Some 25 million Americans watched with heavenly joy (or as the case may be, in Ohio, infernal dread) as the Michigan Wolverines defeated the Washington Huskies in the college football national championship on Monday. This was Michigan’s first national title since 1997, and only its second since 1948.
For Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines’ head coach since 2015, Michigan football is a family affair. Celebrating on the field after his team’s victory, Harbaugh, who was a star quarterback for the Wolverines four decades ago, was joined by his mother, Jacqueline, and his father, Jack, a former assistant coach at Michigan; his oldest son, Jay, who coaches special teams for Michigan; and his brother, John, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
But for all the depth of his connection to the state and the team, Harbaugh’s first national championship victory may also be his last game as Michigan’s head coach. Widespread reports suggest that he will leave Michigan to return to the National Football League, prompted by his unsatisfied Super Bowl ambitions (he was a great success as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 through 2014 but never won the Lombardi Trophy) and his weariness with the state of the college game — especially its ersatz regulatory authorities, who twice suspended him this season for infractions of questionable severity.
If Harbaugh does leave Michigan, it will be a grievous loss not only for the Wolverines, but for all of college football. It would mean the departure of one of the sport’s most engaging and idiosyncratic personalities as well as one of the most vocal advocates for players who have long sought to benefit from the billions of dollars in revenue generated by college football. That Harbaugh has remained stalwart in this reformist crusade (and, notably, in his advocacy for racial justice) while remaining true to his traditionalist coaching style (and to his religiously inflected social conservatism) makes him even more remarkable — and the prospect of his departure even more lamentable.
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