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The idea that Harbaugh would return to Michigan seemed ridiculous two years ago

Jul 15, 2016

It’s seems like eons ago now, but just two years ago, Michigan football coach Brady Hoke seemed poised for a solid season. With eight or nine wins, Hoke’s job would be safe, athletic director Dave Brandon would give him a contract extension, and the Brandon-Hoke Era would continue for many years.

On the West Coast, everybody expected Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers to make their fourth straight trip to the playoffs.

So, in the summer of 2014, the idea that Harbaugh would return to Michigan seemed ridiculous.

Even if Michigan’s head coaching position somehow magically opened, almost all the experts said Harbaugh would never leave the NFL for Michigan.

But after a summer night in Northern Michigan, that last theory suddenly looked highly suspect.

In mid-July of 2014, Jim and Sarah Harbaugh traveled to Northern Michigan for a wedding.

They flew in a day early to spend the evening with Todd Anson, a San Diego attorney, his wife, Terri, and a dozen or so of Anson’s friends, including yours truly. I had gotten to know Todd while researching my previous two books.

Before dinner, the entire party boarded a pontoon boat, the S.S. Boike, for a cruise around Lake Charlevoix. The boat’s owner, Bill Boike, just happened to have a CD of “The Victors” handy, and couldn’t resist blasting it through the speakers.

The party boaters hadn’t gotten too far down the lake when they encountered another boat with some Spartans on it, and their green flag flying high. It turned out they just happened to have their own fight song handy, and cranked it up to drown out “The Victors.”

But when Harbaugh stood up to lead his boat in singing, “The Victors,” the S.S. Boike won the battle of the bands. Defeated, the Spartans turned their boat around, while a young lady stood up and proudly mooned us as they took off.

When Harbaugh sat down, he slapped his knee and said, “This stuff just doesn’t happen in the NFL!”

When I thought about it, I realized he was right.

You probably don’t get boats with 49ers flags and Raiders flags racing each other in the Pacific Ocean with their fight songs blaring. They don’t even have fight songs.

Harbaugh turned to Sarah and said, “You’ve got to learn this song!”

Sarah told me later, “Jim was sooo happy that night. It was easy to see he still felt very much connected to Michigan, and excited to be back.”

Even the notoriously unpredictable Michigan weather, which turned chilly and gray that evening, could not dampen Harbaugh’s enthusiasm.

When he told Sarah he loved this type of weather, and hated the way the sun always beat down on you in California – things you don’t hear too many people say -- she just smiled, and nodded.

After the other guests had left, Todd, Jim, and I stuck around to talk about mutual friends, Ann Arbor, and Michigan football. In the middle of our conversation, Harbaugh said, “I think it’s great to grow up in a college town, don’t you?”

Yes, yes it is, I thought. Why do you ask, man with three young children?

There were still a dozen obstacles between Harbaugh and the Michigan coaching job. Only a lunatic would have bet on his return in July of 2014.

But that night, two bits of conventional wisdom—that the Harbaughs were never going to leave California and the NFL, and they had no interest in Michigan—were revealed as illusions. They did not exist.

It turned out, the exact opposite was true. Harbaugh had never lost his feeling for Michigan, and his desire to return was as strong as ever.

Five months later, when Harbaugh’s father advised Jim to follow his heart, that’s exactly what he did.