ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Harbaugh may have already solved two significant problems at Michigan.
The fan base is unified again, and the apathy that led to a slip in attendance certainly seems like a thing of the past.
Now the question is whether the Wolverines will start winning more games — and how soon?
“Michigan’s always been great. It’s always been great.
I always believe in it,” Harbaugh said Tuesday at a news conference introducing him as the team’s new coach. “In terms of selling something, you’re selling something you believe in in your core.”
Harbaugh is back. And none too soon for fans who desperately want him to save the football program where he starred as a quarterback 30 years ago — one that has fallen into the middle of the pack at best in the Big Ten and become an afterthought in the national landscape.
At least, that’s the perception. Harbaugh defiantly insisted there would be no rebuilding.
“This is Michigan. There is no turnarounds at Michigan,” he said. “This is greatness. Long tradition of it.”
— Jim Harbaugh
The day began with a packed news conference, and onlookers peeking through the windows from outside. Harbaugh strode to the podium for a smiling, lighthearted session as his family watched from a few feet away. Later, he was on the court at halftime of Michigan’s basketball game against Illinois, addressing the crowd.
“I pledge to you that we will do our very best to carry on the great tradition of Michigan — excellence all across the board,” Harbaugh said to the cheering crowd at Crisler Center during Tuesday’s matinee win against Illinois — an overtime thriller, naturally.
“You know how to make a guy feel at home,” Harbaugh yelled, his voice sounding hoarse from a whirlwind few days.
As a starting quarterback for three seasons under Bo Schembechler, he is remembered for delivering a victory he guaranteed against Ohio State in 1986, the same season he was Big Ten player of the year and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.
The famously confident Harbaugh stopped short of any real bluster as he took the reins of the storied program Tuesday. After all, he inherits a team that has lost 10 of its past 11 games to archrival Ohio State and six of seven to Michigan State.
“They’re outstanding programs. No, I make no guarantees,” he said. “I made a guarantee a long time ago, and I’ve learned from that, and I’ve grown. I understand that you don’t make guarantees.”
Harbaugh did play along at the end of his news conference, when someone from the audience yelled: “Who’s got it better than us?”
The coach responded in familiar fashion: “Nooooooo-body.”
Harbaugh’s seven-year deal is worth about $40 million, not counting performance bonuses. His $5 million annual salary increases by 10 percent after years three and five, and he also received a $2 million signing bonus. He can receive bonuses based on Big Ten championships, bowl appearances, coaching awards and team academic performance. Following a review by the athletic director after next season, Michigan will also determine a deferred compensation arrangement.
Harbaugh’s $5 million base salary next season is what he would have received in the final year of his deal with the San Francisco 49ers, but he left Sunday in what the team called a mutual decision.
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.
Nothing Michigan has tried lately seemed to work for any extended period of time. Rich Rodriguez had tremendous success at West Virginia before taking over at Michigan after the 2007 season. But the transition was shaky and he was fired after three years. Brady Hoke took over and went 31-20, but his team looked worse each season and he was let go early this month.
The longer Michigan’s coaching search went on, the more obvious it became that the school was focused on Harbaugh, who was finally available after his NFL season ended Sunday. The 51-year-old Harbaugh coached the 49ers to three straight NFC championship games, but they missed the playoffs this season at 8-8.
“I think it brings a lot of credibility back to the program,” said Derrick Walker, a teammate of Harbaugh’s at Michigan. “That’s not discounting what Brady Hoke did because Brady was a heck of a guy. Rodriguez came in and tried to do his thing, and you’ve got to respect that also, but I think it brings it back to the Bo Schembechler-type days.”
The Wolverines must replace two key players from this season’s team. Quarterback Devin Gardner was a senior, and junior wide receiver Devin Funchess is leaving 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 is obviously a big name around the world and especially in Ann Arbor. Having him as our coach, it really magnifies everything,” said Shane Morris, who may be next in line at quarterback. “I can’t wait. He knows how to win, and that’s what we’re ready to do. We’re ready to win.”
Harbaugh’s arrival at Michigan is a huge victory for interim athletic director Jim Hackett, who took over after Dave Brandon stepped down at the end of October.
“Our guy came home,” Hackett said.
Now Harbaugh’s name is the buzz of the Big Ten — and fans in Ann Arbor are eager to embrace the possibilities. There were replica jerseys with Harbaugh’s old No. 4 on sale at the basketball game, and quite a few fans were wearing Harbaugh’s signature khaki pants 00 although the new coach himself was dressed more formally.
“Thank you for the enthusiasm and the support,” Harbaugh told the crowd. “Even though we have not done a darn thing, it is much appreciated.”