This week, a tweet was posted by a baseball-cap-wearing strongman. His name is Jim Harbaugh. But the tweet was a dead ringer for one of Donald Trump’s. It mocked a rival, helped Harbaugh seize control of the news cycle, and made otherwise skeptical reporters sprint to their keyboards.
Observers from Paul Finebaum to the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein have pondered the link between the Michigan football coach and the Republican presidential contender. But it’s on Twitter where you can most closely see their common aesthetic. This week, Harbaugh was tweaked by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith for holding a team practice in Florida. Harbaugh might have laughed it off. Instead, he wrote, “Good to see Director Smith being relevant again after the tattoo fiasco” — a reference to a scandal that nearly obliterated the Buckeyes football program five years ago.
This is the classic Trump style: bludgeon an enemy with a tweet so cutting that it makes the press forget what the argument was even about. In this case: Michigan had just come out of a slack period, as Smith suggested; Tattoogate was a really dumb NCAA investigation. But nobody much cared. They were saluting Harbaugh’s “burn.”
Harbaugh has launched similar tweet-missiles at Georgia and Tennessee coaches. There was this classic from January, apparently aimed at the 49ers: “Do not be deceived. You will reap what you sow.” A 2015 blast (quoting Sir Walter Scott) was directed at the Buckeyes’ departing running backs coach.
As writer Ben Mathis-Lilley notes, most Harbaugh tweets don’t channel Mean Trump. In fact, they channel Dada Trump — the CEO who’s adding luster to the brand through winking self-parody. In this case, the Harbaugh brand is that of a hypercompetitive but hopelessly dorky dad, the kind who would have sleepovers at recruits’ houses. So here’s Harbaugh tweeting from inside the theater while watching The Force Awakens. Here’s Harbaugh throwing a football on the streets of Paris (“pretty darn nice!”). Here’s Harbaugh lobbying President Obama to put Judge Judy on the Supreme Court.
The two men have their differences. Harbaugh is a master of the subtweet; Trump is prone to add his target’s handle. But both men love bragging about “good friends” (Harbaugh: Jason Day; Trump: Tom Brady). And at least once, Harbaugh hewed to the classic Trumpian formula: a string of over-the-top compliments (or insults), followed by an exclamatory kicker:
As with Trump, the press will enter a period of self-scrutiny about Harbaugh’s tweets. They will begin to see the posts as tantalizing semi-news that distracts from stories about Michigan that are actually important. But until then, Harbaugh’s and Trump’s accounts share a final, almost noble quality: They reveal each man’s rivals (Ted Cruz, Mark Dantonio) as stuffed shirts that are utterly deaf to Twitter’s comic possibilities. Sad!
This piece originally appeared in the March 25, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.