Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh bullish on future: 'As good as it's ever been'

Another NFL coaching carousel has come and gone, and for the second straight year, Michigan football head coach Jim Harbaugh’s name was linked to multiple openings throughout the winter.

His flirting with the Denver Broncos even went as far as a first date, when he reportedly had a two-hour interview.

But for whatever interest existed on both sides, Harbaugh decided yet again to return to Ann Arbor for his ninth season with the Wolverines this fall. That wooing from football’s top level shouldn’t worry U-M fans, however, Harbaugh said.

“It’s an ongoing thing, something we treat as a positive thing,” the coach said Thursday in Schembechler Hall while talking with reporters for the first time during spring practice, which started on Monday. “NFL franchises, NFL teams have a lot of interest in all of our personnel. Coaches, players, staff and if somebody in our organization feels like that’s going to benefit them professionally and personally, we say, ‘Have at it.’

“Calls come in, calls are taken, those conversations are had, there’s a few coaches on our staff those calls came in and they decided to stay here at Michigan. I’m one of them. … I’m here as long as Michigan wants me here. You would’ve had a story if I wasn’t here. But I’m here, and this is where I want to be.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback J.J. McCarthy on the field before the game against Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

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Harbaugh, 59, returns to a Michigan program thriving on the field.

The Wolverines went 13-1 in 2022, their most wins in a single season in program history. They beat Ohio State in Columbus for their first road win in the rivalry since 2000, then won their second consecutive Big Ten championship. It’s the first back-to-back outright league titles since 1990-91.

Somehow, the future looks even brighter. Michigan returns ample talent, including seven starters from last year’s College Football Playoff squad who could’ve entered the NFL draft.

It feels as though the Wolverines have supplanted the Buckeyes as the new power atop the Big Ten.

“In all the eight years I’ve been here, the feedback I got in the month of January was as good as it’s ever been,” Harbaugh said. “From players, coaches, from (athletic director) Warde (Manuel), administration, president, from the fanbase.

“So here we go, let’s go to 2023 and have at it.”

But for Michigan’s momentum on the field, it has garnered its fair share of unwelcome moments off it the past six months — from Mazi Smith’s gun charge and Donovan Edwards’ antisemitic retweet in October to January’s firing of Matt Weiss (who is under investigation for computer crimes) and an active NCAA investigation into the program.

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh, center, quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss, right, and quarterback Cade McNamara during warmups before action against the Indiana Hoosiers, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.

Harbaugh deflected when asked about Weiss and the NCAA. On Weiss, Harbaugh said he “doesn’t know anything” and added, “I don’t think I could comment on it,” even if he did. He also called the NCAA investigations “another one of those things I don’t think I’m at liberty to discuss.”

Neither seemed to weigh on him as he stood at the lectern and discussed the status of his program, seemingly rounding into the form he has worked nearly a decade toward.

“Compare us to perfect, and we’re going to come up short in the major areas; compare us to any other program and I think you’re going to see, it doesn’t get any better,” Harbaugh said. “Talk about graduating players, (not quite) up to perfect, but it’s as close as you can possibly be over the eight years. Talk about doing things with integrity — on the field off the field, players, coaches, staff, everybody within this football program — about as close as you can get to perfection.

“Winning games, call it the same: It’s not perfect. 13-1 is not perfect. But that’s what we keep striving for, we keep chasing that perfection.”

Michigan’s new athletic director Warde Manuel gets a hug from football coach Jim Harbaugh before Harbaugh presented him with a football jersey during a news conference, Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, at the Student Union in Ann Arbor, Mich. The 47-year-old Manuel, who had been Connecticut’s athletic director since 2012, was given a five-year deal by Michigan. The salary was not immediately disclosed. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News via AP) DETROIT FREE PRESS OUT; HUFFINGTON POST OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT

That could describe Harbaugh’s relationship with his boss, Manuel, though Harbaugh said it’s better than it has been characterized this offseason. U-M’s head coach said there’s no rift within the department, despite reports of the two going months without speaking.

“I feel like, it’s great, it’s a great relationship,” he said. “That’s one of those narratives that seems to be out there, but I have a great relationship with Warde Manuel, he’s been great for our athletic department and our university. Nothing but good. I trust Warde, he trusts me.”

Michigan is on spring break next week, then returns for the rest of March before its spring game in the Big House on April 1. Harbaugh spoke for 30 minutes Thursday and got into a number of on-field topics as well.

He raved about quarterback J.J. McCarthy, entering his second year as a starter — Harbaugh said he would “follow him anywhere.” Then there’s running back Blake Corum, who is still rehabbing but should be “full go” by June and will open the 2023 season as a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and running back Blake Corum walk off the bus as the team arrives ahead for the Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. on Dec. 31, 2022.

When Harbaugh was asked about his offensive line’s depth, he listed seven players he considers “starters,” then rattled off another five in the mix, which included three offensive linemen who transferred in from starting jobs with other Power Five teams.

“Do what we do,” Harbaugh said. “Keep attacking, everybody paying the price. As long as we’re doing that, as long as everybody is paying the price and everybody Is doing that, each person can grow to their potential.”

And Harbaugh’s plans beyond 2023? He answered the same way he has the past few seasons: He doesn’t know where he’ll be, but he knows he’s got it pretty good in Ann Arbor.

“After every season, after every season anywhere I’ve ever been, that’s the conversation I want to have,” Harbaugh began. “(I ask), ‘Do you still think I’m the best person to do this job?’

“I’m here as long as Michigan wants me here.”

Contact Tony Garcia at apgarcia@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @realtonygarcia.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football’s Jim Harbaugh ‘here as long as Michigan wants’