SALT LAKE CITY — All it took was one burst by a talented enemy runner, Devontae Booker, for an eight-month circus of media hysteria to vanish. All it required was one sweet spiral from Utah’s 6-7 stork of a quarterback, Travis Wilson, for Jim Harbaugh’s rock-star tour to become so much “warmed-up oatmeal,” as he put it.
On a night by the foothills that seemed far away from the NFL, he simply was a football coach again in a cozy campus stadium, the way he wants it, with all the hype and celebrity tweets and France and Peru selfies stripped down to reveal a man in a long-sleeve blue shirt, down in his crouch in 85-degree heat. And what Harbaugh saw through his professorial glasses, in his celebrated Michigan debut, wasn’t much different than the optics when he took over years ago at Stanford.
“A lot of things to build on, a lot of things to grow from in a lot of areas,” he said after a 24-17 loss to the Utes. “They continued to fight the whole game. Our team was growing in confidence. That’s a positive.”
If anyone actually was expecting an immediate national championship in the Michigan Man’s spiritual homecoming to Ann Arbor, they should know he already has been eliminated from consideration. The Wolverines clearly were the inferior team Thursday, mostly dominated by an impressive Pac-12 foe that didn’t care about Harbaugh’s social-media relationships with Madonna, Lil Wayne and Judge Judy. As Wilson was showcasing his two-way abilities as someone Harbaugh would love to coach — at 233 pounds, he’s a larger Colin Kaepernick — Michigan was trotting out an Iowa transfer named Jake Rudock, whose starting quarterback status wasn’t known publicly until the first snap. Before you knew it, the senior was throwing two first-half interceptions, and that quickly, the maize-and-blue faithful who flocked here — some wearing Harbaugh-style khakis, unfortunately — were longing for Brandon Peters, a 6-5 recruit from Indiana whom their coach has compared to Andrew Luck.
He doesn’t arrive until next season, though, meaning this process will require patience. Harbaugh never received that trait in the gene pool, of course, but at least for one night, he kept his composure and remained supportive of his players. He clapped his hands and patted them on their behinds after mistakes. He spoke calmly to Rudock after his mistakes. He didn’t have an officiating-related meltdown, didn’t get in anyone’s face. And for a moment, it appeared his equanimity would result in an effective, in-progress coaching moment. There was Rudock — a play after he was rocked by linebacker Gionni Paul for a personal foul — locating tight end Jake Butt in the end zone for Michigan’s first touchdown of the Harbaugh era.
The sideline exploded, and Harbaugh, clutching his green play card, celebrated with his team and picked up more steam on his perpetual sideline pacing. “I thought that was outstanding. Jake shook that play off and came back fighting on the next play, as did our whole team,” said Harbaugh, oozing positivity, lathering it so they could hear him back in Santa Clara, where his old 49ers bosses, Jed York and Trent Baalke, have painted him as an uncaring lunatic who mistreated players and created a crime wave.
But the glee would turn sour when Rudock, driving toward a potential tying touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, threw a pick-six — nickel back Justin Thomas stepping in front of freshman wide receiver Grant Perry and returning the interception 55 yards for the backbreaker. Again, Harbaugh kept it together, walking down the sideline to meet Rudock and putting his arm around him. “Told him their player made a heck of a good play,” the QB guru said of his QB, who went 27 of 43 for two TDs and the three picks. “I thought he was seeing the field extremely well, seeing the defense, seeing the reads, making real good throws. The second interception was probably the only one that wasn’t a good, accurate throw.”
He even shared a peaceful post-game handshake with the winning coach, Kyle Whittingham. “Good game,” Harbaugh told him. He may be a little crazy, but he’s also smart. After an offseason when York and Baalke told stories about his alleged maniacal behavior behind the scenes, the last image he needed to create was a deranged facial contortion, a tantrum, even a smirk.
So he is 0-1, hoping for improvement, maybe a 7-5 record and a spot in a minor bowl. This is Harbaugh’s lot in coaching life, for now, until he loads a talent cupboard left lean by the failed Brady Hoke. He arrived at Rice-Eccles Stadium, no Levi’s Stadium, in a conservative blue suit and beige pants. His wife, Sarah, was alongside him in jeans and a maize T-shirt. In warmups, he was the classic frenetic Harbaugh, lining up as a quarterback and delivering handoffs to running backs. His team wore all-white uniforms last seen at Michigan in the mid-’70s. Why did Harbaugh revive them? Because those were among his first memories watching the Wolverines as a kid in Ann Arbor.
He is trying to channel the legendary Bo Schembechler, almost eerily so, buying a house five lots down from where Bo lived. The cleats, the whistle — Harbaugh thinks he’s Bo, 21st-century version. Schembechler lost two of his first five games at Michigan, which is why Harbaugh probably is OK with one tough road loss against a top-25-type team.
But just one, with Oregon State, UNLV and BYU coming up in the Big House on three straight Saturdays.
“He told us he’s proud of the way we fought,” Butt said. “It’s not going to define us.”
“We learn from it, we move on,” linebacker Joe Bolden said.
And what do they think of Harbaugh? “He’s a great leader, a great coach,” said Butt, saying the media hype “was for everyone else. In our locker room, we are focused.”
After all the attention, all the offseason madness, James Joseph Harbaugh now is another coach trying to rebound from an opening loss. His thoughts on his return to the college game? “Good, real football,” he said. “The goal is to win the next game. And we build from that.”
We saw no blast furnace, not even a slow burn. If York now wants to “win with class,” you might say Harbaugh lost with class.
For how long, though?