Under the current paradigm of college football success, Michigan is not a great job.
It’s located in a region of the country that is bleeding jobs and people. The weather sucks. The Wolverines play in a punchline of a conference.
In the era of realignment, we’ve moneyballed college football by fixating on proximity to recruits and TV sets and conference Q-Rating as keys to success. Despite their storied histories, the Oklahomas and Michigans can’t really compete with a USC or a Florida on those terms.
Yet, Jim Harbaugh, one of the most coveted coaches on both the NFL and college levels, made his way back to Ann Arbor Tuesday to be introduced as his alma mater’s new head honcho. (For the record, I was among the legions of doubters who thought he’d never make this move after getting a taste of the pros.)
With Harbaugh, you could argue that this is a special case: He fits the “Michigan Man” thing to a T. The money helps, too, of course.
But that doesn’t explain how a flagging college power snared a rabid, ego-driven coach from the height of his profession.
Football just matters more at some places, and Michigan is one of them. It’s not just that these schools have passionate fans who show up to games. It’s that football is inextricably embedded in their cultural identity. That’s not something that you can buy with lavish spending on facilities and moneywhipped coaches. It comes from decades upon decades of accumulated communal history — not only a tradition of winning, but of football being a defining feature of what makes a place what it is.
That’s why Bo Pelini got bounced at Nebraska. Bob Stoops is struggling to maintain the faith of Sooner Nation because of it. It means Brian Kelly is picking up detractors by the day at Notre Dame, even after playing for the national championship two years ago.
Michigan may be arrogant and like to play at being above it all. Still, there’s no denying that the school’s relationship with football is more Alabama than North Carolina.
Jobs of the Michigan ilk don’t possess the same built-in advantages they once did. But good luck convincing those fans that it means they can’t keep winning. And that’s why they can.