After finally beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten a year ago, Harbaugh did all he could to get back to the NFL, where he starred as a quarterback and once led San Francisco to the Super Bowl as a head coach. He even flew to Minneapolis expecting a job offer.
It didn’t come, a humbling dismissal and one Harbaugh couldn’t easily spin into a positive, although he tried.
He stated he was returning to his alma mater “with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind” and vowed to stay as long as Michigan would have him.
“This will not be a reoccurring theme every year,” Harbaugh told the Detroit Free Press. “This was a one-time thing.”
Whatever awkwardness existed last February melted away during a 13-0 season this fall.
Michigan didn’t just beat Ohio State (again) and win the Big Ten (again) and reach the playoff (again), it looked even stronger in doing it. The Wolverines enter Saturday’s semifinal against TCU in Arizona as a 7.5-point favorite. A rematch from last year with Georgia, or last month with Ohio State, hangs in the balance.
The Wolverines could realistically win the national championship, something that seemed ridiculous to state just two years ago when they were coming off a 2-4 season and Harbaugh’s pay was cut nearly in half.
So, now the question for the 59-year-old is what does he really want for the rest of his career?
NFL jobs are opening now — Denver just fired Nathaniel Hackett. Despite Harbaugh's promises, does he want to go back to the pros?
A year ago, he explained his interest in Minnesota by saying that he’s still haunted, and motivated, by the close Super Bowl loss. You get that close to the ultimate prize, and you want another chance.
Or is he truly entrenched in the college game. He also originally came to Michigan as a sort of stopgap. The program he played for had fallen on hard times under Rich Rodriguez and then Brady Hoke, who went a combined 24-32 in Big Ten play.
Harbaugh’s initial task was to right the ship, restore some semblance of balance against Ohio State and win the league again. It took a bit longer than expected — this is his eighth season in Ann Arbor — but mission accomplished.
U of M is an elite program again. Which is why he owes the school nothing.
This is a new crossroad, though. Harbaugh could go back to the NFL at some point and with some team, or he could switch from trying to restore the Wolverines to trying to set up a powerhouse for the years to come.
“It's really biblical,” Harbaugh said a few weeks ago. “No man knows the future. I can't make any vows of what's going to happen or what's not gonna happen.”
Harbaugh always talks in an unusual manner, so that shouldn’t be taken as a foot-out-the-door kind of quote. Most of those closest to him expect he will remain at Michigan, perhaps for the rest of his career.
“I think that people think we have done a good job and are pleased with the job that we have done here at Michigan,” Harbaugh said. “They are going to be very happy to learn that I will be back enthusiastically coaching the Wolverines in 2023.
“And for those people that don't approve of the job we have done or would rather see somebody else coaching here, I think they will be most likely disappointed to learn that I will be back coaching the Wolverines in 2023."
The recent success didn’t deliver on the recruiting front for the Class of 2023, but it should pay off in the long run. The one rub against Michigan — and Harbaugh — is that while it draws some exceptional players, it lacks the depth of true five-star talent that other national contenders boast.
If you are going to swim in those waters, that’s generally where you need to be.
Harbaugh, though, has brought the program back to front-of-mind status. Big wins. Big exposure. Lots of NFL draft picks who are having success. Ann Arbor has always been a phenomenally appealing place to attend college and play ball.
The program expects a huge recruiting haul for the Class of 2024, led by five-star quarterback Jadyn Davis of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Additionally, the transfer portal has proven to be ideal for Michigan. What factors heavily in the decision-making of 17-year-olds — proximity to home, relentless attention from the head coach, weather, etc. — doesn’t necessarily matter to 20-to-22-year-olds who want playing time, top-line coaching and NFL development.
You could argue Michigan’s most valuable player is center Olu Oluwatimi, the Outland Trophy winner who arrived this year as a graduate transfer from Virginia. And whatever shortcomings Michigan's high school recruiting featured at last week’s signing day were made up for with seven transfers, including five who are expected to start next fall.
Michigan is 25-2 the past two seasons, so it’s nearly impossible for the program to get better, but it is reasonable to suggest that Harbaugh is ideally positioned in the modern system of the sport to maintain something close to this level. He’s a pro coach who is used to a fluctuating, plug-gaps, roster.
The NFL will always hold a measure of appeal, but a lengthy, successful run here does too. No man knows the future, as Harbaugh likes to say, but that seems more fun than trying to rebuild the Broncos.