Michigan hires Jim Harbaugh: Big Ten is a powerhouse league again

To appreciate how monumental it is that Michigan has hired Jim Harbaugh, let’s take a quick visit back to a darker day in Wolverines history.

On Jan. 1, 2007, USC humiliated third-ranked Michigan in that year’s Rose Bowl, which, coupled with Florida’s 41-14 takedown of undefeated Ohio State in the BCS championship game a week later, marked the beginning of the Big Ten’s era as a national punching bag. During the week in between those two bowls, Alabama pried away Nick Saban from the Miami Dolphins, marking the beginning of the Crimson Tide’s recent dominance of the sport. Meanwhile, out west, the then-unproven Harbaugh was in his first few weeks on the job at Stanford, the high-minded but lackluster program he’d soon build into a national force.

Nearly eight years to the day later, Michigan fans celebrate Tuesday what could be that program’s equivalent of Saban to Alabama or Urban Meyer to Ohio State.

Despite a recent spat of dysfunction that saw an athletic director ousted and the football team finish 5-7 this season, the Maize and Blue are landing one of the elite coaches in all levels of football. Harbaugh, the former Wolverines quarterback, is headed back to college just a year after coaching in his third straight NFC Championship Game. He may be a little bit crazy (at Stanford he once smeared his own face with one of his player’s blood) and frighteningly hypercompetitive (a grown man who shoots down 10-year-olds in laser tag), but he wins a lot of football games.

Michigan landing him is the best thing to happen to the downtrodden Big Ten since that fateful first week of 2007.

Suddenly, a conference with a largely uninspiring coaching roster now will boast two of the three biggest names in college coaching in Harbaugh and Meyer. And they’re going to be archrivals at the conference’s most high-profile programs.

Complete 2014-15 bowl schedule

There’s reason enough to watch Big Ten football again.

Jim Delany’s conference is 11-26 in January bowl games since that ’07 USC-Michigan Rose Bowl and has not produced a top-10 draft pick since 2008. Its teams went 6-11 against the other Power 5 conferences this season. Over the years I’ve devoted countless words to the factors behind its mediocrity spiral, from population shifts to recruiting impediments.

But there’s no understating the impact on the entire league in that one of its two historic powers has been a shell of its former self for most of the last decade. Michigan, a program that posted 20 top-10 finishes from 1969-92, has had one such season since 2004.

Give Harbaugh two years, and he’ll have them back.

Why such confidence in a guy who hasn’t graced Ann Arbor since he last played there in 1986? Because whatever difficulties he’ll face rebuilding Michigan’s roster pale in comparison to the challenge he inherited at Stanford, a 1-11 team the year before he arrived that became a 12-1 Orange Bowl champion by his final season four years later.

Michigan is an esteemed academic institution, but its admissions standards for athletes aren’t nearly as limiting as the Palo Alto school’s. Stanford has better weather, but Michigan’s stadium is more than twice as large. Its helmets and its fight song are iconic. Its resources are plentiful.

As if it weren’t enough that Harbaugh can walk into a recruit’s living room and sell all that, nearly all those recruits watch the NFL and watched Harbaugh coach in a Super Bowl just two years ago.

The national championship

The only other coaches in the country with that magnitude of persona will be the two coaching in this week’s Sugar Bowl. And if Ohio State manages to upset Alabama in Thursday’s playoff semifinal, on top of the Harbaugh news, Delany can go ahead and add another zero the league’s upcoming TV contract negotiations. (Its current deals expire in 2016.)

Harbaugh vs. Meyer figures to be fascinating. It could become the modern-day version of the Bo Schembechler-Woody Hayes 10-Year War (1969-78), except that neither guy’s yet lasted more than six years at one job. Harbaugh wasted no time antagonizing the Pac-10’s then-top dog, Pete Carroll, upon taking the Stanford job, then ratcheted it up with the famous “What’s your deal?” game.

But lest we forget, Michigan has more than one rival. And its in-state nemesis, Michigan State, has a pretty good coach of its own right now in Mark Dantonio. Let’s go ahead and call that forthcoming coaching rivalry the Scowl Bowl.

And then there’s Penn State. The hope when Delany added the Nittany Lions back in the early ‘90s was that the conference would now boast three nationally preeminent programs — and it did for a few years. But outside of a couple championship seasons, Penn State was nationally irrelevant for most of Joe Paterno’s last decade at the helm. And then it became nationally scorned and NCAA-sanctioned for the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

But Penn State, like Michigan, shelled out last year for a touted rebuilder in James Franklin, who just completed a 7-6 debut season despite pencil-thin roster depth. Add Harbaugh to a Big Ten East with Meyer, Franklin and Dantonio, and suddenly that division looks like a potential behemoth.

Ohio State, for one, should welcome the talent influx. At a Sugar Bowl press conference Sunday, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and a few key players raved at the Buckeyes’ speed and talent. “We’ve talked to several coaches in their league — these are coaches that have been in the SEC — and every coach to a T said, without a doubt, they’ve got an SEC team, they’ve got SEC speed and SEC size,” Smart said. “They just don’t play in the SEC.”

And yet the Buckeyes continue to suffer from the stigma of playing in the lightly regarded Big Ten, with few chances to prove themselves against respected opponents. It took a 59-0 Big Ten title game win for the selection committee to bump them into the top four.

“I’m excited for the Big Ten,” said Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett. “Every now and then at the end of the season when you need a signature win, it would be nice for [Michigan] to be ranked higher.” 

That’s not to say that Michigan’s gamble couldn’t completely backfire. For one thing, Harbaugh could cut and run back to the NFL at any time. Only he can say why he preferred a return to school over a trip across the bay to Oakland — those who know him well are apparently stunned he’s returning to college — but clearly he holds a special spot for his alma mater. We’ll see whether he still feels that way after a few years of the recruiting grind and the booster circuit. Or watching other coaches hold up the Lombardi Trophy each February.

Also, isn’t anyone in Ann Arbor concerned the San Francisco 49ers couldn’t wait to part ways with a guy who averaged 12 wins a year for them? Harbaugh doesn’t just rub opponents the wrong way; he’s managed to alienate the people he works with at two stops now. Before the 49ers, Harbaugh was basically a savior for Stanford football, but you’d never know it the way he’s talked about in that building. They respect the heck out of him, but their “Jim stories” aren’t exactly told with reverence. The guy’s a manic. He’s hard to work with.

But that’s hardly Michigan’s concern today. After eight years of mostly misery, of Appalachian State and Toledo, of RichRod’s 3-9 season and an NCAA investigation, of Brady Hoke’s unwatchable offense and unacceptable handling of a player’s concussion, Christmas is about to come twice in Ann Arbor this year.

The Harbaugh era, however long it lasts, will almost certainly be more successful and more entertaining than any since Schembechler’s storied tenure.

It’s a huge coup for Michigan. It’s a big win for the Big Ten. And it’s only going to make college football better if those two parties return to relevance.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, "The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff," is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.