An inside look at how Michigan landed its prized coach—and how devoted the former Wolverine was to his alma mater all along
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh before the Wolverines’ team photo in Ann Arbor last week.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
JOHN U. BACON
The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football.”
Until it happened, the idea that Jim Harbaugh might want to leave the NFL to coach Michigan was regarded as absurd. But a dozen people who spent a summer day with him in northern Michigan last July knew different.
Harbaugh and his wife Sarah were in the Leelanau Peninsula, the “pinkie” of Michigan’s mitten, for the wedding of Garrett Celek, a tight end with Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers. They flew in on a Friday afternoon and spent the evening with Todd Anson, his wife Terri and their friends, including yours truly. (I had gotten to know Todd while researching my previous two books.) After some appetizers and cocktails, the entire party boarded the SS Boike, a pontoon boat with ample bench seating and a couple of coolers.
The boat’s owner, Bill Boike, a Michigan-trained neurologist, donned his captain’s hat and guided the boat through some narrows in a no-wake zone near the Ironton Ferry. Boike just happened to have handy a recording of “The Victors,” Michigan’s fight song, and couldn’t resist blaring it through the speakers, “just to welcome Jim to our little piece of heaven,” Boike told me later. “Jim’s response was awesome. With no hesitation and unabashed enthusiasm he joined in, fist-pumping in the air, singing at the top of his lungs.”
The passengers hadn’t gotten too far into the song when Boike’s boat encountered another boat with a few fans of rival Michigan State on it, and their green flag flying high. It turned out they just happened to have the MSU fight song ready to blast in response, while the two boats raced down the lake. But the SS Boike had more volume and more passengers, and eventually won the battle of the bands.
“This stuff just doesn’t happen in the NFL!” Harbaugh said.
“Our Spartan friends turned their boat around,” Boike said, “and a young lady stood up and proudly mooned us as they took off.”
Wouldn’t it be great…
Most of the guests left about 10 that night, but Todd, Jim and I stayed up until 2 a.m., catching up and talking about mutual friends, Ann Arbor and Michigan football.
In the middle of our conversation, Harbaugh turned to Todd and said, “I think it’s great to grow up in a college town, don’t you?”
“He’s said that many times to me,” Sarah later told me. “ ‘Wouldn’t it be great to raise our kids in a college town?’ That’s always been in the back of his mind.”
When the Harbaughs headed to the wedding the next day, there was still a mountain of obstacles between Harbaugh and the Michigan coaching job.
But that night, two bits of conventional wisdom—that the Harbaughs were unwilling to leave California and the NFL, and had no interest in Michigan—were revealed as illusions. In fact, the opposite was true. Harbaugh had never lost his feeling for Michigan, and his desire to coach there was as strong as ever.
The good vibrations were nice, but all the fight-song singing in the world couldn’t be confused with a contract. That was the job of Jim Hackett, the former chief executive of Steelcase, an office-furniture company, who became Michigan’s interim athletic director on Oct. 31, 2014.
In December, after Michigan finished a miserable 5-7 season that resulted in coach Brady Hoke’s firing, Hackett and Harbaugh had long talks on Saturday nights, developing a good rapport. (To avoid anything leaking to the media, Hackett always referred to Harbaugh internally as “Unicorn,” which reflected Hackett’s belief that Harbaugh was a one-of-a-kind candidate.)
“The interesting thing is,” Hackett later told me, “we never talked specifically about Jim being head coach. We talked about what Michigan needed. After a few weeks of this, we’re going back and forth and getting really excited about the possibilities, and Jim says, ‘We’re getting excited about this, aren’t we?’
“Yes we are,” Hackett said.
“You didn’t offer me the job, did you?” Harbaugh asked.
“No, I haven’t.”
“I didn’t accept, did I?”
“No, you didn’t.”
It wasn’t an agreement, by design, Hackett says, “But that gave me the confidence, no matter what pressure the media was putting on me, I could stick to my guns.”
At one point in their conversations, “I shared with him my time line,” Hackett said. “ ‘Here’s my walk away date: Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014.’ ”
Harbaugh introduces his team to fans and media at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines, college football’s all-time winningest team, haven’t won the Big Ten Conference since 2004.PHOTO: TONY DING/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Day by day, it became clearer to Hackett that Harbaugh was sincerely interested in leading Michigan’s program. But by Dec. 27—the day before Harbaugh’s last game as coach of the 49ers—Hackett still didn’t have a contract, or any assurance from Harbaugh that he would sign one.
“I figured the minute Jim’s season was done,” Hackett told me, “he’d be open season for the NFL teams, and he’d get flooded with offers that night. So I wanted to make Saturday my day.”
Hackett dialed Harbaugh for their weekly phone call. It was no longer about relationship-building. Hackett needed an answer—a firm one.
“I need to trust you, Jim,” he said, “and I need to know if you’re going to come back to Michigan.”
“I need to finish my commitment here,” Harbaugh said, “so I can’t sign anything until we finish here. You understand that, yes?”
“Yes, I do.”
“So I can’t sign yet,” Harbaugh repeated. But then he said the words Hackett and Michigan fans everywhere longed to hear: “But I want to come.”
“We need the agreement signed,” Hackett said.
MICHIGAN’S 2015 SCHEDULE
All times Eastern
Sept. 3: at Utah (8:30 p.m., FS1)
Sept. 12: Oregon State (12 p.m., ABC)
Sept. 19: UNLV (12 p.m., BTN)
Sept. 26: Brigham Young
Oct. 3: at Maryland (8 p.m., BTN)
Oct. 10: Northwestern (3:30 p.m.)
Oct. 17: Michigan State
Oct. 31: at Minnesota (8 p.m.)
Nov. 7: Rutgers
Nov. 14: at Indiana
Nov. 21: at Penn State
Nov. 28: Ohio State
Then, Hackett recalls, “There followed a long pause. Long pause. Long pause. Finally, Jim says, ‘Yes.’ ”
Looking back on it, Hackett said, “I don’t know in business if I would have done that, just accepted a verbal commitment. But with this system—Michigan football—I knew I could, because it was a system we’d both been raised in. We know what it means. We know how we’re to conduct ourselves. I had faith that he learned what I learned: that your word has to be good.”
Feeling the love
The next day, Dec. 28, John Denniston, Harbaugh’s lawyer, sent Hackett the term sheet—a Cliffs Notes contract that commits both parties until the full contract can be executed. Hackett received it on his tablet computer. He needed to sign it, then send it back for Harbaugh to sign. He planned to handle all that on his flight back from California, where he rents a home in the Los Angeles area, to Michigan, “but the damn thing won’t work, and I can’t get an email out either!” Now Denniston, a fellow Michigan alum, had to trust Hackett.
Getting anxious over his four-hour flight, unable to communicate and concerned that Denniston might be thinking he had gotten cold feet, as soon as Hackett got off his plane, he bolted straight for the airport Westin Hotel. By that time, Denniston was standing in the 49ers’ locker room at halftime, waiting for Hackett’s signature.
Hackett went to the Westin’s business office, but it couldn’t handle PDF software. He couldn’t fax it from the hotel, because he knew news of that would get out and hit the Internet almost instantly. He decided to take a picture of the agreement with his iPhone, but then the battery died.
Harbaugh at the Big Ten’s media gathering in Chicago.PHOTO: PAUL BEATY/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Hackett charged his phone at the hotel bar, while watching the 49ers game. One of the customers recognized him, and said, “I bet you’re excited Harbaugh’s not going to be in the playoffs!”
Hackett restrained himself from divulging what was actually happening. His phone came back to life. He signed the deal and hit “send.” Denniston’s trust paid off.
So why did Harbaugh leave the NFL for Michigan?
“A lot of people say, ‘You made it to the top, you’ve got to stay at the top,’ ” Sarah Harbaugh said. “Not that he’s taking a step down by coming to Michigan, but he’s pursuing something that he always he felt was his destiny.
“Say you have this guy pursuing you and he’s in love with you, but he’s just admiring you from afar. You’re dating this big macho guy who gets all the ladies, but he doesn’t treat you right. And you finally decide to give the other guy a chance, and that’s when you realize it’s a match made in heaven. And you ask yourself, ‘Why didn’t I go out with this person 10 years ago?’
“Feeling the love. That’s what it came down to.”
—Excerpted from “Endzone” (St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan)