What will Harbaugh’s legacy be at Michigan, win or lose in the Fiesta Bowl?
Before we get all caught up in what’s going to happen between Michigan football and TCU on Saturday in Arizona, and possibly between Michigan and Georgia or Ohio State on Jan. 9 in California, let’s take a step back and appreciate what’s happening right now with the Wolverines and their coach.
Simply put, no matter what happens to Michigan in the College Football Playoff — win a semifinal, win it all, or lose — Jim Harbaugh has already cemented his legacy within the considerable lore of Wolverines football.
That we are even considering his legacy in this moment, when Harbaugh has delivered Michigan to the precipice of a national championship for a second straight year, tells us his legacy is one of the program’s most esteemed coaches.
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It’s often hard to understand the scope of the present because we become enthralled by the distractions of the moment.
What if Michigan chokes against TCU?
What if the Wolverines get to the national championship game and lose to Georgia for a second straight year?
Or, worst of all, what if they lose the national championship game to Ohio State?
All of those scenarios surely would color our perception of Harbaugh and this era of Michigan football, right?
Maybe, but it shouldn’t.
For all but the most devout of Wolverines faithful — the ones who refuse to leave their maize-and-blue fan caves for days after any loss and sit inconsolable in a corner wrapped in a 1997 blanket — no loss in the CFP should affect how we view what Harbaugh and the Wolverines have done over two seasons.
Of course a loss would sting. Any loss would sting on this arc that bends toward college football immortality. But Harbaugh already has scribbled his name into Michigan’s record books with his consecutive Big Ten championships, as well as having left an indelible mark on fans’ hearts with consecutive beatdowns of the Buckeyes.
Thanks to the expansion of the season schedule, Harbaugh has become the first Michigan football coach to go 13-0. To think that number might stretch to 15-0 leads to mathematical vertigo; it’s a number almost too outlandish to consider for Michigan fans, who weren’t even sure earlier this year Harbaugh would be their coach, as he interviewed with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
If Michigan wins the national championship, things change altogether for Harbaugh. He immediately claims his spot in the pantheon of Wolverines legends, alongside Fielding Yost, Fritz Crisler, Lloyd Carr and Bo Schembechler.
But even if Michigan doesn’t win it all this year, Harbaugh is already in that conversation. He passed Crisler and Bennie Oosterbaan on U-M’s all-time wins list this year, sitting in fourth place with 74. He’s two games away from becoming only the fifth person to coach 100 games at Michigan. One game after that, he’ll pass Oosterbaan, and a couple years later he’ll pass Carr.
In his eighth season at U-M, Harbaugh just turned 59, which means he probably won’t reach the heady service time of Yost’s 25 years or even Schembechler’s 21 years. But longevity should only matter so much. What should matter more is what gets accomplished during any tenure.
For now, there is one thing that Harbaugh has accomplished that should be remembered as much as any score against any opponent. He has restored the hope and pride of a storied program that had become piteous, lost and — even worse — irrelevant under the two coaches who preceded him.
Now, we have forgotten the recent dreary past and are looking back even further, thumbing through history books and comparing Harbaugh’s time to coaches whose names still ring throughout Ann Arbor and are plastered on the sides of buildings.
In time, the Harbaugh name might adorn a building on campus. But that’s the far-off future. For now, we should appreciate the time we’re in, because even if you’re not a Wolverines fan — even if your wardrobe contains copious amounts of green and white — you must admit the Harbaugh era is a fascinating one. Future generations will ask about Harbaugh the same way they’ll ask about Tom Izzo. The same way younger generations ask now about Schembechler, Scotty Bowman, Chuck Daly and Sparky Anderson.
Few coaches transcend the teams they lead. The job is hard enough without the pressure of presenting an engaging personality. Bill Belichick and Nick Saban are the poster boys for winning without grinning. They will forever be adored by their fans for all their victories, which they accomplished while appearing in public as vacuous husks of soulless flesh.
Harbaugh has done what is almost unthinkable these days. He has spoken his truth in his way about football as well as contentious issues beyond his sport such as COVID-19 and abortion. He has followed his own path, even if it has led him headlong into a collision with fans, his boss, his university’s students and his city’s residents.
Years from now, someone will ask, “What was Jim Harbaugh like?”
What will be your answer? How will you sum him up? It won’t be easy, because legacies rarely are.
But even now, years before someone asks that question and only days before something historic that could dramatically change your answer, we have a good idea about the strength of his legacy.