Why Jim Harbaugh and Michigan May Not Live Happily Ever After

Lars AndersonSenior WriterSeptember 1, 2015


ANN ARBOR, Mich. — He drove along the snow-lined streets of his hometown where the next act in his coaching life was just beginning.

It was the dead of the northern winter—he’d only recently moved to Ann Arbor—and now in the early-morning darkness he steered his car on a winding route, one that was littered with memories.

He cruised by St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School, where as a 10-year-old he’d sat behind a tiny wooden desk and where his daughter, Addison, would soon enroll. He passed Tappan Middle School, where he once roamed the halls and dreamed of being Michigan’s starting quarterback.

He continued to drive, alone, guiding his car past a park where he and his older brother, John, had played catch with their father when they were boys. He spotted houses where old buddies once lived, yards where he once played pickup football games, porches that he used to throw newspapers onto as an afternoon paperboy.

So many snapshots from his youth rushed back at him, filling him with so much unexpected joy.

Jim Harbaugh eventually pulled into the parking lot outside of the football offices at the University of Michigan. He walked through the frigid morning—his breath shot out in white puffs of air—and entered the building.

More memories seized him. Back when he was 11 years old, Harbaugh rode his bike to the Wolverines offices after school and ran around inside as if trying to evade imaginary tacklers; his dad, an assistant coach, would chase him for what seemed like hours.

And when no one was looking, little Jim loved to sneak into the head coach’s office and sit in the chair of Bo Schembechler, where for a few heartbeats he would pretend he was the Wolverines' top man, telling players to do things “the Michigan way.”

Harbaugh, a former Wolverine ball boy, savored every moment of this morning, reveling in the warm sensation of being home again. He had lived in Ann Arbor from the ages of 10 to 16—the happiest, most carefree years of his life—and now on this day last February he fully realized he was getting a chance to relive it all, as if he’d traveled back through the mists of time.

“I didn’t even know how much I would like it, coming back to Ann Arbor,” said Harbaugh. “The memories have all been powerful and wonderful, and it took me a few weeks to be back and driving around to understand it. I think that’s why I’m here, to maybe find something that I’ve lost. I mean, I really, really love this place.”

But with Harbaugh—a 51-year-old man prone to emotional swings, an old-school authority figure famous for his eccentricities, a professional vagabond who has never been a head coach anywhere longer than four years—we must ask:

Will Harbaugh’s love for this school turn him into a micromanager as he tries to personally fix all that he believes is ailing Michigan football? Will he push everyone in his program—from players to administration to janitors—to the brink of both physical and mental exhaustion?

Will he, in short, start pissing people off? 

Photo by Lars Anderson

Oh, how they adore James Joseph “Jim” Harbaugh in Michigan.

It’s two weeks before the Harbaugh era kicks off in Ann Arbor, and the Michigan campus clearly has a deep lust for its new coach. Outside the M-Den campus bookstore on State Street, five students—dubbed the HarBros—are dressed in Harbaugh’s game-day outfit: khaki pants, blue, long-sleeve T-shirts, whistles draped around their necks with a blue sharpie attached.

The HarBros have spent several days studying the coach’s mannerisms, and now they are posing for pictures in classic Harbaugh sideline stances—one is crouched over with his hands on his knees, another has his arms akimbo with his chest thrust forward. A crowd of several hundred quickly gathers, gripped by Harbaugh fever. As cameras flash, a game-day vibe is unmistakable.

“It took awhile to learn Harbaugh’s scowl, but I think we all got it down now,” said Nick Carey, a junior from Ypsilanti, Michigan, who is one of the HarBros. “Harbaugh is our savior. We’ve a waited a long time for him. There’s little doubt that he’s going to lead us to the promised land.”

Inside the M-Den, just past a replica locker housing Harbaugh’s old No. 4 Michigan jersey, T-shirts that read “Ann Arbaugh,” “Welcome Home Coach” and “Maize, Blue, Khaki” are plucked off the racks in handfuls. And on this day seemingly every 10th student on campus is wearing khaki pants in tribute to Harbaugh, who pulls them on every morning.

Which begs an obvious question: Why is a coach who in January signed a seven-year, $40.1 million contract so enamored with khakis? It’s part obsession and part by design.

“It eliminates the need for Jim to make a decision on what to wear every morning, so instead that time can be used to focus on football,” said Ed Lamb, the head coach at Southern Utah who was an assistant coach under Harbaugh in 2005 and 2006 at the University of San Diego, where Harbaugh also wore khakis. “Jim is basically always thinking about football. If you’re around him, get ready for that.”

You don’t have to tell Sarah Harbaugh about her husband’s total immersion in football. There were times this spring when Jim, Sarah and their three young children—Addison, Katherine and Jack—would climb into their car that was parked in the driveway of their house, which sits just five lots down the street from Schembechler’s old place.

Jim would be behind the driver’s wheel; Sarah and the kids would strap on their seat belts. Then...silence. For 30 seconds, the air would stand still.

Sarah would finally look over at Jim, who would be staring blankly ahead, mouth open, as if he had mentally blasted off from the real world. This happens frequently with Harbaugh, even in the middle of conversations, which is why he often comes across as spacey and even rude.

“Jim!” Sarah would say, and suddenly he would shake from his reverie.

“Part of him is always coaching,” Sarah said. “He can’t turn it off. He just loves it so much.” 

Stanford's Jim Harbaugh and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer before the 2011 Orange Bowl.
Stanford's Jim Harbaugh and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer before the 2011 Orange Bowl.Associated Press

Nearly everyone who has orbited in Harbaugh’s solar system for a length of time possesses a whopper of an anecdote about the new Michigan coach.

Frank Beamer has one. The Virginia Tech head coach is sitting on a porch overlooking a golf course in Reynolds Plantation, Georgia, on a tar-bubbling summer afternoon—a lazy, storytelling kind of afternoon. As he puts down a glass of lemonade on a table, he says he has a tale to tell. It might just be, he claims, the weirdest damn story of his entire coaching career.

Beamer leans back in his chair and loosens a memory from late 2010. The Hokies of Virginia Tech, where Beamer has coached for the last 28 autumns, were preparing to play Stanford in the Orange Bowl. A few days before the Jan. 3 game, Beamer met the Cardinal head coach—Harbaugh—at an event at a restaurant in Miami.

“After we take some pictures, we start talking, just the two of us,” Beamer said. “Jim says over and over how much respect he has for Georgia Tech. He must have said it five times. I’m just looking at him like, ‘Are you serious?’

“Finally, I’m joking with him and I say I can’t wait to tell my team that you called us Georgia Tech. Because, you know, we’re Virginia Tech.”

Harbaugh then threw his infamous shark expression at Beamer: mouth agape, eyes on fire, looking poised to chomp. Harbaugh’s assistants have seen this look for years; he sometimes holds it for about 30 seconds without speaking, causing everyone in eyeshot to wonder what is flowing through his mind—if anything.

Beamer continued to lock eyes with Harbaugh for a few moments, waiting for him to say something, anything. It may have been the most uncomfortable silence of Beamer’s life.

“Well,” Harbaugh finally told Beamer. “I can’t wait to tell my players that you said you were going to play Samford, not Stanford!” He then turned and walked away.

More than four years later, Beamer smiles at the memory, still befuddled by Harbaugh's response. “No question, Jim is a different kind of coach,” said Beamer, whose team lost in the Orange Bowl to Harbaugh and Stanford 40-12 in what was Harbaugh’s last college game.

“He’s either crazy...or he’s crazy like a damn fox.” 

Associated Press

Harbaugh is an early riser, a believer that mornings are a time for labor. And so last fall it wasn’t shocking to those who know him well that several times he showed up in the office of San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York at just past daybreak wanting to resolve an issue right now this very second.

This illustrated the rub of Harbaugh: His full-blast, turn-it-up-to-10 intensity is what makes him such a successful coach, but his friends and associates say it also is often what makes him unwilling to find common ground with others, which ultimately was his unraveling in San Francisco.

“When Jim focuses on something, he won’t let it go,” said a close friend of Harbaugh’s. “That can be both good and bad.”

Midway through last season, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke called a staffer on another team. At the time, San Francisco’s season was falling apart—the Niners would finish 8-8—and Baalke’s relationship with Harbaugh had frayed to the extent that the two were known to ride elevators together in silence and not make eye contact.

“I just can’t deal with Jim anymore,” Baalke told his friend, a veteran front-office employee of an NFL team who relayed the conversation to Bleacher Report. “This guy is a nut. Every day he’s bitching at me about something new. It’s this, it’s that. He’s wearing all of us out. He’s grinding us down.”

“But Trent, you guys have won with Jim,” the friend told Baalke. “Can’t you just focus on the winning?”

“I’m getting stepped on every day by Jim,” Baalke replied. “I can’t do this much longer.”

49ers GM Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh in happier days.
49ers GM Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh in happier days.Associated Press

On Dec. 28, York fired Harbaugh, who had one year remaining on his contract. It didn’t matter to the team brass that he had led the organization to three straight NFC championship games between 2011 and 2013, reached Super Bowl XLVII—where the 49ers lost to the Baltimore Ravens, who were coached by Harbaugh’s brother, John—or that Harbaugh had compiled a 49-22-1 record in his four seasons as head coach.

Put simply, they had had enough of him, even though the 49ers hadn't enjoyed a winning record in nearly a decade before Harbaugh's arrival in 2011. In the bottom-line world of the NFL, his parting from the 49ers was one of the more stunning breakups in recent history.

But he has a long track record of having relationships with superiors, assistants and players that slide off the rails. Harbaugh’s supernatural intensity—coupled with his you’re-with-me-or-against-me managing style—has rubbed many the wrong way.

With the 49ers, for instance, he promised his players he would be “their alarm clock” every morning, which didn’t exactly endear him to any of the veterans in the locker room.

 “There’s a trail of players and coaches that have been left behind in Jim’s wake,'' said Lamb, the Southern Utah head coach who was an assistant under Harbaugh at the University of San Diego. "If you’re not on board with him, he wants you to go away.

"But Jim also told us, ‘Stick with me and you’ll be farting through silk,’ which I guess meant that we’d all be so successful we could afford silk undergarments. And he was right: We could have if we’d stuck with him. But only Tim Drevno, his offensive coordinator at Michigan, is still with him. ... Jim just isn't for everybody.

“Jim is nuts, but it’s a different kind of nuts,'' said a former teammate of Harbaugh's on the Indianapolis Colts who requested anonymity. "Once he focuses on something, he won’t let go of it. It makes him a great coach at a place in the short term, but it’s why he’s a disaster of a coach when he’s in one place too long.

"You can’t even have long meetings with him because his mind will start to wander and you’ll have no freaking idea what he’s talking about. His personality and his weirdness wear people down over time, and after four, five years, you just don’t want to deal with the guy anymore.” 

Jim Harbaugh as head coach at the University of San Diego.
Jim Harbaugh as head coach at the University of San Diego.Associated Press

To understand how Harbaugh will try to construct a winner at Michigan, it’s instructive to examine his past rebuilding jobs at the University of San Diego and Stanford.

In his first year at San Diego, Harbaugh developed a physical prototype that he wanted at every position, similar to what Nick Saban now uses as his recruiting model at Alabama. With the help of Dave Adolph, a longtime NFL defensive coordinator whom Harbaugh hired to be his top defensive lieutenant at San Diego, Harbaugh identified the ideal height, weight, size and speed he wanted for every position.

Other important factors at every position were also weighed, such as athletic ability, strength, playing speed and character. But when assessing a player, he was always compared to Harbaugh’s created prototype.

“The prototype went all the way down to hand size and shoe size for each position,” said Lamb. “Jim brings as much intensity to recruiting as he does anything else. It’s an everyday thing. His philosophy is that he always wants players who offer upside in potential, which means he looks at height and weight and then analyzes if that player can grow into his body.

"Jim loves players who play multiple sports. His belief is that multisport guys have a bigger chance to grow in college. This is especially true with his quarterbacks. He doesn’t like to look at high school QBs who don’t play other sports. He wants to know, for example, if a high school quarterback is a good bowler.”

Once a player was on campus at San Diego, his actual weight was written on a large dry erase board next to his goal weight. The board was placed in the weight room, and nearly every day the players were weighed—often in front of teammates—to chart their progress in gaining mass.

Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb
Southern Utah head coach Ed LambAssociated Press

“It became almost like a contest,” said Lamb. “It was amazing how the kids really got into it, challenging each other to get bigger and stronger. Jim molds players in his image. They will be as tough as him, or they won’t play.”

When assistants at San Diego asked Harbaugh if there was a travel dress code, he said he’d never put a nanosecond of thought into it. “I don’t care what you wear,” Harbaugh told his staff. “Just bring energy to your preparation and make sure your kids are damn tough on game day.”

To emphasize his approach to his players at San Diego, Harbaugh stood in front of them one afternoon and gave an impassioned speech about why he showed up to work in the same outfit every single day.

“I don’t care about clothes,” he told them. “I’m here for two things: to work and to make you guys tough. That’s it. Now let’s go!”

In preseason practice Harbaugh ran hills with his players—he puked along with them—and closely tutored his quarterbacks, whom he treated as if they were his own blood. The Toreros started the ’04 season 2-4 but won their last five games to finish 7-4.

The FCS program then began overpowering opponents: The beefed-up Toreros went 11-1 in both ’05 and ’06 and won back-to-back Pioneer League titles. Harbaugh was so successful that he was offered the head coaching position at Stanford, which in 2006 had floundered to a 1-11 record.

Aside from building the collective team strength of Stanford—“They went from looking like a high school team to looking like an NFL team in two years,” said Matt Millen, a longtime Harbaugh friend and former general manager of the Detroit Lions—Harbaugh’s first mission in Palo Alto was to find a program-changing quarterback. He zeroed in on Andrew Luck out of Stratford High in Houston, whom Harbaugh wooed by emphasizing his own experience as a quarterback who played 14 years in the NFL.

Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh at Stanford
Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh at StanfordAssociated Press

“Andrew wouldn’t be the quarterback he is today if Jim Harbaugh hadn’t coached him,” said Oliver Luck, Andrew’s dad who played for the Houston Oilers from 1982 to 1986. “Coach Harbaugh was hands on and taught Andrew so many good habits that he’s carried to the NFL. He’s special when it comes to coaching quarterbacks.”

But even with a future No. 1 overall pick piloting his offense from 2009 to 2011, Harbaugh insisted on operating a run-first, pass-second offense—just like he will do at Michigan, even though the Wolverines finished eighth in the conference in rushing last season.

And Harbaugh believes he landed his next Luck in 6'5", 205-pound quarterback Brandon Peters, a 4-star recruit from Avon, Indiana, who verbally committed to Michigan in April, per 247Sports. (Note that Peters has room to grow into his 6'5" frame and is also a standout basketball player.)

“Jim’s offense will reflect his Midwestern toughness,” said Millen. “He’s going to pound the ball, no matter who his quarterback is. It all goes to toughness. When you run the ball, it takes pressure off the defense and gives confidence to the whole team. Jim was able to turn around Stanford so fast because the kids bought in. How quickly will the Michigan kids buy in? That’s the great unknown.”

In Harbaugh’s third season on The Farm in 2009, he led The Cardinal to an 8-5 record. The next year Stanford won the Orange Bowl and finished 12-1, the best season in program history.

Harbaugh could be oddly endearing one moment at Stanford—he sometimes carried a glass of whole milk to meetings because he believed it gave him strength—but he also could be a handful. For instance, he constantly bickered with Stanford administrators over admission standards for recruits.

Get ready, Michigan, because this issue will boil soon.

Rich Rodriguez at Michigan
Rich Rodriguez at MichiganAssociated Press

“The key to Jim’s success will be recruiting,” said Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines head coach from 2008 to 2010. “And the key to recruiting at Michigan, which is a great brand name, is finding the right kind of player to fit in. The player has got to want to get an education, he’s got to be driven academically and athletically, and he’s got to be someone who can develop.

"At Michigan you have to evaluate players more than you do at other schools because you’re looking at a specific set of criteria that have to be met before you can bring them onto your campus. Jim did a great job of finding these guys at Stanford, so he knows what he’s looking for.”

This spring Harbaugh searched for his kind of guys already on the Wolverines roster. During spring ball he held five four-hour practices—the most grueling practice schedule in the nation.

Harbaugh, who wears his cleats to meetings and virtually everywhere else in the football complex, rationalized it to his players by telling them that last season the Wolverines had stunk in the third quarter, scoring only 52 points, their lowest-scoring quarter. So he wanted his players to improve their conditioning. But in reality, he was trimming the fat off the roster.

“There were guys who didn’t make it through those practices and just left,” said senior linebacker James Ross. “In the past, we’d complain when practices went long. But now we understand that we have to change because what we did in the past didn’t work. We’re going to follow Coach Harbaugh no matter what.” 

Even Harbaugh, who doesn’t like to talk about himself, has a fascinating Jim Harbaugh story to tell.

The lantern-jawed coach was sitting at a table in a conference room at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago on a midsummer afternoon. He leaned forward on the edge of his chair, his eyes wide, as he recalled a moment from his days at Stanford.

As he explained it, he was on his way to the office when he noticed a traffic light wasn’t working; a cop was standing in the middle of a busy intersection, directing cars this way and that way. The female officer displayed such command of the intersection that Harbaugh pulled over to the side of the road, mesmerized.

For half an hour, Harbaugh sat in his car and studied the scene. He was nearly late for practice because he was so enthralled with the skill and the savvy of the traffic cop. “I like to watch people doing their job at the highest level,” he said. “I really do.”

Harbaugh also loves the familiar rhythms of a routine. In Ann Arbor, he gets his hair cut at the State Street Barbershop; his barber, Bill Stolberg, first took the clippers to his hair back in the ‘70s. After a cut, Harbaugh will then walk around downtown, happily pressing the flesh with fans, taking selfies with students and signing everything from body parts to babies.

Here in his hometown, Harbaugh appears genuinely content.

But what happens if the Wolverines, who open the season Thursday at Utah, lose three straight games at some point in 2015? The talent level isn’t high in Ann Arbor—Michigan has gone 24-32 in the last seven years in Big Ten play—so how will Harbaugh react if the team struggles, which seems likely?

JIm Harbaugh and Bo Schembechler at Michigan.
JIm Harbaugh and Bo Schembechler at Michigan.Associated Press.

In 1989 Schembechler, then the athletic director, famously yelled at a press conference, “A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” He was upset that basketball coach Bill Frieder, whom he had just fired, had signed a clandestine deal to coach Arizona State the next season. And over time Schembechler’s proclamation has been used against other coaches at the school who weren’t viewed as “Michigan men.”

Rodriguez, who was fired at Michigan after going 7-6 in 2010, remembers being chastised by alumni for using the word “ain’t” in a press conference.

“Where I come from in West Virginia, the first four-letter you learn after birth is ‘ain’t,’ ” said Rodriguez, who is now the head coach at Arizona. “I was just trying to be descriptive about something, but I ended up getting calls from alums about it. They thought I should be more eloquent with my word choice. But everything is so public at Michigan when you are the head coach. If you sneeze it will get out there on social media. It can be a hard place to coach, even for Jim Harbaugh.”

But unlike Rich Rod, Harbaugh is a Michigan man to the marrow of his bones. In Ann Arbor he’s still remembered as the Wolverines quarterback who guaranteed a victory over Ohio State in 1986 and delivered the W. He's still known as the player who left school as Michigan’s all-time leader in passing yards (5,449).

Yes, he’s one of them.

“It’s a foregone conclusion that Jim will be successful at Michigan,” said Lamb. “But along the way he’ll wipe some people out. His adrenaline will create the rise of the program, and his adrenaline will also cause problems with some people who can’t take it. Players, coaches and administrators better get on board; if they don’t, they’ll be gone.” 

Associated Press

On a recent summer evening, Jim and Sarah Harbaugh were enjoying a quiet meal at an Ann Arbor restaurant. But then a commotion erupted, and it had nothing to do with the town’s most famous resident.

A mouse was on the loose.

Harbaugh leapt into action. The single-minded coach grabbed a to-go box and began a great chase. He cornered the mouse and, displaying his trademark tenacity, eventually captured it in the styrofoam box.

“I caught it!” he yelled to the other patrons. “I caught it!”

The crowd cheered, and Harbaugh—who released the mouse across the street in an open field—once again played the role of the conquering hero. In Ann Arbor, everywhere he goes, it’s like Caesar being hailed in Rome.

And on Thursday night, Michigan’s Caesar will stride back into college football in his khakis, leading the maize and blue out of the tunnel at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Wolverines fans will swear that this moment will mark the rebirth of Michigan football as it should be—relevant and proud and winning again.

But then Harbaugh will be interviewed on the sideline. Eyes bulging, adrenaline pumping, he will open his mouth and...