Jim Harbaugh's homecoming brings hope to Michigan

The wings at Mr. Spots on State Street were a little spicier, the beers on South University a little bit crisper and the shoes that skipped across the rest of Michigan’s campus Tuesday floated a little bit lighter.

When the jet carrying Jim Harbaugh touched down at the Detroit Metro Airport the previous night, it started a 24-hour celebration the likes of which Ann Arbor has not seen in a long time. Harbaugh, the former Wolverine coach’s kid and star quarterback, was coming home for a third time. Billboards on the highway from Detroit to campus thanked him for returning. The unofficial welcoming party came up just short of lining his path with palm fronds.

“The Messiah has arrived,” one middle-aged fan yelled as he tucked a bag of new Michigan merchandise under his arm and stepped into the cold evening air at the end of a hope-filled day.

Welcome to the Church of Harbaugh, where Pastor Jim has them speaking in tongues. As uncomfortable as he may be in the role of savior, he was captivating and charming in his mixture of local-boy-done-good and alpha male personas during his first appearance as Michigan's coach.

Expectation are high, Mount Everest high, but not in a “you'd better win or else” kind of way. The fans who came for Harbaugh’s coronation had no interest in talking about future victories. There was no hopeful chatter about national championships. Only reporters mentioned the rivalries with Ohio State and Michigan State. The coach’s return was a victory in itself. Michigan was Michigan again, they said, and the good will inevitably follow.

“The prodigal son has returned,” said freshman Michael Schiavone. “It’s a turning point for Michigan athletics.”

Schiavone and two of his classmates returned to campus during their semester break this week to celebrate. They dressed in Harbaugh effigy -- complete with khakis, Sharpie necklaces and headsets -- to watch the Wolverines’ basketball team beat Illinois 73-65 in overtime. The game included a 13-point comeback in the second half and cemented the feeling that Michigan couldn’t lose today. The loudest cheers of the day came when Harbaugh addressed the crowd at halftime.

“I was halfway between tears and laughter the whole time,” said Bill Crane, a 1976 Michigan grad and member of the alumni band.

Most of the giddy students who returned for Tuesday’s game wore their khakis in honor of Harbaugh’s well-known wardrobe. Even the basketball team's star guard Caris LeVert wore his Dockers to the arena. “Big, big Harbaugh fan,” he said, after helping the Wolverines seal a win in overtime.

Optimistic vibes radiated out across town. The Brown Jug teemed with thirsty customers clad in maize and blue after the game. The only mention of the thrilling overtime win was to point out how fitting it was on the day of Captain Comeback’s return.

Down the street at The M Den, Michigan’s official retail partner, customers lined up at the cashier counter seven or eight deep for most of the day. Co-owner Scott Hirth said traffic in his stores and online spiked Tuesday in what is usually one of the worst weeks of the year for retail shops.

“We sold a lot of No. 4 jerseys, and we sold a lot of khakis,” he said.

Hours earlier on campus, Schiavone and his headset-wearing buddies were among the many fans jockeying for position outside of the nearby Junge Family Champions Center. They stood in the cold and pressed their faces against the glass in hopes of catching a glimpse of the new coach as he walked into his first news conference.

Inside in the warmth, a capacity crowd of media, university bigwigs and former Michigan coaches and players crammed into the large conference room to listen to Harbaugh talk about what he called his “homecoming.” Former coaches Lloyd Carr, Jerry Hanlon and Gary Moeller attended. Bo Schembechler's widow flew in from Denver. Dozens of former and current players lined the back of the room.

Harbaugh told them he has looked at his coaching career to this point as a real estate developer. He finds a fixer-upper, flips it, then moves on the next project.

“You build a home and hopefully it's a great cathedral,” he said. “Then afterwards, they go tell you to build another one. I would really like to live in one permanently. That's what I'm very hopeful for here.”

On Tuesday, Michigan fans did their best to tell Harbaugh there was no need to build a new home in Ann Arbor. He already had one waiting for him.