He wasn’t on the ballot and has yet to coach a game at Michigan, yet Jim Harbaugh finished fourth in voting last week for the student-body presidency. This should shock no one who has watched life’s two proven equalizers, karma and justice, embrace him with hugs and love since Dec. 28. You’ll remember that as the dark and dirty afternoon when the 49ers — and there is no other way to state it — removed his khaki-covered carcass from the premises in one of football’s all-time mismanagement fiascos.
Those of us who know Harbaugh — me from way back — realize his public persona is something of an act. Yet no PR firm could shape a campaign that has him coming off as a happy, wealthy and enormously popular BMOC, in contrast to a Jed York-Trent Baalke corporate abomination that grows more sour and depressing by the hour at Levi’s Stadium. Seems Harbaugh makes more news than the Kardashians these days, the difference being that his events always glow with good, fun vibes, devoid of a Kanye or Disick funk.
“Disappointed w/4th place finish for @umich student body Pres,” he cracked Monday on his Twitter account. “Competitive juices flowing! Hat in the ring for 2016 & will campaign.”
Can a man beat Urban Meyer and rule a large student body in one swoop? Jimmy Frat House might be the only coach capable of pulling this off. It’s amazing how he keeps his personal headline cycle generating with cool water-cooler buzz that must warm the collective embittered souls of 49ers fans, who at least can root for Harbaugh from afar while their franchise implodes amid a crippling roster exodus and a bizarre coaching appointment. If he already had blown away York and Baalke in the public-opinion race, what’s happened since is a rout akin to the last Seahawks loss.
There was Harbaugh on a snowy afternoon in Ann Arbor, playing good Samaritan when he observed a rollover crash on an interstate highway. Christine Mowrer didn’t know who he was, but covered in blood after her 2003 Jeep Cherokee flipped at least three times, she was relieved to see Harbaugh and another football staff member wrap her and her 73-year-old mother in blankets and administer first aid until help arrived. “He probably kept me from going into shock,” Mowrer, 53, told the Ann Arbor News from her hospital bed. “I had blood dripping out of my nose, and he helped me out and got me onto the ground.”
Meanwhile, in Santa Clara, York and Baalke were trying to explain the identity of Jim Tomsula and douse speculation that Tomsula had undercut Harbaugh to get his job, furthering perceptions that the departed angel had been sabotaged by the worst kind of office politics. As Harbaugh said to a Bay Area columnist, “[You] definitely walk down the halls and people look away or they look at you and you know something’s going on,” adding that it would be a good issue for Tomsula to address. When Tomsula did address it, he blamed the media and never really denied it.
There was Harbaugh, going to Michigan basketball games, belting out the “Hail to the Victors” school fight song and pressing his hand against his heart during the national anthem. There was Harbaugh, staying in a budget hotel with his assistant coaches and eating pre-dawn cereal in the lobby before carpooling to Schembechler Hall and staying until midnight. There was Harbaugh, hanging out with his 25-year-old son, Jay, the new tight ends coach. There was Harbaugh, waving at students who wear “Maize, Blue and Khaki” T-shirts and “Welcome to Ann Arbaugh” clothing lines. St. Jim, they were calling him.
Meanwhile, in Santa Clara, York and Baalke were ducking reporters on a day when serious explanations were needed for fans. Why was Patrick Willis retiring? Why were Frank Gore and Mike Iupati leaving? Why was Justin Smith considering leaving? Why was yet another player in trouble with the law? Why wasn’t the highly regarded Vic Fangio given the head coaching job? And why was Tomsula babbling incoherently during a CSN Bay Area introductory interview?
There was Harbaugh, a big fan of the “Judge Judy” show, using his Twitter feed to congratulate Judith Sheindlin for signing a contract extension, to which she replied with a good-luck wish for his opening collegiate season. There was Harbaugh, hosting NFL prospects Jameis Winston and Bryce Petty for precombine workouts in what only could be a tribute to his standing as a quarterbacking guru.
Meanwhile, in Santa Clara, Baalke was denying reports he is shopping Harbaugh’s regressing pet QB, Colin Kaepernick. This while Kaepernick was engaging in Twitter wars and telling one fan, @battman_returns, to “mind your damn business, clown” and to “get better at life!” — all because one Stephen Batten had said Kaepernick’s abs workouts wouldn’t help him find open receivers, which is kind of true.
There was Harbaugh, escaping the Midwest winter for Arizona, coaching first base for the A’s as a “special guest instructor” for an old pal from his Palo Alto boyhood, manager Bob Melvin. And you know what he said after the Cactus League victory? “How does it get any better than this?” he gushed, in a variation of his famous line. “It’s a great day for baseball, and just to be able to put on the uniform … I haven’t been in a baseball uniform since American Legion ball.”
“He’s an inspiration just walking out here,” Melvin said. “He’s got that air about him. He’s always been quite the competitor and everyone knows that. A winner. And whenever you can have guys like that around, guys benefit from it. Plus you don’t find too many guys who want to get in uniform and go out there and interact with the guys during the workout.” Meanwhile, in Santa Clara, emerging defensive star Chris Borland was becoming an inspiration in his own right by retiring from football at age 24, injecting a cursed element into the raging chaos.
Given the turbulence and in-house leaks that undermined Harbaugh’s final season with the Niners, he deserves to experience a blossoming love affair at his alma mater. If York were an effective CEO, he would have made the Harbaugh-Baalke combination work and buffered their strained relations. The Seahawks have made it work with Pete Carroll and John Schneider, but instead of drawing lines for the coach and GM, York did the covenient management dance and sided with his fellow exec. I covered a fairly famous sports dynasty, the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, that ended prematurely because an owner couldn’t soothe the differences between a general manager and a coach named Phil Jackson, who went on to win more championships than any coach in NBA history. Yet everyone weathered the storms long enough to win six titles, six more than these 49ers won.
“You have to have like-minded people building a team,” Baalke said in a media gathering after Tomsula’s first news conference. “If you don’t have like-minded people building a team, coach, coaching staff, front office … If we’re not all looking for the same characteristics, the same type of players, it’s tough to build a unit that can go out there on Sundays and win football games.”
We’re still waiting for York to say that he failed in letting the marriage collapse, in choosing a winner and a loser. Clearly, he wasn’t overly interested in appeasing Harbaugh after using his ultrasuccessful debut season to help get a $1.3-billion stadium built in Silicon Valley. The coach was too popular and wanted too much power, and regardless of his three consecutive appearances in the NFC title game, the big bosses wanted control and no tugging of the rope. Now, Baalke gets to pull the strings of his puppet, Tomsula, and tell him which assistants to hire and which players to acquire. Now, York can preside over his sterile, quiet stadium — the high-tech antithesis of Candlestick — and count megaprofits from Super Bowl 50, WrestleMania 31 and an outdoor hockey game.
Each party in this debacle has gained total control — Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, York and Baalke in Santa Clara. Yet only one man is going to win a lot of football games anytime soon. Someone asked Harbaugh if he viewed himself as the messiah of Michigan.
“I’m not comfortable with that at all,” he said.
Oh, yes, he is. Very comfortable.
Be happy for him. He deserves that much.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.