When Jim Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor to revive his tradition-rich alma mater, the Michigan football coach was revered as a skilled architect.
Even Harbaugh liked the comparison.
“I think of myself as more of a construction guy,” he said at his introductory news conference in December 2014. “You build a home, and hopefully it’s a great cathedral. Then afterwards, they tell you to build another one.”
But as time passed, that tremendous structure never materialized and the Wolverines were left instead with some ordinary McMansion fit for a suburban subdivision. It was decent but far from spectacular and fell below the standard of the best out there. Then it began to fall apart, as the cumulative wear and tear exposed more serious problems that traced back to a weak foundation.
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Now, as Year 7 of the Harbaugh era starts with spring practice Monday, it’s been torn down and a painstaking remodel is set to begin. This process will unfold in the shadow of the contract extension Harbaugh signed last month that nearly halved his salary and slashed the university’s buyout obligation while raising questions about the coach’s long-term future if he doesn’t complete this project quickly.
For Harbaugh, it’s a daunting task.
His son, Jay, is the only remaining member of the original staff that helped build Michigan back into a conference contender. He’s now part of a revamped organization that has five new assistants and will soon welcome another one after linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary left for Tennessee late last week. The additions include Mike Macdonald, a first-time defensive coordinator who is 33 and never called a play.
The upheaval within the program’s leadership has trickled down to the roster, which is also in the throes of transition.
Ten scholarship players entered the transfer portal since September, which has mitigated the net effect of Wolverines’ accomplishments on the recruiting trail. Within the last 35 days, Michigan has bid farewell to promising sophomore running back Zach Charbonnet and Joe Milton, its starting quarterback last season.
Milton’s decision to leave Ann Arbor has only reinforced the prevailing thought that Harbaugh is beginning anew in this advanced stage of his tenure with untested people all around him.
He has a new, inexperienced coordinator commanding his defense. With either Cade McNamara, J.J. McCarthy or Dan Villari, he’ll rely on a player who has taken few — if any — snaps at the college level to run his offense.
But it doesn’t stop there. Harbaugh has one assistant, Ron Bellamy, who has never coached at this level. He has another, Sherrone Moore, who has never directed the position group he’s been assigned to lead this year, the tight ends.
It’s hard to pinpoint when things began to fall apart. Yet it’s inarguable that they did, culminating in a 2-4 season in 2020 that left a pile of rubble in its wake.
Back at the dawn of Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan, no one could have seen this coming. He had just restored the San Francisco 49ers, turning a losing outfit into a perennial Super Bowl contender that defeated teams with ruthless efficiency. Before that, he salvaged Stanford from the wreckage of the Walt Harris era and transformed the Cardinal from a one-win team to a BCS bowl winner capable of beating Pete Carroll’s juggernaut at USC.
At Michigan, where the down periods were never as protracted or distressed as they were in San Francisco or Stanford, it seemed Harbaugh would have the opportunity for even greater success. It’s why his return to Ann Arbor was greeted with such fanfare and the Wolverines’ most ardent supporters celebrated him as a savior dressed in khaki-covered cloth.
Back then, Harbaugh was as uncomfortable with that perception as he was dismissive of the idea he would have to overhaul his old home.
“I’m not agreeing that it’s a turnaround,” he said then. “This is Michigan, and there are no turnarounds in Michigan.”
But that’s exactly what’s taking place these days along State Street in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh is again equipped with his hard hat and a set of blueprints, dreaming of another way to build that great cathedral and wondering what it will take this time to do it.
Follow Rainer Sabin on Twitter @RainerSabin.