Harbaugh, Michigan sit atop college football after tumultuous climb

Published 3:00 pm Wednesday, January 10, 2024

How fitting it feels that the last NCAA Division I Football National Championship of the current era would end with Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, a true character in a sport filled with them, winning the title Monday night in Houston after his Wolverines (15-0) whipped the Washington Huskies (14-1) by a 34-13 final score.

Big Jim can drop press conference quotes that reach a Mike Leach level of absurdity, tying his success in life as a self-described “jackhammer” to how much whole Milk he drinks.

He once pulled a player aside, telling them he was worried about how much chicken the kid was eating because they are “nervous birds.” He suggested a steak to said player, but then later apologized to chickens en masse for mischaracterizing their personalities.

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In a now infamous set of pictures, Harbaugh took off his shirt, while rocking his signature khakis, during a prospect camp that his staff had put on in Prattville, Alabama.

There had never been a school before to run a satellite camp in a recruiting hotbed across the country from its campus. Harbaugh didn’t see a rule against it, so he did it, bad press from the Alabama media homers be darned.

Darned is a real Jim Harbaugh type of words. As would be shucks, rascal and gee willikers.

Jim presents a wholesome image as the son of a coach and a star quarterback at Michigan who had a solid NFL career before having success at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers before taking over his alma mater.

He’s not entirely Wally Cleaver though, Jim likes to push the rules and see what he can get away with in regard to the NCAA.

Jim isn’t the only coach that pushes the rules, but he’s the one that’s been in the news for it most over the last year.

He missed the first three games of this season in a suspension handed down by the school in order to please the NCAA. During a time when COVID-19 recruiting restrictions were supposed to be followed by all schools, Michigan was accused of skirting those rules.

And then Harbaugh got caught lying to the NCAA, which he says was a misunderstanding, but the three-game suspension just meant he missed games against East Carolina (2-10), UNLV (9-5) and Bowling Green (7-6).

Then news started to leak out once Big Ten play began that Michigan was running a spy ring that illegally scouted their opponents in order to steal offensive signals.

A former Marine with the lamest LinkedIn profile on earth was the brains behind this scheme.

His name is Connor Stallions and it will be forever linked with the 2023 NCAA Football Season. It goes up there with Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend as an unforgettable storyline that came out of left field to capture national attention as only college football can.

Stallions had worn a disguise while standing on the sideline of a Central Michigan game to scout a future opponent. He had a network of fellow flunkies around the country to make sure that the Michigan defensive staff was the most prepared team in the nation.

And then when Harbaugh tried to put himself above the scheme, as the school painted the picture of a staffer gone wild, it exposed the duplicity that Harbaugh cultivates.

When you hear the coaches and people inside the program talk about Harbaugh, they paint the picture of a man who has his hand on every facet of Michigan football.

So is he aloof or a micro manager or maybe he’s smart enough to insulate himself against the shady stuff, as many great coaches know how to do.

And when the NCAA came along ready to investigate Stallions and his fellow Slow Horses (British spy show on Apple TV that you should watch), Harbaugh was ready to fight another suspension.

And then he wasn’t, as he accepted a three-game suspension from the NCAA, which had evidence of a booster bankrolling the operation. Michigan linebackers coach Chris Partridge was also fired by the school during the Stallions drama.

Harbaugh is no dummy. He’s shrewd, he’s obviously a leader of men and he knows how to make connections with recruits.

I think that’s where Harbaugh rubs me wrong, I have no problem with him thumbing his nose at the NCAA, it’s him hamming up his hokiness that insults our intelligence.

Listen to Holly Rowe or Rece Davis or any other reporter try to get a straight answer out of Harbaugh. He started talking about how his team was like the confetti falling from the NRG Stadium roof after winning on Monday when Davis asked him his first question, clearly not wanting

He gives goofy non-answers for a minute or two and then sprints off like a dog who’s spotted a squirrel when the media asks him a serious question about his team.

When you know that he’s more Andy than Gomer, Jim’s act starts to wear thin.

The dude can coach though, and he can adapt. He was on the hot seat after a period of little success, but after making over much of his staff and building behind great line play, Michigan catapulted to the top of the NCAA hierarchy for the last three years.

In the semifinals, Michigan out-bamed Bama, by playing tough defense and using a strong power running game to top the Tide 27-20 in overtime.

It feels so perfect that the 2023 season would be won by a character such as Harbaugh.

Next year, the playoffs will grow from four teams to a 12-team bracket. Next year, the Pac 12 will be no more as Oregon, USC, UCLA and Washington will be league rivals with Michigan and Ohio State in the new Big 10. Next year, Texas and Oklahoma will officially join an SEC that’ll be loaded with title contenders.

With huge media rights deals, the transfer portal and NIL money flowing through the sport in larger and larger sums, NCAA football is changing and transforming in a fits and sprints, and for now, Harbaugh and Michigan have run out front to lead the pack.

Cliff Furr is the sports editor at The Daily Leader. He can be reached via email at sports@dailyleader.com.