Jim Harbaugh isn’t very good at standing up straight, because he’s never been all that great at standing still. The Michigan football coach is forever pressing forward, leaning ahead, operating with the braced posture of a man opening a restaurant door into a winter wind.
During Wolverines games, he presides with hands on knees like it’s 1986 and he’s once again a winged-helmeted All-American quarterback in the Wolverines huddle. He creeps closer to the football with each down, inching farther onto the field of play between every whistle, until the referees strong-arm him back to his sideline once more. Around the campus quads and endless eateries of Ann Arbor, he’s always mid-stride: He pops by for photo ops and leans in to shake hands and sweeps down the sidewalk past sleepy students who twist with cartoonish double takes.
Even during alleged times of leisure, like a celebrity golf tournament back in July with Lake Tahoe sparkling behind him, Harbaugh fails to kick back. Playing in a pre-tournament celeb–amateur just-for-fun round, one of the guys in Harbaugh’s foursome was a chill older gent who took the majority of his swings with a cigar in his mouth. His vibe was infectious — unless you were Harbaugh, who restlessly stalked the course after each shot like a turn-of-the-century Tiger Woods.
"Any chance we can get him to sign this?" a fan clutching a tournament program asked John Feuerborn, Harbaugh’s friend and brother-in-law, who was manning an otherwise unused golf cart and monitoring Harbaugh’s phone in case any recruits were to ring.
They then glanced over at Harbaugh, who had started his stride up the fairway almost immediately upon finishing his follow-through. "After a nice shot," Feuerborn advised, "you’ve got a better chance."
You don’t need to be on a Lake Tahoe golf course or on the grounds of Michigan’s stately campus to experience Jim Harbaugh, which is to say, to feel like he’s all up in your face. (Although if you are on campus, you’ll see things like this maize-and-blue T-shirt hanging in the window of a rental house across from the football administration building, Schembechler Hall.) Harbaugh is routinely in the news with some fresh set of noteworthy (or not) comments. He cracks wise on Twitter at the crack of dawn. He is compulsively watchable in GIF format, as when he battered starting quarterback Wilton Speight on the morning of Michigan’s season-opening win against Hawaii on Saturday.
As blog fodder he is nearly optimized: always up to something, rarely apologizing, usually dressed in a mockable, on-brand way. He takes bait but slings truths; he has an ego but he has a point; he looks all wrong when he’s not wearing a hat. SB Nation has an ongoing "weird-jim-harbaugh" tag. (The best story linked on it is the one where Harbaugh advises kids on how to use multiple costumes and endurance running skills to game the trick-or-treat system.) The official header image of MGoBlog, the internet’s locus for dedicated Michigan Kremlinology, features one of the coach’s most ominous Biblical subtweets as a sort of raison d’etre, a rallying cry: Do not be deceived. You will reap what you sow. If an enterprising Etsy store or novelty publishing house hasn’t already made some sort of This Date in Harbaugh daily tear-off calendar, they’re just leaving money on the table. In a sport full of outsize characters, he may be the largest presence.
Of course, for those who don’t self-identify as a Michigan Man — or, at the least, as a meme-loving fan — all of this can feel like an insufferable sideshow propelled by a self-involved crazy person. Imagine how it will feel, then, if this guy can keep winning football games.
It was somehow only two years ago that Harbaugh was entering his fourth season as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, having made it to three NFC championship games and one Super Bowl in his first three. But two years is a half-life in his world, and by the end of 2014 he would be fired from the 49ers following a passive-aggressive power struggle within the organization.
He would also be pursued, hard, by a Michigan football program emerging from its own dark period of systemic dysfunction. After years of rumors and false starts, this time everything fell into place, and the University of Michigan announced Harbaugh as its head football coach on December 30, 2014. On his way up to the microphone, he stumbled forward. "I don’t know if anybody saw me trip on the way in," he said to the crowd of many hundred. "Anybody see that? A lesser athlete would have gone down."
His first season back in Ann Arbor was a return to the leafy university town where his father Jack was an assistant coach and where a teenaged Jim babysat (and messed with) Bo Schembechler’s son. Taking over an increasingly listless program that was on its fourth head coach since 2007, Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a 10–3 record and a Citrus Bowl win. (And, to be fair, to a chaotic last-second loss to Michigan State.) Far from having a head-down offseason, he traveled the country like a stumping politician on a tour de satellite camp he called the Summer Swarm. He tucked awkwardly fitting hometown jerseys into his khakis on each stop and traded barbs with anyone who wasn’t complimentary of this barnstorming.
And now, as Harbaugh begins his second year at the helm of the fifth-ranked Wolverines, he continues to reshape the program in his image, just as he always has when he has come in hot and fired people up and burned people out. He has yet to stay at a head-coaching job for longer than four years. But if the Michigan situation is to be different, maybe it’s because he has a history there that goes behind his usual tunnel vision, because it’s a job that relates to Harbaugh’s future as well as his past.
This being a Labor Day weekend game against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, the themes for the opening tailgate of the season were obvious. Tom Anderson, a dentist who nine years ago made good on a longtime dream to own a truly memorable tailgating vehicle when he purchased a silver 1981 Greyhound bus on eBay, wore Hawaiian shorts and a lei as he affixed a beer tap directly to the outside of his bus.
The parking lot outside the six-figure-capacity Big House had yet to fill up at 7:30 a.m., but a few early birds had laid out detailed spreads. One man, Mark Bank, was at his 214th consecutive home-or-away Michigan game. Another tailgate host said he’d woken up at 2 a.m. to get everything rolling.
Edward Sarkisian, whose years playing trumpet in the Michigan band had included a trip to the 1972 Rose Bowl, now had Hawaiian music playing and bright flowers hanging from his parking space. Next to a bag of Hawaiian rolls hung an apron designed to look like a luau dancer. (Out of respect for some Jewish friends, he said, he was serving chicken rather than pork.) Like many longtime alumni, Sarkisian seemed pained by the past decade or so of Michigan football, but optimistic about what could be in store.
Across the lot, a younger group of band alums unloaded cans of Spam from their trunk. Ryan Sawyer, a former member of the drumline, nodded sympathetically at his friend Evan Coder, a tuba player who graduated two years below him. "His first game was the Appalachian State game," he said. Sawyer called landing Harbaugh as coach "a pipe dream," adding that he was on a New Year’s vacation when the news broke and celebrated accordingly.
"This feels like the Michigan football I’d always heard about," Coder said.
As the sun rose higher and game time grew closer, the parking lots and golf courses and school fields and sports bars and vile front porches around Ann Arbor grew saturated with fans, the celebrations ranging from tableclothed and cable-knitted to sloppy and mustard-smeared. A man named Tom Christian, overseeing a weekly tailgate in the former category that honored that day’s Veteran of the Game, wouldn’t divulge his class year, but hinted he’d been at Michigan in the days of 1960s basketball player Cazzie Russell.
"Refreshingly crazy," is how he assessed Harbaugh, before getting existential: "Is Harbaugh the Trump of football," he asked, "or is Trump the Harbaugh of politics?" Out of every Michigan tailgater I spoke with, he was the only one who offered advice for the coach. It was on the topic of social media: "He needs to set his phone about 20 feet from where he is," he said.
Hawaii isn’t necessarily an opponent who strikes fear into the hearts of nationally ranked football programs, but Harbaugh is not the type to take anything easy. J.T. Rogan, who starred at running back for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego before the coach left for Stanford in 2007, and who is now employed in the broadly defined role of, essentially, being Harbaugh’s right-hand man, tells a story of a 2004 game in which the Toreros were blown out 61–18 by Penn in Harbaugh’s first season as head coach. After the game, Penn’s coach remarked that it was Harbaugh’s job to prevent the score from being run up, and not the other way around. A few years later, when the Toreros were on the winning end of a 37–0 rout against Drake, Harbaugh passed this hard-won lesson on to the opposing coach.
A decade later, Harbaugh was still leading by example; he was in top form the entire week leading up to the Hawaii game. During his early week press conference, he was asked if he would say before Saturday who his starting quarterback would be: John O’Korn, Shane Morris, or Speight? Harbaugh said yes, he would say. But: "I didn’t say I was going to say it to you before Saturday," he added to the reporters. Later, he was asked about his former quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. "I acknowledge his right to do that," he said, growing quiet, "but I don’t respect the motivation or the action."
Shortly after leaving the room, he followed up with a tweet: "I apologize for misspeaking my true sentiments," it said. "To clarify, I support Colin’s motivation. It’s his method of action that I take exception to."
It was a rare backpedal for Harbaugh. "He took three seconds to find a word and it wasn’t the right word and that wasn’t his intention," Rogan explained. "He’s articulated that to Colin personally and he’s talked with Colin’s dad, and having a resolution to this is important to him, because he values all of his players."
Whether it was a misspeak or a misstep, the incident piled on to several other Harbaugh-related headlines around that time. Hawaii’s head coach had insinuated that the Wolverines declined to provide them with any courtesy scrimmage footage. (Hawaii had played a game a week earlier, a 51–31 loss to Cal in Sydney, Australia, but had no recent game tape of Michigan.) In late August, a recruit decommitted from Michigan after receiving a misspelled note thanking him for attending a barbecue he hadn’t been to, an embarrassing error. All of it made Harbaugh an easy target for criticism, especially the kind involving words like "antics." Still, the recruit didn’t say he was ruling out Michigan altogether, and as it later turned out, the Hawaii coach insisted he had only been kidding. Even Harbaugh’s excited manhandling of his quarterback, the type of thing that led some to roll their eyes, had been at Speight’s specific request, the passer said.
Harbaugh waited until game time to announce Speight as his starting quarterback. When the junior threw an interception on the first play of the game, it didn’t seem like a promising sign. But Harbaugh was a quarterback himself and knows the importance of not overreacting to a bad series. As Speight would later tell the media, Harbaugh greeted him not with anger or disappointment but with semimaniacal laughter.
"I was more interested in how the next play would go," Harbaugh explained. The next offensive series would be a touchdown drive from the 2-yard line, and the Wolverines would cruise on to win the game, 63–3.
After several weeks’ worth of talking up the talent of the team’s freshmen — members of the first recruiting class he managed start to finish — Harbaugh stood behind his words and put a whopping 17 of them in the game, an act which one fan on Twitter termed a "redshirt bonfire." On the sideline was Michael Jordan, the game’s honorary captain, as well as its merchandise maven: His Jordan Brand’s Jumpman logo will adorn Michigan’s football jerseys this season thanks to a partnership with Nike.
The marching band’s halftime show featured a plot involving a Harbaugh Bighead taking the band’s drum major around a series of satellite camps and poking fun at some of Michigan’s detractors. (Harbaugh himself appeared in a prerecorded video segment in which he snacked on whole milk and steak.) At the end of the performance, the people on the field formed a Michigan M and a Jumpman logo in a display of true brand synergy.
After the game, Harbaugh parroted, with great appreciation, the mantra of his blitz-loving defensive coordinator, Don Brown. "Solve your problems with aggression," Harbaugh quoted. "I love that," he added.
The man known to his friends as the Beav was at the supermarket buying food for his guinea pig in August 2015 when his prehistoric flip phone began buzzing nonstop. "You’re on Barstool," people told him, and when he finally got home to a computer he learned that he’d been part of the Tom Brady–email trove released as part of the ongoing Deflategate saga.
Jay Flannelly, so-called the Beav because of a resemblance to Jerry Mathers, was a student assistant for the football team in the late ’90s when he befriended Brady, then the team’s backup quarterback. Flannelly is a loyal guy, and to this day he still watches All-22 footage of the teams on the Patriots upcoming schedule and emails his observations to Brady every week. Some of these emails were captured in the Deflategate case: "Thanks, Beav," Brady replied.
The emails were a curiosity that sometimes led random people to wander into Ann Arbor’s Pizza House, where Flannelly used to wash dishes, to seek out the guy who is old buds with Tom Brady. But it was a different interaction Flannelly had with the Patriots quarterback back in the fall of 2014 that had actual lasting importance.
When the 49ers began leaking news that the team would be dropping Harbaugh at the end of the 2014 season, Michigan football supporters — depressed with the program’s state of affairs — sprung into action to woo Harbaugh. According to the book Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football by university lecturer John U. Bacon, relations had grown strained between Harbaugh and Michigan over the years for a couple of reasons. In 2007, Harbaugh’s observations that Stanford did a better job than Michigan at maintaining elite academic standards for its student athletes pissed off many in Michigan’s football family. In 2011, Harbaugh found supposed efforts by embattled former Michigan athletic director (and former Domino’s Pizza CEO) Dave Brandon to recruit him to be head coach half-assed: "I just wasn’t feeling the love," he is quoted as saying in Endzone.
This time around, with Brandon having resigned and Harbaugh having cleared the air over the 2007 comments, everyone wanted to make sure Harbaugh felt genuinely wanted. He may have blamed his hoarse voice at the introductory press conference on a Gatorade bath, but the concerted phone call campaign embarked upon by Michigan boosters and alumni probably contributed, too.
One of those alumni was Tom Brady. Flannelly jokes that he "collects quarterbacks" as buddies. (And there’s something to it: On the Friday night before last week’s Hawaii game, he had beer and pizza with the families of O’Korn and 2015 Wolverines starter Jake Rudock.) But he had been nervous about asking Brady for a favor. He decided not to do it when the Patriots had a rare loss to the Packers on November 30; "he doesn’t even talk to Gisele after a loss," he rationalized. The following week, though, the Patriots had a win against San Diego, and Flannelly texted Brady Harbaugh’s number and explained that they were trying to get him to come to Ann Arbor.
"Ten seconds go by," Flannelly said. "When Tom wants to be, he can be very, very serious. So he says, ‘Beav, Harbaugh is exactly the type of guy Michigan needs.’" Brady and Harbaugh talked on the phone for two hours, Flannelly said. This February, Brady showed up at Michigan’s gaudy Signing of the Stars event, a Harbaugh brainchild, and is slated to be the team’s honorary captain during Week 3 as he serves his NFL suspension.
The night before the Hawaii game, the Wolverines visited with their first honorary captain of the season, Jordan. ("Michael Jordan’s the GOAT," said linebacker Mike McCray after the game, shaking his head. "Like, the actual GOAT.") The first player to ask Jordan a question was freshman running back Chris Evans, who wanted to know about Jordan’s memory of the famous "Flu Game." The next day, Evans was similarly bold on the playing field, becoming just the third player in Wolverine history to rush for more than 100 yards in his first game, racking up 112 yards on eight plays and scoring two touchdowns. Afterward, the four-star recruit said that he had attended one of Harbaugh’s satellite camps in Indiana and credited the coach for attracting him to Michigan rather than his lifelong dream school, Ohio State.
"My mom and dad loved Coach Harbaugh," he said. "He really tried to get personal to let them know, ‘I’ll take care of your son.’ My mom was like, ‘Of all the recruiters, I’ll drop you off with Coach Harbaugh right now!’"
It was reminiscent of a scene from that Thursday at the Tahoe golf tournament. One of the silly loopholes in NCAA recruiting is that coaches can’t reach out to a certain subset of prospective players — but if the players reach out to the coaches, and they answer the phone, they can chat. Miss a call and the player might be dialing Urban Meyer or Nick Saban next. On the 18th hole, Feuerborn motioned to Harbaugh, his phone in hand — he had a live one. For one of the first times that day, Harbaugh actually sat in his golf cart, pulling off the fairway and into the shade. "I know how to parent," he said convincingly to whomever it was on the other end. "And I know how to motivate." He never did finish the 18th hole.
The next day, Harbaugh had a skip in his step as part of a group that included Joe Theismann and Mark Rypien. There were about double the amount of onlookers as there were the day before, ranging from the pure profit-seekers — Harbaugh quickly caught on to guys who kept returning with new items to sign, publicly rebuking them — to the steady stream of 49ers fans who yelled out various iterations of we miss you, coach! ("You’re too big for Michigan!" one screamed. "We need you back in the NFL!")
Every now and again someone would throw him a lob: "Who’s got it better than us?" and Harbaugh would return it: "Noooo body." He consulted here and there with his caddy, San Diego and Detroit–area developer Gaal Karp, who once posted a YouTube video about khaki pants from the shelves of Harbaugh’s preferred clothier, Walmart.
Parasailers hung in the air above Harbaugh as he three-putted the sixth hole. When he got to the 17th — an obnoxious, rowdy party hole lined with mouthy drunk boaters in bathing suits, batting beach balls around — he turned his hat around backward and shot some hoops while waiting for the people ahead of him to putt.
It’s easy to dismiss Harbaugh as a showman, and there’s no doubt he has a great sense of the impact some of his statements, tweets, or music videos will have. Still, a large part of how he comes across is simply who he is. Some of it is the Harbaugh lineage, though much of it is just him.
"I wouldn’t have wanted to be in that family," laughed Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison, who in his career has now worked with Harbaughs Jack, John, Jim, and Jay. "When you go to play a pickup basketball game, I got a feeling you gotta be pretty physical." Indeed, when Harbaugh first met his wife’s large family, he wound up complaining about her sister Amy’s officiating in a 3-on-3 basketball game.
But in contrast to the more reticent John, or the more affable Jack, or the more soft-spoken Jay (whose Twitter bio does include the words: "Relish a good nepotism tweet"; like father, like son), Jim Harbaugh can never just stay put. He points out that he’s the only member of his family taller than 6 feet and ascribes it to a childhood spent downing whole milk and praying for height. Sometimes, it’s overwhelming to think about what it must be like to live inside his brain.
"It’s instinct," said San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami, who covered Harbough at both Stanford and with the 49ers. "He does this stuff out of instinct. He’s really smart. He’s not gonna quote you Shakespeare, but — well, actually, he probably will quote you Shakespeare."
Harbaugh sometimes describes himself as if he’s a tuning fork: When he agrees with something, he says that it has resonated with him, and vice versa. You imagine him emanating waves of opinion throughout the universe, which is pretty accurate. Harbaugh would be the first to acknowledge that none of his theories and ideas and Signing of the Stars will resonate to anyone without success; what’s less clear is what he would do if he were to actually attain the sort of status that would come from actually winning a championship.
For all the things he says he loves about Ann Arbor, for all the times he’s insinuated that it sure would be nice to raise his growing family there — his wife, Sarah, one of 11 children, is now pregnant with their fourth child; Harbaugh also has three older children, including tight ends coach Jay, from his first marriage — it’s hard to imagine him not wanting to check all the boxes available to him. In a telling interview with ESPN this summer, Harbaugh was asked what he’d do if he weren’t coaching. He didn’t have an answer. "Um," he said, "I would play as long as I could, and then I would coach, and then die … never thought about the other." Viewed this way, even the trademark offbeat things he does — showing up at an annual graveyard walk (with cleats on); appearing in a Michigan theater production of, yep, Big Fish alongside his son James; chirping back at just about any perceived slight — are all ways for him to get closer to Michigan, and by extension, to Michigan football.
On the 18th tee in Lake Tahoe, a fan held up his cell phone and blasted the Michigan fight song right as Harbaugh took his drive. He smiled at the distraction, but his shot was awful, the ball coming to rest in a sandy hazard area dotted with sharp, craggy plants.
Harbaugh marched over there and addressed the ball, looking out impatiently toward the fairway, where crowds of half-baked people milled in his way while meek tournament volunteers tried to prompt them to move. "Hey!" Harbaugh yelled, taking everyone aback; heads snapped to attention. "Get back!" He was employing the same tone and tricks as the referees usually tasked with corralling him during college football games. Everyone did as they were told, and the immediacy and seamlessness with which they moved was as impressive a feat by Harbaugh as any of his actual shots that day.
He hit the ball out of the rough gorgeously, perfectly, to surprised gasps and applause, and he turned around and began high-fiving just about anyone within reach, lurching forward into the delighted, scattered gallery. It would have been the perfect time, in hindsight, to ask him for his autograph.