Inside Jim Harbaugh’s nonstop, high-octane world

by | Sep 1, 2016 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

How Michigan’s football coach Jim Harbaugh does things his way, an enthusiastic way, but a way different from his mentor Schembechler.

That gum. That poor gum! It’s getting chomped. Mashed. It’s a tiny, helpless glob in the ever-gnashing molars of Jim Harbaugh, who sits across the desk, beneath a Michigan cap, smacking his jaws with the authority of a five-star general chewing on a recruit.

“If you want to be enthusiastic THEN…ACT… ENTHUSIASTIC!” he roars, his eyes bulging, his face widening into total bemusement, as if he’s entertaining himself as well — yet all the while, those teeth keep banging, flattening the pale white niblet — Chomp! Mash! Chomp! Mash! — like a cow chewing its cud at warp speed, until you wonder if his mouth isn’t an engine and that gum the fuel.

Jim Harbaugh has an intense bite. It matches his bark. And as the college football season unfolds this weekend, it’s a fitting measure of the coach a Michigan sports blog calls, “The Most Interesting Man In The World.”

Because despite the crazy summer, the endless headlines, the satellite camps, the Twitter flare-ups, the rap video or the announcement that, at age 52, he is about to become a father again (for the seventh time!) James Joseph Harbaugh — Mr. Who’s Got It Better Than Us? — is going into his second season as Michigan football guru with the same dynamic as his gum-chomping jaws.

He. Just. Won’t. Stop.

“What can I endure? Can I endure more?” he ponders, removing his cap and rubbing his short brown hair, then yanking the cap back on again. “Fighting gamecocks? You know? They can lose an eye and keep fighting. Can I endure that?”

Wait. He’s not really talking about having an eye gouged out, is he?

“When you’re tired? No sleep? Two hours sleep? Could I keep going?”

Wait, no sleep?

“I can face that adversity…What can I endure? However you want to say it — you pull the choke, you rev your engines. You motivate yourself. How do you be enthusiastic? YOU ACT ENTHUSIASTIC!”

Got that?

Welcome to Jim World.

Full of fascination

Here is a place where the gum is crushed and the pace is relentless and the news is never-ending and the tweets and airplanes fly constantly — and equally as often.

Yet somehow, remarkably, everyone seems happy. Outsiders may gape at the frenetic Harbaugh, the way he shows up like the Road Runner — beep-beep, he’s at the State of the Union address, beep-beep, he’s coaching first base for the Tigers, beep, beep, he’s sleeping over at a recruit’s house, beep-beep, he’s in a Twitter war with a media critic — and they may wonder, “Where’s the fire, buddy?”

But, hey, if you’re maize and blue, you love the heat. In a single year, Harbaugh has become the most talked-about coach in football. His encounters are chronicled across the Internet. His photos pop up on celebrity sites. Following his whistle stops is like tracking “Where’s Waldo?”

But the kicker is, those closest to him find him just as fascinating as outsiders.

His Wolverines players love their sometimes-kooky, always-khaki leader. The alumni do, too. The athletic director loves him so much, he’s already upped his salary by $2 million a year to an annual take of $7 million — through an insurance policy premium.

Two million more? In the second year of his contract?  Yep. And nobody in the inner circle said, “Too much, too soon.” Only Harbaugh’s critics say those words — about everything he does.

Does that faze him?


Does he LOOK like it fazes him?

Fair and honest

“When (the critics) say, ‘Just coach the team, you (expletive), believe me, I am,” Harbaugh insists. “That’s 99.9 ½ percent of my focus.”

Then why bother answering detractors on places like Twitter?

“Because if somebody character-assassinates you — then you have the right to retort…

“And if someone is not telling the truth, then I believe I have the right to call him to task.”

Truth is important to Harbaugh. So he fires back at Jim Rome over a news conference incident, he fires back at Nick Saban over satellite camps, he fires back at Georgia coach Kirby Smart who dared to suggest that Harbaugh’s spring practice in Florida flirted with breaking NCAA rules.

The more he swings, the more his Greek chorus applauds it.  Yet he insists, “I don’t start things. I have not attacked anybody. But much like Sugar Ray Robinson, there’s a counterpunch coming. If someone wants to shoot one over your bow, be ready to have one shot back over yours ….

“It seems fair. It seems honest.”

And that, Harbaugh insists, is all he’s doing in his second act in Ann Arbor. Being honest.

Has he has ever sent a tweet he regrets?

“Not yet,” he says.

Being honest.

Does he regret leaving that news conference a few weeks back when reporters pressed about player suspensions?

“No,” he says. “I answered the question. I answered it twice. Some information is not for public consumption because it’s not in the youngster’s best interest.”

Being honest.

Last year, after the stunning, last-second defeat by Michigan State, where the Wolverines’ punter, an Australian transfer student named Blake O’Neill, couldn’t handle the snap and threw the ball away for a game-losing touchdown, Harbaugh, in the locker room, went to see how the Aussie was handling it.

“I said to Blake, ‘How you doing?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m fine.’ And then he said, “Coach, do you think I’m gonna take some flak for this?’

“And I said, “Yeah, mate, I think you’re gonna take some flak for this.”

Being honest.

Just fun

But you see? Even then, in hindsight, it’s upbeat. They’re having fun. It’s all about fun. Enthusiasm unknown to mankind! (Also the title of a new coffee table book about Harbaugh and his team.) He invites Michael Jordan to Saturday’s game against Hawaiito usher in the Nike era? Just fun. Tom Brady and Derek Jeter drop by for his signing day extravaganza? Just fun. He conducts 38 satellite camps in 30 days — on two continents? Just fun. Wearing an Allen Iverson jersey or a Cal Ripken jersey, hitting home runs during  a T-ball session, taking photos with Jerry Springer, texting Judge Judy, attending President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, cutting that rap record?

Just fun. And always positive. Negatives are no-nos in Jim World. Discipline is demanded. Practice can be grueling. But the accent is relentlessly on the upbeat.

“Set your dreams so big that people laugh at them,” he often says.

That’s a telling statement. And an important one. Because for all his bluster, Harbaugh traffics in happiness, not howling.

Bo Schembechler, Harbaugh’s coach 30 years ago, terrified his players. He’d scream “YOU WILL NEVER PLAY A DOWN FOR MICHIGAN!” (And that was to his stars — Harbaugh included.) Once, after getting knocked down in practice, Bo famously retorted, “That would have killed a mortal man!” Half the team was too scared to laugh.

Players went through walls for Bo — but partly because the alternative seemed worse. Harbaugh can yell. But he motivates through positivity, illumination and adrenaline — contagious, high-octane adrenaline.

“We’re here to develop players,” he says. “There’s a lasting, trusting friendship. We’re allies. I’m in your corner, you’re in my corner, we’re in our corner — the team’s corner.”

Allies? Schembechler might have gagged on the word. But this is 2016, not 1969. And if Bo was Gen. Patton addressing the troops, then Harbaugh is Tom Cruise, jumping on the couch.

“The hollering, the yelling, the screaming at somebody — it doesn’t work like it did 20 or 30 years ago,” Harbaugh says.

Why not, he is asked?

“I don’t know. But it doesn’t.”

It worked with you, didn’t it?

His eyes go far away.

“It did. Yeah.”

The Bo effect

Remember, Harbaugh’s insides once went up and down with every Schembechler sentence. Bo was not only his college coach, he was his childhood hero, larger than life, his father Jack’s boss at Michigan for seven years. As a child, Jim did a school project on Bo — even dressed like him around the house. When Bo visited once and saw a teenage Jim on the couch, watching TV, he barked at him to “do something productive!” A frightened Harbaugh grabbed a book and pretended to read.

So yes, the current U-M coach was weaned by the screaming, hot-tempered “Michigan Man.” But here’s the first assumptive pillar you knock over when you get to know Harbaugh.

He is not a mini-Bo.

He is not trying to be.

“You can scream at somebody and tell ’em they did something wrong. Or you can pat ’em on the back, tell ’em they did something right. But you’re still not giving them the tools.

“The teacher or coach that can actually give you the tip or the advice to develop you as a player — those are the real special ones.”

And that’s who he’s trying to be. Schembechler, in his way, taught and loved his players despite his gruff exterior. And since he works just around a corner from Bo’s old office, perhaps, late at night, Harbaugh can still hear the old man stomping the hallways. But Harbaugh is very much 21st Century (Bo might have been 17th Century) and he has no problem parting with the old way of doing things.

He does think Bo would have used Twitter, by the way.

“Say what you mean and mean what you say, Bo was a tremendous advocate of that,” Harbaugh insists. “Why wouldn’t he have used Twitter?”

Who knows? Like Schembechler, Harbaugh has conviction that is unshakable. He also, like his old coach, has a soft spot that he doesn’t advertise.

And that is the second assumptive pillar to fall. Harbaugh does a lot of small things that nobody notates and he doesn’t advertise. Last January, for example, he was in a Cracker Barrel store when he saw a 6-year-old girl who was battling an illness. She was looking at a toy guitar. He struck up a brief conversation, then lifted the guitar, paid for it, gave it to the girl and went on his way.

It’s not a story you would have heard on Twitter or Instagram. Neither was his reaction when his wife, Sarah, came onto the field during a June camp and said, “I just came from the doctor. I’m pregnant.”

Then what happened? he is asked.

“Then what happened?” His eyes bulge. “Then you feel your feet aren’t even touching the ground anymore! Like you’re walking 3 feet in the air! Serenity! Excitement!”

He nearly breaks out in song.

This is the football coach, remember.

Jim World.

The field general

Which is not to say he doesn’t cotton to X’s and O’s. Harbaugh, the former college and professional quarterback, has a mind like a football atlas. He remembers every major snap from last season. And while the team finished 10-3 (6-2 in the Big Ten) he is quick to gush only about the positive.

Take his former quarterback, Jake Rudock. “We drew the long straw having Jake here. That was a godsend to our team. Exactly what we needed, when we needed it.”

Yet he takes little credit for Rudock’s mid-season transformation into a quality starter, deferring instead to Rudock’s brain and quick-study abilities. “There were definitely times where I felt I was at an intellectual disadvantage with Jake,” Harbaugh says, laughing.

Egotists don’t admit that. They don’t admit the sting of that 27-23 Michigan State loss still lingers.

“It would have been nice to go a whole career without the Hail Mary getting thrown on you at the end of the game,” he muses, “or the kickoff return that gets lateraled 11 or 12 times. Or the punt that gets returned for a touchdown as time expires.

“It would have been nice to go a whole career without that, but it happened. So then it became a motivation to make darn sure that it never happens again.”

In his DNA

So on Saturday, the second season begins, and Harbaugh has his sights set squarely on improvement, which means a perfect nonconference result (likely) and victories over archrivals Michigan State and Ohio State (considerably tougher). He is hunkered down now, so you won’t likely see the avalanche of posts, photos, tweets and headlines that dotted the summer. Maybe people calm down about Jim Harbaugh now. Maybe his newness runs its course, and a second season takes him off the front shelf and back into the inventory.

Or maybe not. Harbaugh seems predestined to draw attention. From the khaki pants to the famous players’ jerseys to the gum-chomping jaws and the hardtack smile, a prairie smile, the smile of a cowboy under a sun-baked hat, that disarms even those predetermined to dislike him, Harbaugh remains, well, interesting.

But the last assumptive pillar to fall should be the one that assumes this is all about him. It’s not. It can’t be.

Why do you think children matter to Harbaugh, why does an audience matter, why did a roster of 80 or so kids — and an alumni base of millions — draw him out of the NFL and back to the college ranks? Critics think it’s ego, but they’re wrong.

It’s DNA.

Remember, Jim Harbaugh was essentially part of a football team from diapers. His father was a coach. His friends were players. Harbaugh learned to be an individual within a huddle, within a program, within a stadium of 100,000. Part of that means you have to command people’s attention, like a kid at a crowded dinner table trying to get the potatoes.

So whether that’s predicting a win against Ohio State (which he did as a player decades ago) or bursting onstage in a cameo during a U-M theatrical production (which he did this year) Harbaugh likes to lead the parade, but he doesn’t have to BE the parade. For him, it’s only fun if people are marching behind him. The Pied Piper played solo, but he wasn’t content being alone.

On he goes, the man with the baton, chomping madly on a piece of Dentyne or Trident and leading the charge to his own unique drum. Beep-beep, he’s throwing out a first pitch, beep-beep, he’s on stage at a rock concert, beep-beep, he’s doing push-ups with a walrus at a theme park, beep-beep, he’s climbing a tree at a recruit’s house, beep-beep, he’s on the sidelines throwing a tantrum, beep-beep, he can’t wait for his new baby so he can “support it unconditionally.”

He. Just. Won’t. Stop.

That’s the way it rolls in Jim World. And if he ever runs out of energy, starts to drag, loses speed, then he will pull on his own choke button and rev his own gas. You want to be enthusiastic? Act enthusiastic.

Chomp! Mash! Chomp! Where’s the fire, his critics ask? That’s easy. It’s inside him.


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