- Dan Murphy, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
The year was 1968. Michigan football had finished with a losing record in four of the previous seven seasons. Attendance at home games was dwindling. A reluctant athletic director with a business background faced his first big decision after only a few months on the job: Hire a new coach.
After a careful search, Don Canham offered the job to Bo Schembechler and started the longest period of sustained success in program history. Schembechler and Canham spent the next two decades working together without a losing season. Their teams were ranked in the top 20 in all but one year during that stretch.
There is no telling when the cycles of history will begin anew, but the pieces are now in place for another fresh start in Ann Arbor.
Two of Schembechler’s former players, interim athletic director Jim Hackett and new coach Jim Harbaugh, give current-day Michigan its best chance to build on the program’s rich history without being crushed by it. Along with a new university president, Hackett and Harbaugh provide a promising leadership group. All three are competent in their jobs and confident enough in their own skin not to try to encroach on the others' roles.
Harbaugh flirted with the Michigan job four years ago before deciding to try the NFL. As painful as that may have been for some Wolverines fans, they should feel lucky it didn’t work out. Harbaugh’s personality would have almost certainly clashed with the ego of former athletic director Dave Brandon. His departure from San Francisco despite success on the field is evidence that a bad relationship with bosses can lead to a toxic situation, no matter how good of a coaching job Harbaugh does.
Brandon’s five-year tenure as athletic director was marked by public relations disasters, poor performances in football and political maneuvering that left the athletic department in figurative flames. As in 1968, attendance steadily shrunk amid three losing seasons in seven years. Brandon resigned in October and Hackett inherited the ashes.
For many at Michigan, Tuesday is as much of a finish line as it is a starting point. Harbaugh's arrival and the manner in which Hackett pursued him are a sign that the internal problems that plagued Michigan's athletic department are on their way out.
The university's new president, Mark Schlissel, did his homework before offering the job to Hackett. Then he got out of the way. Schlissel said he quickly learned how important football was to the university, and he empowered his interim athletic director with the resources and authority to make a slam-dunk hire.
It’s not clear how long Hackett plans to stick around, but after catching a blue whale the first time he put his line in the water, Schlissel would be smart to let him drop that interim tag whenever he wants. Hackett's first deposit in the bank of goodwill came when he said he wanted to eliminate the "Michigan Man" term that epitomized much of the entitlement and exclusivity that has held back the program in recent years. Landing Harbaugh is another major line on his résumé that should buy him and his new coach time to turn things around.
Harbaugh's past accomplishments -- turning Stanford from a Pac-10 bottom-feeder into a national power and then making three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game with the 49ers -- are even more convincing arguments for patience while Michigan tries to untangle some of the knots it has created during the past decade. His status as a former Michigan star quarterback and his passion for his alma mater are just icing on the cake.
College football programs with strong tradition have a tendency to slow themselves with the weight of past successes. It often takes a slash-and-burn break from the old to return to the top (Alabama hiring Nick Saban, for example). Hackett has served Harbaugh a clean slate on which to start building.
There’s no guarantee that Michigan can still compete in a college football world where momentum continues to tip toward the South. There's no guarantee that the Wolverines can even make it back to the top of Big Ten, where Urban Meyer and rival Ohio State have a healthy start on Harbaugh. But Hackett has done all he can to put his program in position to compete. If Michigan is going to return, now is the time.
667dMatt Fortuna and Chantel Jennings