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Report: Harbaugh returning to Michigan

Tribune-Review
| Monday, December 29, 2014 7:09 p.m.

Former San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was in discussions with Michigan to return to his alma mater as its new football coach, a person with knowledge of the talks said Monday.

Multiple reports say the school will announce Tuesday that the former Michigan quarterback is replacing the fired Brady Hoke. Harbaugh didn’t immediately respond to calls or text messages.

The 51-year-old Harbaugh coached the 49ers to three straight NFC championship games and San Francisco lost the 2013 Super Bowl to a Baltimore Ravens team coached by his brother, John. After the 49ers slipped to 8-8 this season and missed the playoffs, he parted ways with the team in what both sides called a mutual decision.

The idea of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry spiced up with Harbaugh vs. Urban Meyer harkens to the Big Ten’s glory days, when Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes ruled the conference. The buzz is serious and there was word of a “Khaki Out” during the Michigan men’s basketball game Tuesday afternoon amid hopes that the khaki-loving Harbaugh would make an appearance.

“He’s basically Michigan royalty right now,” said former Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson, now a Jacksonville Jaguars running back. “He’s the man right now. I think he’s going to do a great job and help out recruiting. He’s had success at every school he went to. I think it’s a great fit for Michigan.”

Big Ten Network analyst and former college coach Gerry DiNardo said Michigan, the only school with more than 900 all-time wins, would be bringing in a “rock star” capable of returning the Wolverines to elite status in a short time.

“This gives Michigan a chance to catch up,” DiNardo said.

Still, Michigan’s new coach has his work cut out for him in a Big Ten East Division that’s only getting tougher.

Meyer is preparing the Buckeyes 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’s James Franklin is a celebrated recruiter who looks to have the Nittany Lions on the rise.

Under Hoke, Michigan dipped to 5-7 this season and was among only four Big Teams to not earn a bowl bid. The Wolverines were 31-20 in Hoke’s four seasons and declined steadily after an 11-2 mark in his first year.

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.

Harbaugh’s first Stanford team went 4-8 in a season highlighted by a 24-23 win over No. 1 Southern California, a game in which the Cardinal was a 41-point underdog. Stanford was 5-7 the following season, then improved to 8-5 and earned a Sun Bowl berth in 2009 — the school’s first bowl appearance since 2001. They won the Orange Bowl with quarterback Andrew Luck his final season.

The 49ers hired Harbaugh four days after the bowl, and he went 44-19-1 with two NFC West titles in four seasons.

“I wish him nothing but the best and appreciate everything he did for us,” 49ers fullback Bruce Miller said. “Had a great run and wish nothing but good things for him at Michigan.”

Harbaugh, the starting quarterback for three seasons in the mid-1980s under Schembechler, is now being looked to as the coach to return Michigan to prominence.

“I think it gives the Big Ten great credibility,” said Lou Holtz, the former coach and ESPN analyst. “I’ve always felt the real evaluation of a conference is strength of coaches. When you look at the SEC, there’s Nick Saban, there was Urban Meyer (at Florida), Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt, Les Miles. Now in the Big Ten you’ve got an Urban Meyer, a Jim Harbaugh, a Mark Dantonio.”

Harbaugh’s leadership showed up during his playing days in Ann Arbor. He is well 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.

He played 15 years in the NFL, earning the nickname “Captain Comeback” for leading fourth-quarter playoff rallies for the Indianapolis Colts. Harbaugh later coached quarterbacks for the Oakland Raiders in 2002-03 before returning to the college ranks.

Early media reports had Michigan offering Harbaugh $49 million over six years. DiNardo, whose coaching resume includes stops at LSU, Indiana and Vanderbilt, said he doubted Harbaugh would have taken the job if he weren’t promised to have full autonomy in running the program.

“You don’t pay someone millions of dollars and tell him what jersey number the quarterback should wear,” DiNardo said. “This coach has to be left alone, whether that’s the size of the recruiting staff or facilities or non-conference schedule. All those decisions have to be Jim Harbaugh’s. No one told Bo Schembechler what to do. He sees the big picture.”

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