Jim Harbaugh’s football life is pockmarked by almosts.

The signature moment of his playing career? Almost lifting the Colts to their first Super Bowl appearance since relocating to Indianapolis. Harbaugh’s Hail Mary heave to end the 1995 AFC Championship Game remains among the most memorable finishes in NFL playoff history.

Even when you’ve known the outcome for a quarter-century, every time you watch the replay you get the sense that the ball will somehow end up in the hands of a Colts receiver.

But the replay always ends the same way as it did that January day. Mere inches from glory.

Seventeen years after that moment, Harbaugh finally did make the Super Bowl as a coach. As a prize, he had to face his own brother. And once again, it was another agonizing almost.

Trailing by 5, Jim’s 49ers drove all the way to Baltimore’s 7-yard line in the game’s final minutes before turning it over on downs. Brother John and the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. Jim’s moment of glory would have to wait.

Surely he would find it at his alma mater.

Just 3 years from that Super Bowl appearance, Harbaugh moved from San Francisco to Ann Arbor in hopes of returning Michigan to its glory days.

Yet again, he ran into an almost.

In his first 6 years at Michigan, Harbaugh’s career was defined by one moment — the time he almost beat Ohio State in 2016. A game that came down to an even narrower margin than the Hail Mary that evaded a sea of hands and found the Three Rivers Stadium turf.

Captain Comeback

Harbaugh is not solely defined by his near-misses.

While playing in Indianapolis, he built an entire persona from his ability to come through in the clutch: Captain Comeback.

When Harbaugh went to the Colts, it seemed like a marriage of average quarterback and average team that was destined to amount to very little. He spent the first 7 years of his NFL career in Chicago, where he was your prototypical Bears quarterback: 50 touchdowns, 56 interceptions.

His career seemed destined to be defined by the time it appeared Mike Ditka might tear off his limbs on the sidelines after Harbaugh audibled into a pick-6.

Harbaugh changed that reputation in Indianapolis. He engineered a league-high 4 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, then added a pair of road playoff wins before coming up just short in the AFC title game.

Fittingly, Harbaugh is looking to complete his coaching renaissance in the same city where he reinvented himself as a player.

The reinvention of Coach Harbaugh

Harbaugh’s sixth year as Michigan’s coach came precariously close to ending the same way as his seventh year as a Bears quarterback — with a pink slip.

Fortunately for Harbaugh, his status as a playing legend for the Wolverines bought him some spare good will. Rather than firing Harbaugh, Michigan dramatically restructured his contract. He was extended 5 years, but saw his base pay cut in half with a chance to earn the original amount back through incentives.

Harbaugh then went to work and dramatically changed his surrounding cast.

Don Brown, who spent 5 seasons as Michigan’s defensive coordinator, was out. So were safeties coach Bob Shoop and cornerbacks coach Michael Zordich. On offense, veteran line coach Ed Warriner and quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss were shown the door.

Wanting to better communicate with his players, Harbaugh replaced them with a slew of coaches 35 and younger.

One of the biggest hires was former Wolverines running back Mike Hart, whom Harbaugh poached from Indiana to serve as Michigan’s running backs coach. He promoted tight ends coach Sherrone Moore to offensive line coach, and shifted son Jay Harbaugh to tight ends coach from running backs coach.

Harbaugh also received a helping hand from the coach who once handed him his toughest loss — John Harbaugh. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss were both Ravens staffers whom John recommended to his brother.

Each of these chess moves have netted major results for Michigan, which has rebounded from its meager 2-4 campaign in 2020 to reach its first B1G championship game.

Another close call, or a crowning achievement?

As snowflakes pelted the Big House last Saturday, Harbaugh reached his highest point since winning the 2012 NFC championship game.

This Michigan team was genetically engineered for one purpose: beating Ohio State. A ball-control offense built around a pair of 1,000-yard running backs that kept Ohio State’s explosive offense on the sidelines. A pair of remarkable pass-rushing defensive ends who could further dampen the Buckeyes’ wick.

It all came together perfectly in a resounding 42-27 win.

But now the Wolverines must show they are capable of achieving more than that very specific task. BEAT OHIO, the mantra preached 365 days a year, is no longer the goal here.

It’s winning the Big Ten for the first time since 2004, making the College Football Playoff for the first time ever and winning a national championship for the first time since 1997.

Is this Harbaugh’s moment to finally break through the almosts and win the big one?

If so, it would be harder to find a more fitting venue and opponent for his narrative to come full circle — and not just because Indy is known as the Circle City. It’s the place where he first showed his career to be much more than we previously construed it to be.

And Iowa? Well, the Hawkeyes are responsible for Harbaugh’s first “almost.”

In 1985, Harbaugh quarterbacked Michigan to a 10-1-1 record and No. 2 ranking in the season’s final polls. The lone defeat came at the foot of Iowa kicker Rob Houghtlin, who hit a 29-yard field goal at the gun to lead the Hawkeyes to a 12-10 win over the Wolverines.

If Houghtlin’s kick was off the mark, Harbaugh would likely have been a champion at 22 years old. But it was true, and Harbaugh is still in pursuit of that ring.

Perhaps his time is finally here.