ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — By the time Jim Harbaugh walked onto the court at halftime of the Michigan basketball game, his homecoming had turned into a full-fledged pep rally.
“I pledge to you that we will do our very best to carry on the great tradition of Michigan — excellence all across the board,” the Wolverines’ new football coach said to the cheering crowd at Crisler Center during Tuesday’s matinee win against Illinois — in 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.
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 Conference and has become an afterthought in the national landscape.
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.
“Michigan’s always been great. It’s always been great. I always believe in it,” Harbaugh said. “In terms of selling something, you’re selling something you believe in in your core.”
As a starting quarterback for three seasons under Bo Schembechler, he is remembered for delivering a victory he guaranteed over 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. After all, he inherits a team that has lost 10 of its last 11 games to archrival Ohio State and six of its last seven to Michigan State. If those two rivals were looking for bulletin board material from Harbaugh, he didn’t give them much — not yet, at least.
“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’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 49ers.
Michigan’s new coach has his work cut out for him in a Big Ten East Division that’s now full of big-name coaches. Urban Meyer is preparing Ohio State for this week’s semifinal against Alabama in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio has built a program that has staying power. Penn State is on the rise and Wisconsin and Nebraska are ahead of the Wolverines in performance and talent.
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 San Francisco 49ers to three straight NFC championship games, but they missed the playoffs this season at 8-8 and he left in what the team called a mutual decision.
Now he returns to Michigan, where the fan base has become a bit fractured — and even apathetic — of late.
Those two problems seem to have been solved already.
“Jim is going to have the support of the great, great majority of the Michigan family,” said Lloyd Carr, who coached the Wolverines to a national title during the 1997 season.
Carr and former Michigan coach Gary Moeller were both at the news conference, and Harbaugh had plenty of other supporters.
“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 went 58-27 overall as a college coach at San Diego and Stanford, including a 29-21 record in four seasons with the Cardinal. He took over a 1-11 team when he was hired in December 2006 and quickly turned the program back into a winner and bowl contender before the 49ers hired him.
His 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 — 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.”