We all want to go to the NFL, too’
Now, you can read that and roll your eyes. No doubt some of you are. Harbaugh is aware that not everyone was thrilled with his seven-year itch. He knows the program was patient over the past month (although he insists there were no other interviews besides the Vikings). He knows his trip to Minnesota caused some concern, and that some folks will question his loyalty now, question his timing, question his appreciation for a program that gave him ample time to win his first game against Ohio State, his first Big Ten title, and his first trip to the College Football Playoff, all of which happened last season.
He apparently saw some of the social media comments, because he laughed when I asked him and said, “The internet can be an enlightening place … you have to take it with a grain of salt.”
But Harbaugh, not without justification, points to the honesty that transpired throughout the process. He never snuck around. He told players, administration and recruits that he was listening to the NFL rumblings. He told his boss. Everybody knew. He was transparent.
And when he realized he wanted to stay put, sure, he gave thought to the awkwardness of that. But then he thought about some discussions he’d had with his players, and how they didn’t blame him for wanting to look over the mountain.
“They said ‘Coach, we all want to go to the NFL, too. And whenever one of us wants to explore going to the NFL, you support us and wish us well. And if we look at it and we come back, you’re thrilled and we get right back to work.’ ”
Which is what Harbaugh wanted to talk about now. In 24 hours, he had already put the NFL return aside, and sounded like the same old, motorized, big-eyed dreamer.
“Sure, the Super Bowl is the greatest prize in our sport,” he said. “But winning a national championship. That’s pretty darn great. Let’s do that.
“There was a pull to the NFL because I got that close to the Super Bowl,” he admitted, “but this was the time (to try and return.) And this is the last time. Now let’s go chase college football’s greatest prize.”
What would Bo do?
Dizzy? Well. If a player ever accidentally ran into Bo Schembechler and knocked him over, everything would stop. Bo would get back up, and, with all eyes upon him, he would bark, “That would have killed a mortal man.”
There’s an element of that when you listen to Harbaugh. He can snap back from pretty much anything to his preset knobs of “enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” One day after giving up on his NFL dreams, he can gush about a national championship, about the team he has coming in. It’s not a show. That’s who he is. That’s who he has always been.
And speaking of Schembechler, critics who wonder “How can Harbaugh walk back on to Michigan’s campus now?” remember that Bo, Harbaugh’s coach and mentor, once had a brief flirt with Texas A&M in the middle of his U-M career. It spanned several days and many swirling rumors. In the end, Bo decided to walk away from big money and more control in favor of staying at the place he loved. In a news conference, he said this:
“I debated it longer than I thought I would. (But) I came to the conclusion that there are things that are more important to me. And one of them is Michigan. And with that in mind, I’m staying where I belong, right here.”
People applauded when he said that. And perhaps if Harbaugh came out and said the same thing, people would applaud, too.
But in his own way, he sort of is.
‘I’m excited about today, about tomorrow’
“I’m an honest person,” he said. “There was a large pull there (for the NFL.) But I didn’t feel it was that way for both parties. And that’s it. That’s my mindset now.”
So that chapter is closed?
You are 100% dedicated to Michigan?
“Yes. … Actually, I told Warde, ‘From here on out, I’m working at the pleasure of the University of Michigan, because that’s, in my heart, where I want to be.’ ”
When I heard Harbaugh might be going to the Vikings, I thought there was more to it than the unscratched Super Bowl itch (even though he lost his once chance to his brother, John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens. That’s a pretty heavy itch!)
But I felt that perhaps Harbaugh had concluded, after seven years in Ann Arbor, that you can’t win it all at Michigan. You can’t defeat the changes in college football that the NIL money and the explosion of the transfer portal have wrought. Those things make it impossible to win a national title at a place like Michigan because the program won’t match the millions being thrown at players elsewhere, and it won’t exploit transfers on the portal merry-go-round.
But I asked Harbaugh about that and he flatly denied it. He is convinced that he can find great players within the portal as well as in his recruiting class. And that NIL money will be plentiful enough — if not perhaps as over-the-top as some other schools — to attract and keep major talent.
“We really believe we can win a national championship,” he said. “I’m excited about today, about tomorrow, about the next day …”
And so he is back, even if he never really went anywhere. In the end, Jim Harbaugh took what the Aussies call “a walkabout,” a long solo journey with his feet and his mind, exploring a dream, seeing how it fit, only to ultimately walk all the way back to where he began, talking with loved ones, this time in a hotel room, with a burger and fries, gushing about the future of his beloved alma mater and leaving many of us scratching our heads. Say what you will about Jim Harbaugh. He keeps you on your toes.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @malbom