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First choice, last chance: Harbaugh final hope to resurrect Michigan

Jim Harbaugh has seen many monikers attached to his name since it was reported he accepted the job at Michigan: messiah, savior, guardian angel or anything else that involves otherworldly power.

“I’m not comfortable with that at all,” Harbaugh said at his introductory press conference Tuesday when to react to being called the “messiah” of the program

He had better get comfortable—and fast.

Here’s what Harbaugh needs to understand: He was by far Michigan’s first choice and just as much its last chance.

Aside from that one question, the rest of the question-and-answer session with Michigan’s newest coach was very much a game of dodgeball. Harbaugh would get asked a question about the state of the program and would call it a place of “greatness.”

It was great; it isn’t right now. Harbaugh just might be the only guy capable of getting it back there. If he doesn’t work out, Michigan won’t have anywhere left to go.

The Michigan program is, at best, wilting. It basically has been that way since Lloyd Carr left in 2007. The lone exception is Brady Hoke’s first season as coach when the Wolverines went to the Sugar Bowl. We’ll call that an aberration in the post-Carr era.

The three succeeding years suggested Hoke was a bad hire. But Rich Rodriguez, who replaced Carr and preceded Hoke, wasn’t a bad coach. He was just a bad fit.

This season Rodriguez had his Arizona team a Pac-12 Championship Game win away from playing in the College Football Playoff. Prior to taking the Michigan job, Rodriguez had his West Virginia teams in the national conversation and won three straight bowl games to close out his career there.

Yet at Michigan he finished with a 15-22 record over three seasons. Rodriguez was never a Michigan man like Harbaugh.

Harbaugh played quarterback for the Wolverines, finished third in Heisman voting in 1986 and led the team to the Rose Bowl that season. His dad, Jack, also coached in Ann Arbor under the legendary Bo Schembechler.

Basically, Harbaugh grew up wearing the maize and blue. That’s certain to help him sell the program.

But what makes him a great fit is his personality. He’s über-vibrant, über-intense, über-emotional—really, über-everything—which is the kind of guy that will attract every high school football player in America.

Lacking that guy for much of the past decade has made Michigan an afterthought to most top recruits. Rivals Ohio State and Michigan State dominated the landscape.

But with a personality-driven celebrity coach, the Wolverines can compete with the Buckeyes’ Ubran Meyer and Spartans’ Mark Dantonio—both considered among the top coaches nationally.

At each of his previous stops—San Diego, Stanford and the 49ers—Harbaugh turned the downtrodden into winners. Stanford is now a Pac-12 power and he went to a Super Bowl with the 49ers.

Only the king of turnaround looked a little turned around himself on Tuesday. Maybe we can call it PR spin. Harbaugh clearly wanted to, publicly, paint Michigan’s program as tradition-rich.

His key to success will be to, at least privately, realize it hasn’t been that way for a while.

But it’s Harbaugh’s personality to be coy and bullish at times. That was on display throughout Tuesday’s press conference. And make no mistake: This was a personality hire.

We saw it from the jump on Tuesday.

As he took the podium Harbaugh joked: “Did anyone see me trip? A lesser athlete would have gone down.”

Michigan’s hope is that he doesn’t trip the rest of the way. A lesser coach undoubtedly would.


Twitter: @SethGruen