CHICAGO — Compared to the rest of Jim Harbaugh’s year, this was tame stuff.
In his first Big Ten media day appearance as Michigan’s head coach, Harbaugh ditched the ball cap and khakis and put on a suit. He kept his shirt on. There were no shout-outs to Judge Judy or rappers Big Sean and Lil Wayne. There were no car crashes on the drive over, nor victims to assist.
Even so, it didn’t take Harbaugh long to demonstrate why he is already … The Most Interesting Man in the Big Ten.
The first question Harbaugh faced Friday, naturally, was how he planned to refer to the Wolverines’ eternal rival. That would be the same team he guaranteed a victory over as Michigan’s snot-nosed quarterback in 1986 — enraging Bo Schembechler, his coach at the time — and then improbably delivered.
“Ohio State in particular?” Harbaugh said, as if hearing the question for the first time. “Just Ohio State.
“But great to see everybody this morning,” he added a moment later. “Glad everybody could be here. Wonderful turnout.”
He was short on details about his plans to reinvigorate one of the most famous brands in college football, but long on the influences that guided him to this juncture of his career — singling out mentors such as his father, Jack, a former college coach; Schembechler; former Raiders owner Al Davis; and former Bears coach Mike Ditka.
Harbaugh even noted that he lives just a few doors down from Schembechler’s old house in Ann Arbor, and then talked about driving to the office that Schembechler once worked in, trying to figure which route his old coach took on any given day. And he did it convincingly enough to make the gathering wonder if he was sincere or simply putting us on.
“If we could do it the way Bo did it,” Harbaugh said at one point, “that would be something to aspire to.”
Presumably, he was talking about Schembechler’s managerial skills, as opposed to his driving, since his old-school mentor would not have been thrilled with much of the headline-nearly-every-week pace that Harbaugh has kept up since taking the Michigan job last December.
He’s turned up on the cover of Sport Illustrated and at the Oakland A’s training camp in uniform, been the subject of an HBO special, showed up shirtless for drills at several summer camps and displayed his pop culture bona fides by swapping messages with everybody from Judge Judy to Madonna.
In between, on his way to the Ann Arbor airport one March afternoon, Harbaugh and Michigan football operations director Jim Minick stopped at the scene of an accident and provided first aid to the two women involved as they waited for law enforcement to arrive. And just last night, he had dinner with Ditka, for whom Harbaugh once played, pulling out a vintage No. 89 Chicago jersey and holding it up.
“He didn’t autograph it,” Harbaugh said, “but I’ll be proud to wear that.”
As for the hoopla, Harbaugh said, “Not striving to be creating any buzz. Just striving to coach the football team. Not trying to be popular or anything.
“Anyone who is popular is bound to be disliked,” he added. “So just coaching football.”
Yet Harbaugh has found ways to enliven even the most regimented parts of the job. At his first spring practice, he arrived in his familiar khakis and long-sleeve polo shirt and started going through the paces alongside his players.
“That was crazy,” said linebacker James Ross III. “Push-ups, calisthenics, 60-yard sprints, he was really into it. … He brings the intensity every day. You can see how he was successful as both a player and a coach and you’ve got to respect that.”
Harbaugh didn’t stop there. He preached self-respect and told the players that if they wanted more walking-around money over the summer to get jobs.
“He said, ‘Be men about it. Earn it,’” Ross recalled. “So we’ve got guys on all kinds of internships, working at golf courses, cutting grass, or working on maintenance crews, cleaning toilets and stuff.
“Believe me,” he added, “that’s earning your pay.”
Harbaugh’s responsibility to do the same begins in earnest Sept. 3, when Michigan opens against Utah on the road. Someone asked whether he was feeling the pressure mounting.
“I feel that with any job I do,” he said. “If Sarah (his wife) tells me to do a job around the house, the first thing I think is, ‘Don’t screw it up.’”