Welcome home, Harbaugh — but U-M isn’t the same

by | Dec 31, 2014 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Dear Jim:

Welcome home.

I say “home” not because you were born in Michigan (you weren’t) and not because you might think of it that way. I say “home” because everyone else thinks of it that way — you, your alma mater, back together — so you might as well get used to it.

When you are introduced today as the next coach of the Wolverines, as the Free Press has learned will happen, the smiles will be different than your previous jobs — warmer, more satisfied, heads nodding as if this were always meant to be.

It’s all good.

But you better be careful.

Because, while it feels as if a parade is being thrown in your honor, things have changed since you last laid your head on a pillow in Ann Arbor. Oh, a few of us are still here, like me. I wrote about you as Jim Harbaugh the quarterback for this news organization, back when you were jut-jawed and wide-eyed and said things like “I’m so jacked!” and predicted victories even when Bo Schembechler told you not to.

But, remember, Jim, that was nearly 30 years ago. You were on scholarship. This time, they’ll be paying you money.

Serious money.

Nearly $50 million over six years reportedly. More than Michigan has ever paid any coach to run any team.

And that changes everything.

Not same old Michigan

Because these aren’t the old Michigan days, Jim. The days when Schembechler paced the halls and screamed at you and winked at your dad, his former assistant, and no one ever questioned Bo because he always had Michigan in the hunt for the Big Ten title and the Wolverines as the biggest football deal in the state.

These days, state football excellence resides in East Lansing. And the most famous coach in the Big Ten works in Columbus, Ohio. And the fans get angry here, Jim, sometimes downright nasty. You don’t want to read the comments or blogs; it’ll just depress you. It’s not enough anymore to be Maize and Blue and have good graduation rates and compete for the conference championship.

They want national titles.

Or they want your head.

The way they tracked your coming here, Jim, was embarrassing, like hunters stalking a deer. Your every move was analyzed. Every statement. Every hint. And now that you have been lassoed, the celebration will begin. They got you. They got you!

Now they’ll be bragging about your pedigree, your NFL experience, the way recruits will want to play for you because you went to a Super Bowl, the way other coaches will fear you because you can outwork and outrecruit them.

But only if you win.

That’s all that matters now, here and everywhere.

And while I know, as usual, you want to get started immediately (you were coaching the 49ers two days ago) here’s a couple things to be careful of:

The Michigan Man thing. You once told me, before your last game as a Wolverine, that you’d want to be thought of by Bo as “a Michigan Man.” That phrase has been through the wringer. Rich Rodriguez was blasted for not being one. Brady Hoke was celebrated — and then blasted — for not being a winning one.

Even the new athletic director, Jim Hackett, the interim guy who just hired you, thinks we should give it a rest.

As for recruiting, well, gone are the days where the Michigan winged helmet sold itself. Every team is on TV now. Prep stars want a fast lane to the pros. They leave earlier. They have choices. You won’t be able to do what Bo did to you — practically make you beg to come here.

It’s a horse race for every big recruit. Even the ones in this state.

Right man for the job

Having said all this, I am, personally, glad you took the job. Not because you’ll be the first former player to coach Michigan since Bump Elliott did it back in the 1960s. Not because I knew you during your quarterbacking days of tough resilience and endless self-confidence (I still remember you telling me as a rookie in the Chicago Bears locker room that Jim McMahon “won’t be the starter for long”).

Not because I always enjoyed your history with Schembechler, how he threw you off the field when you were a pesky 9-year-old, how he yelled at you to “do something productive!” when you were watching TV in your dad’s house, how he once angrily insisted you would “never play a down for the University of Michigan!” when you were late for a practice, but later referred to you as the best passing quarterback he had ever coached.

And not because you are a surefire bet to win a national title. No offense, Jim, but that brass ring is still out there. It’s true, you did amazing work at Stanford (including upsetting a top USC team that was favored by 41 points) but with Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio on both sides every year, this isn’t an easy gig.

No, I’m glad you took the job because I think you can mold young men, hold them to high academic standards (as you did in Palo Alto) and get them to play hard and victoriously (as you did in San Francisco) and maybe tell them a few Michigan stories along the way.

Most of all, I’m glad you took the job because I think, at 51, you see it as a destination, not a stepping-stone. And despite all the changes and the harder-edged fans and the increased competition, you, more than anyone, know how a great coach in Ann Arbor can have a proud, long run, and put his mark on a fine football history. You were part of it on the field. Now you’re part of it on the sidelines.

I guess, in a certain way, that is like coming home, isn’t it?

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter@mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go tofreep.com/sports/mitch-albom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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