Jim Harbaugh’s return to Michigan comes as a shock to many in the NFL who expected Oakland, New York (Jets) and Miami to vie for his services. Harbaugh’s decision may confound national pundits, but it puts Urban Meyer and Ohio State on notice that Michigan is serious about beating its archrival.
It also immediately boosts the prestige of the Big Ten, which now has the potential to unseat the SEC as the nation’s premier collegiate football conference and reshape the landscape of the college football postseason.
Harbaugh will be a lightning rod for controversy because of his outspoken nature, but his coaching credentials are impeccable. Interim athletic director Jim Hackett cited Harbaugh's record of winning at all levels of football in comparing him to NFL immortal Paul Brown.
"Jim was a surely a candidate for any of the pro jobs that became available yesterday," Hackett said. "And yet he chose to come home."
Michigan football just became relevant and entertaining again.
Michigan Gets Its Man
From the minute Michigan dismissed Brady Hoke, Wolverines fans clamored for Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor. He addressed two perceived deficiencies that emerged under Hoke’s regime. Harbaugh’s experience as a collegiate and pro quarterback would remedy Michigan’s failure to develop the position, and his competitive nature and fiery disposition would be a welcome change from Hoke, who rarely showed frustration with his team’s failures.
Few believed Harbaugh would leave the NFL, but Michigan pursued him with a strong financial offer and relied on his loyalty as a “Michigan Man” to entice a return. While other schools scrambled to fill their coaching positions, Hackett targeted the former San Francisco 49ers coach, knowing the wait was worth it. The successful recruitment of Harbaugh proved Michigan’s gravitas even after seven mostly disappointing seasons under Hoke and Rich Rodriguez.
"I have dreamed of coaching at Michigan," Harbaugh said. "Now it's time to live that dream."
Because they got their man, the Wolverines' rivalry with the Buckeyes will be renewed as one of the greats in college football.
(Really) Big Ten
Harbaugh’s hiring is a coup for the Big Ten. There was a fevered debate this season whether the conference was worthy of a place in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Big Ten is widely regarded as a second-tier conference well behind the SEC.
Meyer and Ohio State struggled to get national respect for winning the Big Ten East Division over Michigan State, despite the Spartans' resurgence as a national program. Michigan’s weakness has seriously damaged the standing of the East Division as badly as Wisconsin’s inability to retain its head coaches.
If Harbaugh can do what he has done at every stop during his coaching career, his return to Michigan will not only raise the profile of the entire conference but make the Big Ten East a “super” division on par with the SEC West.
While Michigan State may whine that its success hasn’t been appreciated nationally, every division team benefits from a resurgent Michigan. The value of the division title grows in stature independent of what happens in the Big Ten West.
The extra attention will be financial bonanza for the Big Ten, according to foxsports.com:
The only people more excited than Michigan fans that Harbaugh is going to Ann Arbor? Big Ten school presidents and league commissioner Jim Delany. The timing couldn't be any better for the league to be bringing its television rights package to the market. ESPN and Fox are going to put big money on the table for the league. (NBC and CBS will bid too, but they won't win). Given that Fox owns half the Big Ten Network, here's an early wager on Fox and ESPN splitting the league's games. You think that Jim Harbaugh against Urban Meyer might make the league's marquee game a bit more attractive? Hell, the other Big Ten schools should chip in to pay Harbaugh's salary, he's going to end up making all of them more money too.
Harbaugh’s return also comes at an ideal time as the Big Ten expands into East Coast television markets traditionally dominated by the NFL. His appearance instantly raises the profile of Rutgers and Maryland to local audiences familiar with his NFL exploits.
Woody vs. Bo = Urban vs. Jim
Hoke might have grown up watching the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, but Harbaugh grew up with it permeating his soul. He spent his formative years inside the program as a ball boy while his father was an assistant coach under Bo Schembechler. Harbaugh eventually played quarterback for Schembechler and famously guaranteed a victory over Ohio State.
While Ohio State fans may have appreciated Hoke’s reverence for rivalry, Harbaugh’s name evokes entirely different emotions. He’ll provide a spark that has been absent since the retirement of Lloyd Carr.
Urban Meyer versus Jim Harbaugh will generate storylines reminiscent of the 10-year war between Woody Hayes and Schembechler. While it’s unlikely the two will face each other for an entire decade, the conflict between the two will have a sizzle that will drive television ratings into the stratosphere. NFL viewers will tune in to see how Harbaugh’s pro style copes with Meyer’s collegiate experience.
Ohio State fans have decried the one-sided nature of the rivalry. They won’t have to feel bad about beating Michigan anymore—the rivalry is back.
Fix Michigan, Then College Football
If Harbaugh can resurrect Michigan and Meyer can keep Ohio State playing at an elite level, the two coaches can be instrumental in driving changes for college football.
Harbaugh will not be shy in sharing his views while at Michigan. He played for two tough coaches (Schembechler at Michigan and Mike Ditka at Chicago), and neither was able to stifle his outspoken nature. He will continue to be honest about opponents, administrators and the NCAA.
One topic he believes in is the importance of academics via the Los Angeles Times:
I've seen guys go down that path, where school was just an afterthought and whatever you had to do to make yourself a better player, you did, including steroids. The bottom line is I want it to be important to them, I want them to learn the things football has to teach somebody, but at the end of the day, I want it to be an enhancement to what they're doing in college, not a detriment. Football is an activity in college. It's not why they're here.
While at Stanford, he took shots at Michigan's academic standards for football players, drawing the ire of some former players who now support his return. Harbaugh will have an impact going forward by recruiting players who live up to his standards on the field and in the classroom.
Another topic he’s sure to weigh in on is the current College Football Playoff. A resurgent Ohio State and Michigan series could drive expansion of the current format to include more than one team from a conference. The current playoff system needs to be expanded to include automatic bids for the major conferences with at-large teams being voted in to complete the brackets.
Harbaugh has a lot of work ahead him to get Michigan back to being a national contender. But there’s no doubt he’ll get it done—just ask him.
Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations obtained firsthand