ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Before the cameras and the lights and the press conference that felt like a pep rally, a few dignitaries gathered on the Michigan athletic campus for breakfast.
Jim Harbaugh was there. So was Lloyd Carr, who led Michigan to its only national championship since the Korean War. So was Gary Moeller, the head coach before Carr, and Jerry Hanlon, the longtime and long-retired offensive line coach, who coached Michigan’s quarterbacks when Harbaugh was a player.
They were there with wives and just a few others, an intimate gathering that lasted almost three hours. They told stories from many years ago and got excited about what’s next, the swirl of past and future that makes college football so captivating.
Carr reminded Harbaugh of the day, in 2002, when Carr was halfway through his highly successful reign and Harbaugh sat in his office. Harbaugh had recently retired as a player. He was interviewing to be Carr’s quarterbacks coach.
“And I said to him: ‘Jim, someday, I hope you’ll be the (head) coach here,’” Carr recalled.
Harbaugh remembered. And you better believe he remembers what happened the next day: Carr called him and told him he was hiring somebody else. He gave the job to Scot Loeffler, and the decision made sense at the time. Loeffler, a close friend of Tom Brady, had experience coaching quarterbacks; Harbaugh did not. Carr’s starting quarterback, John Navarre, had been thrust into starting duty as a sophomore and struggled. Carr needed a sure thing to mentor him.
Maybe this snub contributed to Harbaugh’s ill-advised comments about Michigan’s academics when he landed the Stanford job in 2007. Maybe those comments contributed to Michigan’s half-hearted attempt to hire him four years ago. But maybe the real story is that Harbaugh and Carr were in that room together on Tuesday, and Harbaugh told Carr, “Hey, I want you to be part of this.”
There is so much blather about Michigan men and tradition and whether Michigan’s culture is somehow a hindrance to the head coach. You hear it from people vaguely connected to the program and critics 2,000 miles away. The people who built the program understand: It’s not about getting along all the time. It’s about putting the place before yourself even when you don’t.
They all had some ugly moments they didn’t care to relive on Tuesday. There was a stretch during Harbaugh’s senior year when he was so mad at Hanlon that he refused to talk to him about anything besides football. Moeller famously got fired after a drunken incident at a restaurant in 1995, but never stopped supporting the program. Carr and Harbaugh had that public tit-for-tat over academics, and they look back now and think: How did that happen?
“I saw somewhere where I was quoted as saying that it was unforgivable,” Carr said. “It was a mistake to say that. I don’t remember saying it, but I saw where I was quoted, and I may have. But that was a mistake.”
Harbaugh said his mistake was to even bring Michigan into the conversation. (He was trying to pump up Stanford’s academics, and criticized Michigan for steering players to easier majors.) But his passion for his school never flagged, even when Carr hired Loeffler, even when Michigan running back Mike Hart responded to his comments by saying, “I don’t know how you can say that. He’s not a Michigan man.” (Hart, one of the best players and leaders Michigan ever had, was also a college player emotionally defending his program. I can't imagine that he feels the same way today.)
That is why Harbaugh can handle everything that comes with the job. It’s not because he played for the school, or because the crowd roared when Harbaugh highlights were shown on the video board at halftime of Michigan’s basketball game on Tuesday. It’s because he gets what this means to people. He understands that rivalry games with Ohio State and Michigan State will be blown up into enormous hype balloons, and 9-3 is not cause for celebration in Ann Arbor, and sometimes he might tick off somebody and they might not talk for a while, but they will eventually get over it.
“Here is the thing that I really believe about Jim: He embraces all these expectations,” Carr said. “He is not afraid of them. He’s been in all these Ohio State games, Michigan State games through the years, Notre Dame ... as a young kid, he handled all these pressure situations, then he did it for 14 years in the NFL as a player, and in those years, they were killing the quarterbacks. His dad was a great coach. So this guy, it’s in his DNA.”
Harbaugh has a lot of work to do, and nothing is guaranteed. The current team needs to get tougher, and the talent level needs to rise. A staff must be assembled, and with Mark Dantonio in East Lansing, Urban Meyer in Columbus, and depleted talent in the Midwest, Michigan is a more difficult job than it was 15 years ago.
And yet, it’s still Michigan, one of college football’s blue-chip stocks. Harbaugh understands: You can’t run away from the history and the Bo Schembechler comparisons and the expectations, because they are part of the package that separate Michigan from, say, Purdue. When you take a job of this magnitude, you take the whole job. You don’t hear Nick Saban complain about Bear Bryant or the fans who pay his salary.
Bo Schembechler was at the press conference on Tuesday, by the way. The old coach’s grandson, a boy called Bo, attended it with his dad, Shemy, and mom, Megan. And the original Bo would've loved to have been in that room on Tuesday morning, away from the media, eating breakfast with Carr and Moeller and Jimmy Harbaugh, old friends who lived through some rough moments but refused to be defined by them. He would have loved to hear Carr’s advice for his old quarterback, in his first day on his dream job: “Enjoy it.”