Former 49er head coach Jim Harbaugh is headed to his alma mater, Michigan, to assume the position of head coach. He will revitalize the Michigan football program and return that institution to its' place in the prestigious football hierarchy that it has historically occupied. His firing will leave the 49ers in a precarious position. They have significant talent, but he was the inspiration for their resurrection.
I represented Jim as a player during his NFL career, but did not do his coach contracts. When I showed up to meet him in Ann Arbor in 1987, he reluctantly answered the door wrapped in a sheet. He had the flu and a bad fever and wanted to postpone our meeting. He suggested postponing, but I had flown all the way from California to meet, and he croaked "just wait a few minutes." He emerged a few minutes later, fully dressed and showed intense focus in our discussion on representation. That is Jim Harbaugh, he is a gamer.
When he was drafted by the Bears as their first-round draft pick in 1987, he had a bad case of the chicken pox; his face was filled with pox. After his initial press conference in Chicago, I asked the reporters how he had done. "He was great," I was told, "and he would be very handsome if he just had a better complexion." Again, that is Jim Harbaugh, he shows up in difficult situations.
Mike Ditka coached the Bears and was especially rough verbally on his rookie QB. Jim never complained, he was the son of a coach, and just kept trying to get better. He led the Bears to many thrilling victories, as he did later with the Colts. They called him "Captain Comeback." He never thought a game was not winnable. He was always popular with his teammates and the fans. He had a great sense of humor and did things like call "The Jim Rome Show" on radio in the great "smack off." Was he intense? Absolutely. Infused with a desire to win.
He decided post-career to coach and won everywhere he went. He transformed the University of San Diego program and turned Stanford University into a powerhouse. He took a San Francisco 49ers team and turned it around. Four years, three playoff appearances, a .698 winning percentage and an appearance in the Super Bowl. This was a tougher year with a roster decimated by injury.
His conflict with administrators involves details we are not privy to. It is likely a function of Jim's unrelenting drive for perfection. He pushes for the best facilities, the best treatment of assistants, the ideal conditions for players. This can be uncomfortable for executives who feel he is never satisfied. He's not-he pushes the envelope for excellence. He has his quirks, and they make him more interesting to be around.
Michigan will love Harbaugh. He has a strong and consistent plan for how to build a program. He will win over parents and players and be a formidable recruiter. He will attract great assistant coaches. He loves his alma mater and will represent it well. He is not a boring, vanilla personality. He will inspire and instill competitive fire in young athletes. And Michigan will once again be a power to be reckoned with on the gridiron.