Back in 2008, a brand-new Michigan coach with an admirable pedigree lost his season-opener to Utah. Things did not get better for Rich Rodriguez; his first Michigan team finished 3-9, and his second went 5-7, and his third went 7-6, and then Rodriguez and his West Virginia drawl and his fancy-pants read-option offense were summarily dismissed in favor of former Michigan assistant coach, Brady Hoke, who would supposedly adapt more readily to a familiar culture.
It was more surprising when Hoke's tenure at Michigan took a precipitous nosedive, in large part because he so resembled—both in terms of the hard-nosed physicality of his teams and the actual physical structure of his body—the pugnacious Bo Schembechler, whose shadow looms over everything in Ann Arbor. I'm still mystified that Hoke failed so badly, but it seems clear that he wasn't as attuned to details like his successor, Jim Harbaugh. And that's not a condemnation of Hoke as much as it's an acknowledgement of what we (and maybe even Brady Hoke) already suspected, which is that Harbaugh is fascinatingly maniacal about every imaginable detail. That's what makes him a great football coach.
I mean, we all sort of figured Harbaugh would rebuild Michigan eventually, but this is fucking ridiculous. After the opening game loss to Utah, the Wolverines have essentially morphed into a top team. I'm pretty sure Bubba Smith was playing defensive line for Michigan State the last time Michigan allowed a touchdown; I'm pretty sure that a 97-0 run over the course of three games—which included a pair of whitewashings of pretty decent teams—constitutes the kind of emphatic statement that proves Michigan is pretty damned rebuilt six games into Harbaugh's tenure.
So how did this happen, so quickly?
"Coach Harbaugh knows how to use each guy's skill set," said Michigan's wonderfully wide-bodied and onomatopoeic tight end, Jake Butt. "It's almost like artwork when we are out there sometimes. He's getting all of these little pieces put together and (they) make one big beautiful picture."
There are two primary ways to succeed as a college football coach in the modern era: The CEO approach that Nick Saban utilized to elevate Alabama back into a perennial powerhouse, and the stylistic approach utilized by one-of-a-kind iconoclasts like Mike Leach and Chip Kelly. But it's not often you find a man who fits into either one of those categories; even Ohio State's Urban Meyer, one of the greatest football coaches ever, tends to lean more in the latter direction than the former. But Harbaugh appears balanced between those two extremes: He is both a fascinating weirdo and hardcore authoritarian, both artist and scientist. It's rare to find that combination, especially at the college level. A team that was already endowed with a certain amount of talent only needed the proper catalyst to elevate Michigan back into an elite program.
There are, of course, still critical steps to be taken, beginning with this weekend's game against Michigan State. For years now, Michigan State Mark Dantonio has relied on a strong defense and a stable of running backs and mistake-free quarterback play to essentially out-Schembechler Michigan. If Harbaugh gets beyond a 6-0 team that is the most legitimate threat to the Wolverines' physicality since that season-opening loss to Utah, then things start to get extremely serious. Then there is the legitimate possibility that the Michigan-Ohio State game will determine a playoff spot.
The best part of that potential scenario is that the notion of a long-term back-and-forth between Meyer and Harbaugh. But that also leads to the obvious big-picture question. Because there will come a moment down the road—maybe soon, maybe not very soon at all—when Harbaugh will be faced with the same choice that confronted his idol Bo Schembechler. Offered the head coach and athletic director job at Texas A&M in 1982, Schembechler declined. "Frankly, I've come to the conclusion that there are things more important in this world than money," Schembechler said. "For that reason, I've decided to stay at Michigan."
Such is the potential drawback to Michigan getting so good so quickly. If Harbaugh continues to race past anyone's expected timeline, if he somehow leads Michigan to the College Football Playoff this season, if he somehow wins a national championship in his first year at this job, he may be forced to confront his own loyalties sooner rather than later. At some point, he'll have to decide how deep his fealty to Michigan runs, and whether he returned to his alma mater for an extended stay, or to simply to fix its problem and then rejoin his already-in-progress NFL career. If the 49ers hadn't morphed into a dysfunctional franchise—largely and ironically because of Harbaugh's overly demanding nature—he probably never would have left professional football in the first place. There is no doubt a part of him that is still irked by his inability to win a Super Bowl.
This is really the only question remaining about Harbaugh: Will he settle down, eventually, or remain football's answer to basketball's Larry Brown? And if he does settle down, can he still maintain the obsessive edge that's made him such an unparalleled builder of programs and franchises in the first place? Or is his intensity both his best and worst trait, a catalyst for rapid improvement and subsequent burnout? "All we ask for," Harbaugh said recently, "is everything they've got," and it's clear that Michigan has far more than we thought they had. But it's also the early days of the Harbaugh era, and we have no idea how long it will take for the bigger picture to reveal itself.