Why Jim Harbaugh left the NFL
The NFL media struggled to accept the idea of Jim Harbaugh leaving professional football to coach at Michigan. They overlooked what really drove his decision.
“The coaches keep the pressure on me, to be better than the last time, to get the best out of me. But see, I realize that. There is nothing older than yesterday’s success.”
– Jim Harbaugh on October 9, 1986 as Michigan’s senior quarterback
Jim Harbaugh told me that 28 years ago in a one-on-one interview at Bicycle Jim’s Restaurant in Ann Arbor. He was at Michigan, I was covering him and his team for the Detroit Free Press and we both fell under the allure and awe of then Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.
It wasn’t any other way with Bo. Whether you played for him or wrote about him, his direct, blunt, candid and yet wisdom-filled sincerity took hold. As a player, Harbaugh disagreed with him. As a writer, I disagreed with him. But his persistence and integrity could not be denied. He made you think. He made you take a second look – and sometimes a third.
This is the essence of Jim Harbaugh, the blueprint he followed for his 14-year NFL playing career and for each of his head coaching stops at the University of San Diego, Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers. His parents, Jack and Jackie, laid that foundation. Schembechler and Mike Ditka were coaches who helped cement it.
Harbaugh has returned to those roots. He called it a “homecoming.”
Becoming the 20th head coach at Michigan is something he said he had dreamed about. Now, he said, it is time to live it.
It is time, in part, because his relationships with 49ers management became so frosty and fractured that a split was in order. It appears it reached a pinnacle during contract talks before last season where the 49ers made him feel relatively worthless. If you make Jim Harbaugh feel unappreciated, unwanted, not worth it, he is not the type to hang around. It is time, in part, because there is a need at Michigan football and a call to answer. An open door, a wide-open embrace, appreciation and that feel of being wanted was a blanket tossed all over him by Michigan leadership. Michigan’s need and approach captivated him.
“This is a decision I made from the heart,” Harbaugh said.
Several pundits insisted that he would never leave NFL coaching. They did not understand the lingering pull of Bo or Harbaugh’s love and loyalty to Michigan. His need to feel wanted. Appreciated. Comfortable. The need for his ego to be stroked and his heart to be touched.
He used to share with me at Michigan stories about how as a youth he kept individual statistics on his batting average in baseball, scoring average in basketball and touchdowns in football. He memorized them. Few peers wanted to play with the pre-teen Harbaugh because of his overwhelming competitiveness and ego. It was at Michigan that Harbaugh learned the soul of Schembechler’s chief mantra: THE TEAM, THE TEAM, THE TEAM.
But that competitive fire lives. He just channels it better now.
His father first coached at Michigan under Schembechler in 1973. Harbaugh signed with Michigan as a student-athlete in 1982. And now this. A homecoming. A new challenge. In many ways, an inevitable one.
He said in his introductory news conference about recruiting that he will be selling something that he “believes in to the core.” Selling something that he knows as well as “you know your name.” That will not be a hard job, he said. He talked about relationships. Especially renewing spirited and meaningful ones at Michigan and in Ann Arbor.
And what he didn’t say spoke volumes: That he left the 49ers with those kinds of relationships in tatters, broken, too ripped to mend.
He will not rest on what he has done in coaching. That’s yesterday’s success. He will push it all forward. He will push hard.
Jim Harbaugh came back to Michigan to fix, to heal what is broken. To re-emphasize what really matters to him. To find peace. To stand on the shoulders of so many men and to a place he respects. To rebuild what Schembechler built. To repay. To honor. To create happiness over hurt.
In Michigan. And in himself.