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Inside Slant: Jim Harbaugh to Michigan a victory for Big Ten

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Jim Harbaugh coached his final game with the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday and is set to become Michigan's coach Tuesday.


» Harbaugh agrees to become head coach of Michigan


His hiring obviously is a huge coup for interim Michigan athletic director Jim Hackett, a former Wolverines football player with no background in college sports administration. But it's also a huge coup for the Big Ten, which despite having a team in the first playoff (Ohio State) has suffered from a sort of national irrelevancy the past decade.

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Yes, the Big Ten is a Power Five conference that has seen Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin finish in the top 10 in recent seasons. But the league has lacked star power at coach. With Harbaugh joining the likes of Ohio State's Urban Meyer, in his third season; Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, (in his eighth season; and Penn State's James Franklin, in his first season, that is changing. The best thing for the Big Ten: Big-name coaches reel in big-time talent. And if a rising tide indeed lifts all boats, the league as a whole should improve, though a case can be made that it still lags behind the Pac-12, SEC and Big 12 in terms of coaching firepower.

Of particular interest are the coaching hires made recently by, arguably, the conference's three biggest programs: Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Michigan has gone to the NFL to get its guy, whereas Ohio State and Penn State turned to SEC coaches in an effort to improve.

It appears as if Michigan is set to pay Harbaugh as much as $9 million per season. That means the Big Ten East Division will have four coaches making at least $4.3 million next fall: Harbaugh plus Dantonio, Franklin and Meyer. When you throw in Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, that's five of the nation's top 10 in pay, by USA Today's reckoning. Dantonio was the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten this season. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him at No. 3 in the division next season, with Harbaugh's hiring and a sure-to-come big raise for Meyer. That shows the Big Ten -- or at least its premier programs -- are willing to spend big bucks on football.


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In addition, the Harbaugh-Meyer dynamic should be fascinating and garner tons of media attention. Meyer is on the short list of the nation's top coaches, and Harbaugh's arrival in Ann Arbor could mean another golden age in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. The Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler coaching rivalry was one of the best in college football history, and Harbaugh-Meyer could become the best today. Both are passionate about the game, and though they recruit differently, their recruiting styles will appeal to numerous stud players. Another twist: Meyer has embraced the spread offense, whereas Harbaugh is a pro-style coach, adding some new school vs. old school aspects to the burgeoning rivalry.

There's definitely a cult of personality around Harbaugh, much like the one that surrounds Nick Saban, and media attention on him the next 18 months is going to be intense. That is another positive for Michigan and the Big Ten, especially when Michigan begins to again win at its expected rate.

Harbaugh did impressive work in rebuilding Stanford and the 49ers, and the good news for him is that Michigan doesn't need to be rebuilt as much as it needs to be renovated. It's too much to expect the Wolverines to be a Big Ten challenger in 2015, but they should be expected to challenge in 2016. And that's good for the Big Ten, too: As much as fans and officials at Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin want to argue otherwise, the Big Ten's premier programs are Michigan and Ohio State, and when both are going well, the league's reputation will be enhanced.

Something that should help Michigan rebound quickly will be that Harbaugh is going to get a complete buy-in from Michigan's players. That also happened quickly at Stanford and with the 49ers, though a case can be made that at least some of the 49ers tuned him out this season. In turn, that might have meant that Harbaugh figured that dealing with younger players for just three to five years ensures that the buy-in will be more intense.

While Harbaugh is an old-school guy who likes to win with the running game and defense, he doesn't always coach like an old-school guy. Unlike a lot of coaches who don't want to mess things up once their team gets ahead by 10 or so points, Harbaugh wants his team to put its collective foot on the opponents' neck and grind away.

Harbaugh, who turned 51 on Dec. 23, now has to quickly put together a coaching staff, then hit the recruiting trail when the dead period ends Jan. 14. Harbaugh's hiring should make Michigan a far more attractive destination for top recruits, though it's doubtful the results truly show up until the 2016 recruiting class. National Signing Day for the 2015 class is Feb. 4; recruits who already were interested in Michigan should be even more interested now, but the key will be "flipping" some committed recruits -- in other words, getting recruits to change their minds.

Harbaugh and his new staff will have just three weeks to put together the '15 class, which makes it hard to believe it will be an overwhelming class. Again, though, chances are Michigan will have a highly rated 2016 class -- and that will help the Big Ten's reputation, too.

In numerous ways, Michigan has set itself up to improve, and in the process, it has helped the Big Ten get better, too.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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