It’s as sad as it is true, but you can’t go home again. Years after Jim Harbaugh tried, he’s been confronted with that somber realization at nearly every turn.
The cherishedMichigan footballprogram he was supposed to restore when he was hired in December 2014 has continued its decay after the Wolverines limped through a 2-4 season last fall. The glorious past he had hoped to recapture appears more tarnished than ever after an investigation by WilmerHale law firm revealed the failures of an athletics department that ignored repeated abuse committed by a team physician — who was once Harbaugh’s family doctor.
The 240-page report, released Tuesday, not only presents several examples of sexual misconduct committed by Dr. Robert Anderson but also anecdotes of university authority figures failing to intervene after being told of his inappropriate behavior with patients. According to the document, Harbaugh’s former coach, Bo Schembechler, received complaints about Anderson’s questionable treatment methods but took no discernible action in response. In one instance, a former member of the football team during the late 1970s remembered asking why Anderson had given him a rectal examination.
“What’s up with the finger in the butt treatment by Dr. Anderson?” he queried Schembechler, who died in 2006.
Schembechler then replied, “Toughen up.”
The matter was quickly dropped, the student-athlete recalled in an interview with the university’s Division of Public Safety and Security.
“You do not mess with Bo,” he told the police investigator.
Schembechler, of course, was an icon in Ann Arbor with his no-nonsense demeanor and domineering presence. He became the face of Michigan football for a generation, ruling over it for 21 seasons from 1969 to 1989 — winning a school record 194 games and at least a share of 13 Big Ten titles.
Harbaugh revered the man.
His father, Jack, served as a Schembechler assistant for seven seasons during the 1970s. Harbaugh then played for Schembechler from 1982 to 1986, becoming the star quarterback for a program that finished in the top 10 each of his final two years on campus.
At a May 2004 reunion celebrating 125 years of Michigan football, Harbaugh delivered a speech touting the exceptionalism of his alma mater, which he said had the finest academics, tradition and football success. He concluded his address by paying homage to Schembechler, one of his heroes.
“We in the ’80s played for the greatest coach in the history of college football,” Harbaugh told his audience. “There is no question about it.”
He then turned to Schembechler.
“Bo, I want you to stand please,” Harbaugh continued, “and let these men of Michigan recognize you in the manner that you deserve.”
A standing ovation followed.
Seventeen years later, the thunderous applause has been replaced by rumblings in the form of disgruntled internet chatter. After the release of the WilmerHale report, fans aired their feelings on message boards and social media while calling for a statue of Schembechler to be removed and his name to be stripped from the building that houses the team’s headquarters.
The negative reaction has added to the discontent surrounding a program that has failed to meet expectations under Harbaugh’s leadership.
The man who was supposed to serve as a bridge between Michigan’s lustrous past and a promising future now presides over a program reconciling a stained legacy as it faces cloudy prospects. In January, Harbaugh agreed to a contract extension that halved his salary, reduced his buyout and doubled as an indictment on his tenure. He then overhauled his coaching staff, bringing in a cadre of unproven assistants to create some new energy.
This couldn’t have been how Harbaugh imagined his ballyhooed return to Ann Arbor would go.
He was supposed to revive the glory days, to turn Michigan football back into what it once was or what so many believed it to have been.
But each visit to his office in the building named Schembechler Hall can serve as a reminder of what has been lost over time and why things will never be the same. Sure, the winged helmets still hang in the locker room, the famous block M remains everywhere and the Big House continues to stand.
Yet home, as he remembers it, no longer exists.