SALT LAKE CITY — He hardly looks the part in his black cleats, long-past-cliche khakis and ballcap, to be adorned for the first time tonight with a maize “M.” But Jim Harbaugh really has become a 21st-century social experiment. We’re about to discover if a man-kid locked in a 1980s time warp, back when it was admirable to intimidate like Bo Schembechler and control psyches like Bob Knight and scream like a generation of Vince Lombardi wannabes, can caveman-coach a team in these more sensitive times without doing one of the following:
Ravaging his players physically, charring them mentally and losing their souls.
Reaching an eventual conclusion that his bosses are less competent and less focused than he is, though it really just may be that they’re less maniacal.
Frustrating media commentators who want to understand him and even like him but see two or three Harbaughs, none consistent with the other and always prone to sudden, unexplainable mood flips.
Alienating fans who expect an immediate messiah at Michigan, not understanding that he inherited fair-to-middling talent and may need two or three seasons before reaching the competitive level of Urban Meyer and Ohio State.
I’m predicting that Harbaugh succeeds regardless, as he has everywhere else he has coached. He will because much of what you just read are Santa Clara-generated myths and because his modus operandi is grounded in confounding doubters via his unconventional, not-so-beautiful mind. He will learn from his mistakes with the 49ers and effectively channel his passions into an Ann Arbor homecoming that has all the elements of a full-blown religious experience. It could be Harbaugh belonged on a college campus all along, and while he’ll likely try the NFL again, he’ll use the foreseeable future as a proving ground that Old School still works, with 51 years of maturity softening some edges and even allowing a smidgen of joy.
“Our expectations are very high,” said Harbaugh, who begins his post-49ers phase of professional life against favored, formidable Utah. “The beautiful thing about football, as coach Schembechler used to say, is that you live clean, come clean and be clean. The part about coming clean always resonated with me. Coming clean means to tell the truth. When you step onto a football field, that’s where the truth is gonna be told. Who’s the best prepared, who wants it more, who’s the most talented, who plays best together. We’re gonna come clean.”
The Come Clean speech should be in the running as an all-time Harbaughism, up there with “Who’s got it better than us? Noooooo-body” and “We must attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” But somewhere along his goofy way, as the football world has concluded he’s a crazyman, we’ve forgotten that he is one of America’s most successful coaches, and that others who’ve fit that description the last 15 years — Bill Belichick, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Nick Saban among them — aren’t exactly conformists. Not everyone is chill like Steve Kerr, stoic like Bruce Bochy. Sometimes, you’re a little crazy as you contend for championships.
“Just striving to coach the football team. Not trying to be popular or anything,” Harbaugh said. “Anyone who is popular is bound to be disliked. So, just coaching football.”
Let’s begin with the core of who he is: a prolific winner at every level. He quickly resurrected dead programs at the University of San Diego and Stanford, then did the same with the 49ers, leading them to three straight NFC title games and to within five yards of a Super Bowl trophy. Had his creation, Colin Kaepernick, completed one of those passes to Michael Crabtree, Harbaugh still would be the head coach, hailed by CEO Jed York as an irascible-but-lovable character, a hipper, West Coast version of Belichick. But because Harbaugh lost the big one to his brother, then lost another big one to Seattle a year later, the inner storm that motivates the Khaki Warrior rose to blast-furnace levels. He demanded more from his bosses, players and assistants. Tensions rose, fingers pointed, rifts developed, rival camps formed. Late last season, Harbaugh looked up and realized no one was in his camp. The very force who had created the franchise revival was told to scram by York, unfathomable in a bottom-line business where a 49-22-1 record over four years should have compelled The Jedster to manage a strained relationship between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. Instead, he sided with Baalke, which brings us to tonight, the start of a competition within a competition.
Of course, we’ll be comparing Harbaugh’s path at Michigan to that of York and Baalke. How delicious to see a convergence of contrasting story lines, 708 miles apart. As he resumes his career as a conquering hero before he has conquered anything, the 49ers are mired in dysfunction as they play their final preseason game at Levi’s Stadium. York wants us to think Harbaugh broke the organizational model, that he’s the reason 49ers players have been arrested or charged with a crime 13 times since 2012, that he’s the reason for the mass exodus of players, that he’s the reason Chris Borland and Anthony Davis retired young. But Aldon Smith, the symbol of the crime wave, was a Baalke pet project. And York and Baalke were Harbaugh’s bosses, meaning they signed off on any player he wanted and any method he used — never a problem when the team was challenging for annual rings.
There is no reason to believe York and Baalke can thrive without Harbaugh. But there is every reason to believe Harbaugh, given time to rebuild as he did in Palo Alto, will thrive at Michigan with power football and the power of positive thinking. Such as this gem, from this week: “You want to be at that big boy table — big person’s table, might be better to say. There’s another table over there in the kitchen for those people that aren’t seated at that big person’s table. If someone wants to go over there, no one’s going to be upset if they do. But this is what we signed up for, this is what I signed up for, and I know our players did.”
Few people in sports have made as many headlines as Harbaugh this calendar year. From the day he was hired through early August, when he shut down media access, he was his own news service: tweets to everyone from Madonna to Lil Wayne to Judge Judy, unappetizing photos with his shirt off, a spring-training coaching stint with the A’s, coming to the rescue of car-crash victims, confirming he has used Gatorade on cereal as a milk replacement, saying he tried to drown brother John when they were kids, meeting with U.S. Supreme Court justices, agreeing with a Nicki Minaj tweet that Michigan is her favorite place, cutting a deal with Michael Jordan for the Wolverines to join his Jumpman Jordan Brand.
Somehow, he has not said a single word about the 49ers. The only related news came in a forthcoming book, “Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football,” which reported Harbaugh had phone chats with a Michigan official on Saturday nights before 49ers games last December. He did not sign the deal until hours — nanoseconds? — after an 8-8 season was done.
“It’s a decision I basically made without a list, without a pros-and-cons approach, something that I’ve dreamed about — felt it was time to live,” he said of his alma mater, in the town where he grew up.
For now, he’ll have to live with the nutball tag, fed by 49er Alex Boone when he told HBO that Harbaugh “might be clinically insane.” Insane like a fox, actually, as David Shaw told a radio show.
“I do not have a Ph.D. in psychology or psychiatry. Jim is out there, Jim is who he is,” said Shaw, Harbaugh’s Stanford successor. “He drives people, pushes people. He is the most competitive person on the planet. He’s going to rub some people the wrong way. He’s going to find a way to win games, because that’s what he does.”
Belichick is nuts. Bill Parcells was nuts. Lombardi was nuts. Why isn’t Jim Harbaugh allowed to be a little nuts?
“Stress is energy,” he said. “Stress makes you love life. I see so many stories about stress killing people. I think it’s life giving you energy. Keeps you young.”
And very relevant, something the 49ers are not without him. Already, he has won that game in a rout.