U-M’s Jim Harbaugh different, but it makes him fun

Stop trying to figure out Jim Harbaugh. Even he can’t do it.

“When I have football dreams,” he says, “they always finish with a drive at the end of the game. And I’m always playing — I never dream of football where I coach — but I’m not always playing for the same team. Sometimes I’m like a 50-year-old man. Sometimes I’m back in college. I had one not too long ago where I had just retired from pro football, I was in my 30s, but I still had another year of college eligibility left — only I couldn’t get a scholarship anywhere. So, I finally ended up at Bowling Green. And there I was. Playing at Bowling Green. A drive at the end of the game…”

“And…?” I say.

“I wake up before the end of it. Honest. Cross my heart. That’s how my football dreams always go.”

“Wow!” I pause. “Maybe you should see somebody for that.”

“Yeah. But the experts at Stanford will tell you dreams don’t mean anything, so …”

So? So, there you have it. Confusing. Fascinating. Competitive. Discombobulated. And that’s all in the first anecdote!

I’m telling you, all the armchair psychiatrists and long-distance analysts and social media screamers who went overboard this summer about his shirtless football game, his addiction to khakis, his bunker-like training camp, his tweeting of Judge Judy. Do not try to shake down the consciousness of 51-year-old James Joseph Harbaugh. It’s a fool’s errand.

He’s just a little … different.

And that’s what makes him good.

Be like Bo

There are few advantages to being around this business for 30 years. You lose friends, you watch newspapers fold, you interview college athletes wearing headphones the size of an Apollo 11 helmet.

But one upside is that occasionally a kid you knew as a player comes back as a coach. And your perspective is deeper as a result.

Jim Harbaugh is such a case for me. He was Bo Schembechler’s quarterback when I arrived at this paper in 1985. I knew him. Fairly well. He was wide-eyed, super energized, and he lit up during conversation as if he’d swallowed a hornet.

Thirty years later, he hasn’t changed much. His eyes still drift into a smoky place between his nose and your face, his brain clicks gears, he comes up with random thoughts and nonrhythmic pauses — and he is still as intense as a welder’s torch.

“I’m so jacked!” he used to gush in his Michigan days, as if only gravity were keeping him on this earth. Back then, Schembechler had the big office and prowled the locker room.

Today, that’s Harbaugh’s job. His season officially begins tonight at 8:30, out in Utah, taking an unranked Wolverines team into uncharted territory, not unlike the way Schembechler took his inaugural 1969 team out of the gate and to surprising heights. That season, the team was pretty talented but the coach was unknown. This season, it’s the other way around.

Still, there is a wonderful symmetry to Harbaugh now doing what “the old man” he once worshipped used to do.

“There’s a connection with Bo that goes back to me being 9 years old,” he admits. “Bo put food on our table, a roof over our heads. My dad (Jack Harbaugh, who was on Bo’s staff) used to come home for dinners and tell us ‘Bo said this or that’ and I’d be so engaged. We all were. Our whole family.”

I ask Harbaugh if he ever wanted to be like Schembechler.

“Yes,” he responds with no hesitation. “I remember a few times I had a blue windbreaker and a hat and I’d put a whistle around my neck” — he laughs — “and I had my arms crossed, had the scowl, and my mom took a picture of me. No telling where that picture is, but … does that answer your question?”

From the heart

It does. And it should, belatedly, answer a few others. During the final weeks of the 2014 NFL season, speculation about Harbaugh replacing Brady Hoke at Michigan was rampant. But in the media, it became nearly universal that he wouldn’t take the job. No way he goes back to college. No way he wants that spotlight. He needs to get back to a Super Bowl, blah, blah, blah.

I never bought it. To me it was a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t Jim Harbaugh want to come back here? Tradition and family are huge to this guy, and Schembechler, who was the biggest influence this side of his father (he often blurred the two together), was like a specter beckoning in the old blue windbreaker. The money certainly would be good enough. And Ann Arbor was a place where Harbaugh could do what he loves to do more than anything.

Compete. Every year.

“I didn’t really make a list or anything,” he admits when I ask about the choice. “I didn’t weigh the pros and cons. The decision was made from the heart.

“Two days later, I was working here.”

 

With fervor and focus

This is how laser-focused Jim Harbaugh can be. A month ago, I saw him at a play, and before it started, I gave him a paper cup from a new charity venture I was developing. After the play ended, I saw him again, backstage. We talked for a while, and as he was leaving, I asked if he happened to still have that cup. I wanted to keep it.

“Oh, man,” he said, his eyes suddenly bulging. “I used it … for chew…”

Before I could finish the words “never mind,” he was running across the theater. He raced to a trash can.

“Jim” I yelled, “really, no big —”

Too late. He was rifling through the trash. He found the cup, came marching back examining it — and then apparently decided it was too dirty to return. He turned and ran to an usher.

“Excuse me,” he said, “where’s the nearest bathroom?”

“Jim!” I hollered. “I don’t need it that —”

He ignored me. Ignored everything. He ran downstairs, washed the cup out, came jogging into the theater and handed it over, finally making eye contact. I sincerely doubt he ever heard a word I said. He had a mission. He went after it.

By the way, the cup was clean.

The competitor

“Do you have a basic blueprint for rebuilding?” I ask. After all, this is a man who turned around programs at San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, all in eye-blinking fashion.

“Well, yeah,” he says, “I have a couple of rules. Number one, get competitive. Number two, win a game. Number three, win two games in a row. Number four, win a championship.”

Too simple? Not necessarily. Because buried inside the rule number one, “get competitive,” is everything he has been doing quietly when the spotlight and Twitter aren’t capturing his every move. It’s in the small things; like intense recruiting, like midafternoon practices in the summer heat (versus the cooler mornings), like the private winking comments Dan Dierdorf recently relayed to me, claiming Harbaugh told a group of former Wolverines, “We’re starting to see some separation” (meaning the weeding out process of new versus old).

Harbaugh might have squelched much talk about his team or its chances in 2015. But I have little doubt he will be successful long-term. It’s in his DNA. I still remember visiting him after his first NFL play in 1987, as a backup with the Chicago Bears. A year after leading Michigan to the Rose Bowl, he was a third-string pro, and only got in that game for one play, after Jim McMahon went out for some reason and backup Mike Tomczak did the same. Harbaugh raced out, took the snap, spun around and got sacked.

Out he came.

“What’d I lose, 9 yards?” he asked in the locker room when I saw him.

“Fifteen,” he was told.

“Fifteen?” he said, shaking his head. “Oh (bleep)!”

And yet on that same day, he privately told me that McMahon — a Super Bowl legend — wouldn’t be the starter much longer. I thought he was crazy. But by the end of the next year, McMahon was traded. And Harbaugh was starting games.

He went on to become a heck of an NFL quarterback, given that he didn’t jump off the page with speed or arm strength. He lasted 14 seasons, made a Pro Bowl and was one dropped Hail Mary pass from a Super Bowl in the 1996 AFC championship against Pittsburgh, still one of the gutsiest title games the league has ever seen.

“Do you ever wonder how your life would be different had that pass been caught and you went to the Super Bowl and won it?” I ask.

“Oh, man, it’s a good question,” he says. “It was an unbelievable day … great competition … but even if I’d done that a thousand times before, now you have to do it again. And now is the only time that matters.”

As for all the other stuff — the Jim-In-A-Box summer, the headlines, the tweeting, the shirtless photo, the Supreme Court visit, the sometimes spacey media interviews, the decision to run satellite camps in hothouse college football regions, even the dodge-’em attitude with traditional media questions like “How are you going to do this year?” or “Who’s going to be your starting quarterback?” — well, some think Harbaugh is crazy like a fox, and some think he’s just crazy.

I think it’s neither. Harbaugh is like Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights,” he just wants to go fast, and whatever goes flying by the window doesn’t concern him once it’s in his rearview mirror.

“What do you make of all the attention you’ve gotten?” I ask. “Are you amused by it? Bothered?”

“It’s irrelevant … irrelevant. … Most of it seems like warmed-up oatmeal right now. On to today. On to today’s activities.”

“You’re a today person, aren’t you?”

“Yeah … today — and the future, too. Who’s got it better than us? Nobody — except possibly for future us.”

I believe I heard Matthew McConaughey express the same idea when he won an Oscar. But I’m not making that comparison.

Size ’em up

Another reason to suspect he’ll be successful. Quarterback is the most important position in football. Harbaugh is a quarterback with every breath he takes. He not only played the role at Michigan and in the pros, he later developed passers like Andrew Luck (Stanford) and Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco). He elevated Kaepernick over Alex Smith when Smith was completing 70% of his throws.

“What advantage do you have coaching that position?” I ask.

“I think everybody that coaches … there’s something about their playing career when they’re teaching and explaining … you know, you visualize yourself in that position, then you can explain it …

“But as far as evaluating guys — I think that goes back to being a kid and being on a football team — you always look around and ask, ‘Who are the other good quarterbacks here?’ Even as a 9-year-old, 10-year-old, you got five youngsters trying out for quarterback, and I’m one of ’em — you’re sizing ’em up. ‘He does that better than I do … I have to get better at that.’ In high school, there’s juniors and seniors — You say, ‘I could compete against them’ …Same when you go to college … same when you go to the NFL combine … you fight for your life in all those situations. And you’re sizing everybody up.

“So, I always like to get a quarterback that I would not have wanted to compete against. I would not have wanted to compete against a guy like Kaepernick … Andrew Luck … Josh Johnson … Alex Smith … It might not have gone well for Jimmy Harbaugh. So, maybe there’s something in that. Evaluating guys is just sizing ’em up. Good, better or best.”

You following that? It’s a little scattered. But it’s sort of brilliant.

No guarantees … yet.

Which, in the end, is a fairly good summation of Michigan’s new coach. Yes, he’s all over the place, from Twitter to ESPN to his often drifting monologues. But there’s no question he has elevated attention to the U-M program, and with it, its status. Tonight’s game is drawing a lot of eyeballs. There’s not usually this much interest in a team that went 5-7 the year before and hasn’t won its conference in more than a decade.

Harbaugh won’t say what constitutes minimal success this year. Is it a winning record? A wining record in the Big Ten? Beating either archrival, Michigan State or Ohio State?

All he’ll say is the Wolverines need to be “better today than we were yesterday.” It’s a can’t-lose response. But he admits that coaches don’t hit, tackle, throw or catch. Even Schembechler — who looks down on Harbaugh from three different photographs in his office — only could do so much when his player talent was limited.

The most promising sign is that, three decades after leading the Wolverines as a quarterback, being “jacked” all the time, making brash guarantees about beating Ohio State and delivering on them, Harbaugh is pretty much the same guy. And that guy, quirky as he was, knew how to win and how to wring every ounce out of the talent he was given. What’s a more promising profile than that?

As for trying to analyze his behavior? Save your strength. Even his own dreams won’t reveal a conclusion.

“Is Michigan a place where you can see yourself finishing your career?” I ask.

“Yeah…” he answers. “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”

I laugh. “We don’t have many creeks in Michigan …”

“Well,” he interrupts, “there’s actually two interpretations of the word ‘creek’ in that expression. Have you studied that? Some think ‘Creek’ refers to Indians. The Creek Indians in the 1800s, but it’s also used by people that lived out in rural areas, they gotta get their harvest to town, and they gotta go over a creek, God willing — and the creek don’t rise, and …”

And? And? And off we go. Here, there, everywhere. Jim-In-A-Box bursts free tonight. All I can tell you is it won’t be boring.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.

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