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Harbaugh will learn coaching alma mater unlike any other job

Jim Harbaugh, a former Wolverines QB, is being viewed as the man who can save Michigan football. Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

Jim Harbaugh never needed a campus tour.

He knows the school, the team, the town and the people. The first-year Michigan coach takes the same routes to work as his former coach at Michigan, Bo Schembechler, because he lives just a few doors down from where Schembechler once resided. Devonshire or Geddes or Stadium, right on Washtenaw, left on Hill, left on State and park. His two young daughters, Addie and Katie, attend the same elementary school (St. Francis of Assisi) he did while growing up in Ann Arbor.

He tells Michigan players they must become State Street players -- Schembechler Hall, Al Glick Field House and the outdoor practice fields all border State Street -- before becoming Big House players.

"When you went there and it's your alma mater, it's home," Wolverines wide receiver Jehu Chesson said. "Shared time and shared suffering. It's where you ate lunch, dinner, breakfast, that's where you woke up, where worked out with your teammates.

"It's special for him."

Harbaugh, a Michigan quarterback from 1983 to 1986, recently described the memories as being so thick he has to brush them aside. Nostalgia can stagger a man, but so can reality: Michigan football is at its lowest point in nearly a half-century, 11 years removed from its most recent Big Ten championship, having missed bowls in three of the past seven years, a national nonfactor aside from its famous name -- and now famous coach.

Michigan needs a savior, and who better than one of its own, a coach who has won at both the college and pro levels? Everything lines up for Harbaugh to return Michigan to glory.

Yet there are no guarantees. Many of college football's most transformative coaches have been outsiders, including Schembechler. Some coaches returning to their alma maters in tough times, meanwhile, haven't panned out, from John Blake (Oklahoma) to Mike Shula (Alabama) to Karl Dorrell (UCLA).

"Every school has challenges, whether it's your alma mater or not," said Cam Cameron, who went 18-37 at his alma mater, Indiana, from 1997 to 2001. "The biggest challenge is that you leave -- like I had left, Jim had left -- you go on to do good things at other places and you have a different view. Then you come back to your alma mater and some of those people are still there and their view hasn't changed.

"There's a reason why they brought you back. It wasn't because everything was going great. The hardest part is getting those people that are set in their ways, that you know from when you were back there as a player, getting those people to move forward and see your vision. That's really hard."

Cameron, who coached Harbaugh as a Michigan assistant in the 1980s, expects Harbaugh to succeed with the maize and blue. But Cameron's own experience at Indiana shows that coaching one's alma mater brings unique obstacles.

Upon returning to IU after years with Michigan and the Washington Redskins, Cameron wanted to employ a new recruiting strategy. He approached a staff member who had been there when he played, only to be told: "My plate's full." Never mind the fact Indiana had one Big Ten win in the previous two seasons.

"They think, 'Oh, good, he's back, we're all set,' " Cameron said. "They haven't been around you in a while. You've grown. And then you came back and now you're trying to bring those people to another level. Some people will buy in real quickly, and then what you find is people who have formed bad habits or have gotten into that complacency, you watch them slide right back into their comfort zone.

"Heck, it's not a slam dunk."

Paul Chryst, a former Wisconsin quarterback entering his first year as the Badgers' coach, describes the "temporaries and permanents" found in any football organization. The permanents, or longtime staff members who knew the head coach when he played for the team, often struggle with change.

"There's still people that are involved in the decision process that were there when I was a player, and they still see me as a player, trying to sneak out of study hall," said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, a Cowboys quarterback from 1986 to 1989. "I had to work through that."

Sometimes the failure to implement change comes from both sides. Dave Wannstedt, a Pitt offensive lineman in the early 1970s who coached the Panthers from 2005 to 2010, knew there needed to be shifts in the program. He recalls how Pitt once had the best facilities in the Big East but began to slip as other programs began renovations.

When Wannstedt went recruiting the along East Coast, he would fly to New Jersey and take trains to Maryland and Washington, D.C.

"People kind of take you for granted," Wannstedt said, "and you're probably a little bit more sensitive about coming in there and saying, 'This is no good, that's no good.' You try to make it work because it's your school. You should have gone in there and played hardball, whether it's academics or football facilities or whatever.

"I was fighting to get new carpet. New regimes come in and they're flying private planes recruiting, and I was taking the train."

Wannstedt's love for Pitt trumped his issues with the administration. He could have taken other jobs but remained.

"You fall into that trap," he said. "You don't want to leave your alma mater. You want to be loyal."

Troy Calhoun faced both financial and schematic obstacles when he returned to Air Force, where he played quarterback from 1985 to 1988. He found that Air Force assistant coaches' salaries were lower than those at fellow military academies Navy and Army -- "the single biggest challenge when it comes to structure," Calhoun called it.

After spending three years in the NFL before taking the Air Force job, Calhoun wanted to veer from the triple option offense, a Falcons trademark, and use a featured running back. He also pushed more man coverage on defense.

"An awful lot of resistance," he said of the reaction. "We wanted the tailback to be a guy that frequently rushed for over 1,000 yards in a season. That's something that hadn't been here in 35 years."

Gundy saw a greater openness to change once he legitimized himself as a head coach. He remembers how Oklahoma State used to bus to Kansas and Kansas State, both about four hours away. He didn't like cramming 300-pounders onto a bus after games where they were beat-up and dehydrated.

Oklahoma State now flies to every game and boasts some of the best facilities in the country. Although primary benefactor T. Boone Pickens has fueled the makeover, so has Gundy, the winningest coach in team history.

"When you win and you're established," he said, "people see you differently."

Harbaugh established himself as an elite coach away from Michigan. He led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl and three NFC title game appearances, Stanford to a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl title, and the University of San Diego to consecutive 11-1 marks and league titles.

"The best way to get things done is you do it as a team," Harbaugh said. "Everybody working together, ideas heard. That's the only way I know how to do it. That's the way we're going to approach it."

Arguably the biggest advantage for Harbaugh and others who have coached their alma maters is institutional knowledge. Gundy, who has been in Stillwater for all but five years since he reported as a freshman in 1986, believes no one knows more about Oklahoma State football than he does. David Shaw, a Stanford wide receiver from 1991 to 1994 and the Cardinal's coach since 2011, said he understood the school's mission, including the things it wouldn't change, as a 17-year-old, and still does today.

When Air Force players begin basic training, Calhoun can tell them what to expect, drawing from his own experience. He returned to the academy knowing there would be no redshirts and limited interaction with players during the offseason.

"Understanding why you have high admissions," Calhoun said, "knowing that you're not going to play in the NFL when you're done at the academy. You're going to go serve as an officer in the Air Force.

"If you know what those challenges are, it helps you because the reference point is based solely on truth and reality."

Such familiarity helps coaches, but it also can trap them. Pat Fitzgerald knew the landscape at Northwestern when he took over as coach in July 2006, following the sudden passing of Randy Walker. Fitzgerald had spent 10 of the previous 13 years at the school as a player and assistant coach.

But when he began meeting with everyone inside and around the program, a process that took years, he asked them to pretend like he had never been on campus.

"Educate me on how your world touches the program," Fitzgerald said in the meetings. "How have things gone well? How have things gone poorly? How can we better make the relationship between the football program and your department, your office, whatever it may be?

"That really helped me get an appreciation for what people do, how they support us and how we can be better in how we support them."

A coach's roots in the community also cut both ways. Harbaugh has been ubiquitous during his first eight months at Michigan. He seems comfortable dispersing his time in many ways, but he has yet to coach a game for the Wolverines.

When Wannstedt returned to Pitt from the NFL, he instantly connected with high school coaches because "you kind of talk the same language." Rich Rodriguez had similar connections when the former West Virginia defensive back became Mountaineers coach in 2001.

Rodriguez's problem? He knew too many people who wanted a piece of his time.

"I must have done 75 speaking engagements the first year," Rodriguez said. "Every Rotary club, every fundraiser for every cause. I was a West Virginia guy, and I knew them.

"You felt like you couldn't say no because you were at home."

Knowing everyone has its advantages, too. When Kliff Kingsbury returned to his alma mater as head coach in 2012, the 33-year-old former Texas Tech quarterback reached out to former classmates who had excelled in business. His connections helped raise money for a new proposed indoor practice facility.

"Everybody's been really positive," Kingsbury said. "When they know you're at a place that you truly want to be, that you love to be, it means a lot to the community because they're proud of this place."

Coaches all acknowledge the unique elements of working at their alma maters, but most think the task of elevating a program is easier for those who once suited up for the school than outsiders. Those who coach their alma maters might even have more time to get the job done.

"Not many people would survive 2-8-1 in their sixth year," said Frank Beamer, a former Virginia Tech cornerback entering his 29th season as Hokies coach. "But the administration understood we were doing things right.

"They gave me enough time."

Time shouldn't be a concern for Harbaugh at Michigan, which has cycled through two coaches in seven seasons after having just three in the previous 39. Those who know Harbaugh think his ability to bridge past and present will lead the Wolverines into a much brighter future.

"Jim will do a great job of getting those people into the now," Cameron said. "He's always been great at that. I saw him do it at [San Diego] when I was with the Chargers. He took people who were set in their ways, and moved their expectations to his expectations.

"That's the hardest part."