Harbaugh's return brings hope, pride back to Ann Arbor
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) A few blocks from the Big House, Jim Harbaugh's barber works in a small shop that doubles as a shrine to Michigan football. Iconic jerseys of Wolverines past - such as Anthony Carter's No. 1, Desmond Howard's No. 21, and yes, Harbaugh's No. 4 - are displayed high on the wall inside.
Like so many Michigan fans, Bill Stolberg watched with dismay as one of college football's storied programs stumbled through an almost numbing mediocrity under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. Now Harbaugh, the once brash, fearless quarterback for the Wolverines, has returned to Ann Arbor, having accepted the challenge of trying to coach Michigan back to the top of the Big Ten.
That part of the job might take a while. The part of reunifying a fractured Michigan fan base and energizing this football-crazed community may already be complete.
''I don't think you could have found another person that would have fit the shoe,'' Stolberg said.
Stolberg has cut Harbaugh's hair ''off and on'' since the coach was a youngster. Harbaugh's ties to Ann Arbor go back to before he played for Michigan. His father Jack was an assistant there during the 1970s.
When the Michigan job came open late last year, it wasn't clear how interested Harbaugh would be after a successful NFL run with the San Francisco 49ers. Perhaps people underestimated the pull of his alma mater.
At times, Harbaugh has downplayed the significance of being back in Michigan. Recently, though, he talked about the excitement of seeing his kids growing up in Ann Arbor. That hit home during a visit to elementary school.
''Just walking down the hallways, seeing them in the same school that I went to, it might have been the best moment about being back in Ann Arbor,'' he said. ''Pretty neat to think that my kids are going to be experiencing some of the same things that I did.''
Stolberg, 74, remembers the younger version of Harbaugh and can compare it to his present-day personality.
''He was an ambitious kid,'' Stolberg said. ''I don't think much has changed. Bigger and smarter, good guy, very down to earth. Comes in, he doesn't look for any special favors or anything. Just sits down and gets a haircut.''
Invariably, someone will recognize Harbaugh when he's out and about.
''He'll take a selfie with anybody,'' Stolberg said. ''He doesn't say no.''
Harbaugh is certainly comfortable in the public eye, and he became quite the celebrity this offseason. Larger-than-life coaches are common in college football, but how many of them would take a question from a first grader at a news conference? Harbaugh cheerfully did, when his team's media day took place in conjunction with youth day at Michigan Stadium.
In March, Harbaugh and his director of football operations stopped to help two people who were hurt in a car crash. He also coached first base for the Oakland Athletics at spring training.
Harbaugh uses his Twitter account constantly. At one point, he posted a picture of himself playing catch during a visit to Paris.
''That was a youngster,'' Harbaugh explained. ''He was throwing a football with his dad, and I just kind of jumped up and got in the game with them. He was a youngster from Oakland, California, about 10 years old.''
Players say Harbaugh's intensity is palpable, and there are occasional reminders that this coach is different.
For example, Harbaugh wears his cleats everywhere.
''In the locker room, practice field, walking around the building,'' quarterback Jake Rudock said. ''He loves his cleats. He wants to play. That's just how he's wired.''
That image of Harbaugh itching to take the field himself and play quarterback again is an easy one to picture. When he sleeps, the 51-year-old coach will sometimes dream about football. In the dream, he's always playing.
''I think it's what you love,'' Harbaugh said. ''I found as I get older, the things that I really love the most and aren't able to do, I dream about.''
As much as Harbaugh cares about his school, a seven-year contract worth about $40 million surely played a role in luring him back. Plus, the NFL will probably remain an option.
Stolberg accepts that, but says ''I think he'll retire here. ... If he has the teams that he's expecting, he'll be another Saban.''
Nick Saban's success at Alabama and Urban Meyer's at Ohio State are examples of what can happen when the right program hires the right coach. All the built-in advantages - tradition, brand name, glamorous facilities - are amplified.
Harbaugh's arrival looks like the perfect antidote to an identity crisis at Michigan. After Lloyd Carr's retirement, Rodriguez came in and went 15-22, and after winning the Sugar Bowl in Hoke's first season, the Wolverines declined rapidly. He was fired after going 5-7 last year.
Rodriguez's struggles rankled those who felt he was trying to reshape a program that was never broken. Hoke's approach drew criticism of a different sort - as losses mounted, Michigan looked like a team stuck in the past, unable to adapt to an evolving sport.
If Harbaugh hadn't come to Ann Arbor, interim athletic director Jim Hackett would have faced all of those concerns. What's the right system? Should the next coach have ties to the Wolverines? It's hard to say who Michigan could have chosen.
But Harbaugh did come, with a resume so overwhelmingly impressive that questions about systems and styles seem irrelevant - and with a personal connection he can share with players and fans.
''I have sensed that from our team - it's important to them, it means so much to them, that we win for those that want to see us do well,'' Harbaugh said. ''There's people that are for us, there's people that aren't for you, but anybody that wants to be for us, give them a big hug, and they can know that our squad is going to be working hard to win for them.''
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