INDIANAPOLIS — If Jim Harbaugh hadn't walked into Lucas Oil Stadium on this night, a different story may already have been written. Without a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in 2021, the Michigan Wolverines' seventh-year head coach might not have received an eighth.
That would've been a logical reality. Harbaugh had resuscitated a middling program, but he'd fallen well short of expectations. He'd consistently lost to rivals. He'd struggled against top teams. Michigan had basically only made a legitimate run at a Big Ten crown in 2016.
But here he stood.
One week after summiting the Ohio State-sized mountain, Harbaugh roamed the sideline for the most important game of his tenure. In a city he once called home, the once-prodigal, soon-beleaguered, now-triumphant coach carved a long-awaited, long-expected place in Michigan history.
At long last, the Harbaugh-led Wolverines are Big Ten champions.
Harbaugh's team overpowered Iowa 42-3 for the conference crown, winning the program's first Big Ten title in 17 years and sealing a spot in the College Football Playoff.
It took seven years for the Wolverines to reach this pinnacle, one their fans anticipated would arrive much earlier. That support had grown weary of constant disappointment, leaving Harbaugh's job security in a tenuous place entering the 2021 season.
Although he signed a contract extension in January, that signature truthfully didn't protect his future.
The updated pact reduced Harbaugh's buyout to $4 million. While that's not a pittance, it's a remarkably low number that would have allowed Michigan to move on from Harbaugh without hesitation.
This was, in all sincerity, a make-or-break season.
True, the decision wouldn't have been painless for Michigan's leadership. In a vacuum, Harbaugh's 49-22 record through 2020 was adequate—especially when you consider his predecessors, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, posted a combined 46-42 mark. Be careful what you wish for because the grass clearly isn't always greener on the other side of the coaching fence.
Conversely, Harbaugh hadn't accomplished what he was hired to do. And in late October, a trip to Michigan State revived the demons that have haunted his regime.
After cruising to a 7-0 record to begin 2021, the Wolverines wasted a 16-point lead in a devastating loss. Harbaugh fell to a dismal 3-4 against MSU and 2-9 on the road against Top 25 teams, and Ohio State still awaited in November.
The familiar narrative—a hot start shattered in late defeats—loomed once again. But it faded on a brisk day in Ann Arbor before disappearing altogether in Indianapolis.
Hassan Haskins gashed Ohio State's defense in a decisive 42-27 victory, rushing for 169 yards and five touchdowns. Michigan picked up its first victory over the Buckeyes in Harbaugh's reign, ending an eight-game skid overall in the series.
The immense joy of toppling a bitter rival could've vanished if Michigan faltered at Lucas Oil. Given the frustration of Harbaugh's tenure, perhaps it was only fitting for Iowa to strip away that happiness after U-M toppled Ohio State.
That never came close to happening, though.
Two first-quarter touchdowns of 65-plus yards propelled the Wolverines to a rapid 14-0 lead, and Haskins scored twice more. They contained a limited Iowa offense all night, outgaining the Hawkeyes 461-279 and running away with the Big Ten title.
Most importantly, the dominant night triggered Michigan's coveted celebration as the playoff-bound kings of the Big Ten.
Only 12 months ago, 2021 seemed it could be Harbaugh's last ride.
But as confetti fluttered past his name on the Indianapolis Colts' ring of honor, this victory ensured Harbaugh's story in Ann Arbor is nowhere close to finished.