The Wolverine

March 2024

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 21 of 83

22 THE WOLVERINE ❱ MARCH 2024 BY CHRIS BALAS W hen interim athletics director Jim Hackett set out to make the hire that could change Michigan football's fortunes after seven years in the abyss (minus 2011's 11-2 season), he understood what most elite businessmen at the top of their profes- sion know: With such a narrow focus on one can- didate, the consequences of a failure to land the top target could be cata- strophic. To most Michigan fans, the program had already reached the bottom after 2014's 5-7 mark under Brady Hoke in his fourth year (31-20 mark for four sea- sons). Three years of Rich Rodriguez (2008-2010, 15-22 record) had proven to be a high-risk, high-reward experi- ment that didn't work, and other than the Sugar Bowl championship season, Hoke couldn't turn it around, either. But Hackett, an esteemed Michigan alumnus and former CEO of world- renowned Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Mich., showed no hesitation in shooting for the candidate he believed to be the perfect fit to essentially save the pro- gram he loved. "We called it 'Project Unicorn,'" Hackett explained last summer when the team visited the Gerald R. Ford Mu- seum as part of their statewide trip. He added he knew that's how most people would view landing arguably the na- tion's top coach, especially when he'd have to convince him to return from the NFL to the collegiate ranks. To that point, Jim Harbaugh had proven himself to be exactly that. He started his coaching career as quar- terbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders — ironically, Michigan passed on him for the same coaching job in the early 2000s — and led the University of San Diego to consecutive 11-1 finishes in Years 2 and 3 as the Toreros' head coach. From there, he turned a moribund Stanford program into a national power. He took a team that was 1-11 the sea- son before he arrived and led it to a 12-1 mark, Orange Bowl win and final No. 4 national ranking in 2010, his fourth and last season in Palo Alto. Harbaugh then moved up the road to the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, where he compiled a 49-22-1 record over four seasons and led the team to three NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl (the team had not made the playoffs since 2002, an eight-year span). He came within one controver- sial play of winning it all, falling to his brother's Baltimore Ravens team, 34-31, in 2013. Had he won that one, it's possible he'd still be the Michigan coach today. But he supposedly wore out his wel- come with the front office and own- ership in the Bay Area, and their loss would prove to be Michigan's gain. Hackett knew after a 42-28 defeat at Ohio State in 2014 that the longer U-M languished in irrelevance, the harder it would be to regain its place among the college football royalty. "I was trying to think through, 'What does Michigan need?'" Hackett recalled in the months after he landed Harbaugh. "I came away thinking we can't afford to experiment a lot more. If you look at the last seven years, it started with Harbaugh's time at Michigan culminated with the national championship that both he and fans had dreamed of for many years. PHOTO BY DOMINICK SOKOTOFF LEGACY COMPLETE Jim Harbaugh Accomplished Everything Expected And More In His Nine Years At Michigan

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