INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Harbaugh hugged his wife and children near midfield late Saturday night, posed for pictures with them and later shook hands on a podium with Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, who last month handed down a three-game suspension for the Michigan coach.
For the first time since Nov. 4, Harbaugh walked the Wolverines sideline as No. 2 Michigan overwhelmed No. 16 Iowa 26-0 at Lucas Oil Stadium to capture its third consecutive outright Big Ten title, a first in team history. Michigan became the fifth team in FBS history to start consecutive seasons at 13-0 and posted just the second shutout in Big Ten championship game history, after the 2014 Ohio State team that blanked Wisconsin 59-0 and went on to a national championship.
The Wolverines are set to receive their third straight College Football Playoff berth Sunday.
After Harbaugh congratulated defensive back Mike Sainristil on winning championship game MVP honors, Sainristil, who forced two of three Iowa fumbles in the win, turned toward Harbaugh and said, "Congratulations to you, coach. Welcome back."
"I never left!" Harbaugh replied.
Harbaugh had served the suspension from the Big Ten, imposed on Michigan for a prohibited off-campus signal-stealing operation led by former staff member Connor Stalions, who resigned Nov. 3. After watching Michigan's Nov. 11 win at Penn State from the team hotel, Harbaugh joined his brother, John, the Baltimore Ravens coach, for a Nov. 18 win at Maryland. He then stayed home to watch last week's win against archrival Ohio State, which put the Wolverines in the league championship.
Although Harbaugh could lead practices and game-planning, he had no involvement with Michigan on game days, as offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore served as acting head coach. Harbaugh described his mood after Saturday's win as "10 out of 10, happy" and wanted to get as many players on stage for the trophy presentation as it could safety hold.
"It's not about me, I've had plenty of success," Harbaugh said. "But you know that your players can feel what it's like to be a champion, their families can know what it's like to be a champion, for my wife and my kids to have their dad be a champion, for my parents to have their son be a champion, that's the great thrill.
"It's a beautiful, wonderful thing."
Sainristil mentioned a favorite Harbaugh phrase, "The worm has turned," to describe Michigan's success since the 2020 season, when it went 2-4 and restructured Harbaugh's contract with a lower guaranteed salary. Harbaugh added that his players "put the hook in ... the worm."
He also referenced his line from Big Ten preseason media days in July 2021. Asked then what it would take to finally beat Ohio State, Harbaugh said, "We're going to do it or die trying."
"We've changed the narrative, how people look at Michigan," said running back Blake Corum, who had two rushing touchdowns to tie Anthony Thomas' career record of 55 while adding to his single-season team record of 24. "Back-to-back-to-back, it feels great. We hold ourselves to such a high standard that we must accomplish those goals."
Michigan dedicated its win to offensive lineman and captain Zak Zinter, who suffered a broken leg against Ohio State and underwent surgery Nov. 25. Zinter traveled to accompany his teammates for the Big Ten championship, went to midfield with Michigan's captains for the pregame coin toss and was presented the Big Ten championship trophy by Petitti.
"Being a leader on this team just enlivens all of us to go out there and do our best and play for him," quarterback J.J. McCarthy said of Zinter. "When [Harbaugh] made this game for him, we were doing it for him, it just brought another level of urgency and motivation to go out there and do it for him."
Defense and special teams propelled Michigan against Iowa, which limited the Wolverines to 213 yards and only one scoring drive of longer than 28 yards. Semaj Morgan's 87-yard punt return -- the longest ever in a Big Ten championship game -- set up Michigan's first touchdown.
The Wolverines held Iowa to 2.8 yards per play, 4-of-15 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth down while allowing only three Hawkeyes drives to cross midfield.
"How many turnovers were there, three? Plus the four fourth-down stops," Harbaugh said. "That's like seven turnovers. Important to give the ball to the offense and in great position. So just spectacular play."
"Guys like me and Blake, this is what we came back for, to have the success with this team," Sainristil said. "The brotherhood that this team has, I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world. This team is going down in history.
"The way we go about our goals is you put everything into the next goal. There's more work to put in."