Two years ago, the Michigan Wolverines had just lost to Rutgers to post an anemic 2-4 record. Fans were miserable, especially the students, and they showed it by staying home instead of going to the stadium.
Last week, Michigan beat Rutgers 78-0. They’re undefeated, and ranked fourth in the nation. What a difference a couple years make – or one coach, take your pick.
That coach, of course, is Jim Harbaugh, and he’s probably the hottest coach in America.
But Michigan fans always need something to worry about, and right now they’re worried that maybe Harbaugh is too hot.
"How long will he stay in Ann Arbor?"
The question arises from both fear and hope: fear that he’ll return to the NFL, and the hope that he’ll finish his career at Michigan.
The fear is real enough.
Harbaugh gave his previous three teams a solid four years each before moving on to a better job. And the better the Wolverines play, the more likely NFL owners will try to steal him for their teams.
But Michigan seems like more than just another job to Harbaugh. When I asked him a few months ago what he’d noticed about returning to his hometown, he told me he was struck by how healthy people are. They seem more youthful, more centered, and more grounded. They’re not in a hurry to be somewhere else.
They like it where they are. “It’s a healthy, productive, happy place, more so than other places we’ve lived.”
Harbaugh’s assessment is certainly flattering for Ann Arborites.
While Ann Arbor consistently appears among the top ten places to live for everybody from students to small business owners to senior citizens, it’s a safe bet many of them would swap all those rankings for Harbaugh’s praise, and for a simple reason: his appraisal suggests he has not just returned to his home town, but found his home – perhaps his final home.
Jim’s wife Sarah told me people in Ann Arbor feel connected to the town. She thinks it’s a good place to raise a family – which is interesting, because she’s raising a family.
Michigan’s previous three coaches all bought houses in Saline, a former farm town that’s become an Ann Arbor suburb, but the Harbaughs live in one of Ann Arbor’s oldest neighborhoods, a few doors up from Bo Schembechler’s old home – where Jim used to babysit Bo’s son Schemy – the same neighborhood where Michigan legends Fielding Yost, Fritz Crisler, and Don Canham all lived.
The Harbaughs’ kids go to Jim’s former elementary school. His parents recently moved to the same street, when they could have relocated near John in Baltimore, or Joanie in Bloomington, Indiana, or stayed in Wisconsin.
Those decisions were not accidents.
And then there’s Michigan football.
Sarah Harbaugh told me Stanford has good fans, the San Francisco 49ers have great fans, but Michigan football is a way of life. The fans have memories that stretch back generations. But, Sarah said, “it makes me sad that I don’t have that past with it.”
Jim answered, “Our kids will.”
Harbaugh could coach damn near anywhere he wants, but he chose to return to Michigan for the most compelling reason of all: it makes him happy.
The morning before our conversation, they discovered a baby deer in the woods by their driveway. The Harbaugh children were captivated by the adorable animal. They had never seen a deer before, let alone a baby deer, and they were mesmerized.
When people ask Harbaugh how he’s doing, he tells them, “Never better. Never better.”
Sarah added, “When we saw that deer, that’s what we said: ‘Who’s got it better than us?’”
Jim knew the answer to that one. “Noooooo-body!”
That doesn’t sound like a man about to leave, does it?