• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh has thrived on confrontation, controversy


By Paolo Uggetti, Kyle Bonagura and Adam Rittenberg

LOS ANGELES — Jim Harbaugh is nowhere to be seen, but his influence is everywhere.

As Michigan players and coaches assemble around microphones ahead of their third straight College Football Playoff appearance (vs. Alabama, Monday, 5 ET, ESPN), Harbaugh’s presence can be felt throughout the interview rooms.

Even though Harbaugh is still a few days away from speaking himself, you can hear him as players answer questions, reverting to Harbaugh’s mantras like they’re reading from a script authored by their head coach. They’re not talking points as much as they are a result of Harbaugh’s deep influence, which has permeated this Wolverines team.

You can see it too when every question about him — his quirks, character and coaching style — produces a response preceded by a smile or a full laugh, an acknowledgment of his peculiar nature, but always backed by a full endorsement.

“I love Coach and his unique personality,” edge rusher Jaylen Harrell said. “He’s a different guy, a different animal.”

They say a team often takes on the personality of its head coach, and it doesn’t take much to see how Michigan has done just that. To call Harbaugh’s personality unique would not only be an understatement, but also a disservice to how much his approach has shaped his career.

At nearly every stop, Harbaugh hasn’t just won but thrived by creating a tight-knit environment where the narrative — and its protagonists and antagonists — has been clear. The “us against the world” mentality is a coaching trope, but for Harbaugh, it’s an inextricable part of his journey as he’s gone from Stanford to the NFL and now Ann Arbor.

This season, perhaps more than any other, Harbaugh’s tendency to use adversity in his team’s favor has been thrust into the spotlight. After he was suspended three games to start the season — a university-imposed penalty amid an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations during the COVID-19 dead period — Michigan became the subject of another NCAA investigation, this one into a sign-stealing scheme orchestrated by off-field analyst Connor Stalions. Harbaugh was suspended for the last three games of the regular season by the Big Ten.

“I think it just made us stronger as a team,” defensive back Rod Moore said. “You don’t have your head coach for about six games of the season and you still go undefeated. It makes you a strong team overall. I think it made us come together more.”

Without missing a beat, Harbaugh and Michigan used the suspensions and the backlash to the sign-stealing scheme to both fuel their national title aspirations and ardently defend their head coach at every turn. Instead of the controversy distracting the Wolverines, it’s only emboldened them in their belief that it is really them against the world.

“Coach tells us he doesn’t hold grudges, but he remembers everything,” linebacker Junior Colson said. “That’s the way he lives, and that’s the way we all live.”

BOB BOWLSBY HAD been an athletic director for more than two decades when he selected Harbaugh to lead Stanford’s program in December 2006. Bowlsby had made hires across a swath of sports, and understood the ingredients that drove coaches.

Harbaugh, who previously coached the University of San Diego, an FCS program, took things to the extreme.

“I’ve been around a lot of highly competitive people before,” said Bowlsby, who led athletic departments at Northern Iowa and Iowa before Stanford. “But I don’t know if I’ve been around anybody that’s any more competitive than he is.”

Bowlsby didn’t know Harbaugh well before bringing him to Stanford, but he soon saw how he worked with players and assistants. Harbaugh constantly “looked for things that can jazz up his guys,” Bowlsby recalled.

When Wolverines players and coaches arrived for the team’s Nov. 11 game at Penn State — the first of Harbaugh’s Big Ten-imposed suspension — wearing “Michigan vs. Everybody” and “Free Harbaugh” merch, Bowlsby saw it as fitting perfectly with Harbaugh’s motivational master plan. The same tactic worked at Stanford — even when no one, really, was hell-bent on the Cardinal’s demise. But with Michigan mired in controversy, Harbaugh couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to lean into it.

Throughout his career, he has exhibited a clear belief that even the perceived existence of enemies outside the locker room carries value for a football team. If that meant picking a fight with the biggest bully, such as USC and coach Pete Carroll, so be it.

In Harbaugh’s first year at Stanford, the Cardinal upset USC as a 41-point underdog, igniting a rivalry between him and Carroll that would carry over into the NFL. His animosity toward Carroll was most prominently on display in 2009, when he went for two late in a 55-21 win, prompting Carroll to famously ask Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?” in the postgame handshake. Any exercise to gain even the slightest edge is something Harbaugh believes is worth doing.

Former Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley, who had a brief NFL career, spent just one season under Harbaugh on the Farm, but quickly came to understand how the coach operated.

“It just felt like he always had our back outwardly,” Tarpley said. “So whatever was going on in the locker room and practices could be miserable, but outside of that, it was him and us against the world.”

Who, exactly, was reciprocating that attitude toward Stanford wasn’t always obvious and, often, didn’t really matter.

“It was anybody, and that could have been internal, it could have been a player, a coach,” Tarpley said. “It was one of those things where you were either with us or against us, and there was very little room for gray area in there.”

Added Bowlsby: “I suppose that there were times when some of it was manufactured.”

Much of that general mantra stems from Harbaugh’s time as a Michigan player.

“For Jim, it’s just like it was for Bo Schembechler — ‘The team, the team, the team’ — and the more it can be us against them, the more he’s likely to get the outcome that he wants,” Bowlsby said. “Coaches in general sort of thrive on controversy and competition. It comes in different forms at different times, but [Harbaugh] definitely does.”

Bowlsby sees a direct link between Harbaugh’s success and his desire for an adversarial environment. In four years at Stanford, Harbaugh compiled a 29-21 record after inheriting a team that went 1-11 in 2006, capping his stay with a 12-1 season and a No. 4 final ranking in 2010.

“He sometimes does things that annoy you, but you like him quite a bit on Saturdays,” Bowlsby said.

Harbaugh’s success at Stanford was followed by even more in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, whom he guided to three straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl in 2012. He brought that “with us or against us” spirit from Stanford to the NFL — and not even the team’s wealthy owner was off limits.

His time with the 49ers was shaded by a contentious, adversarial relationship with team owner Jed York that was an open secret but never discussed publicly.

Harbaugh might have been able to get away with being an annoyance to Stanford administrators, but it didn’t work that way with York. After he missed the playoffs for the first time with an 8-8 record in 2014, Harbaugh’s tenure ended.

The 49ers tried to frame Harbaugh’s departure as a mutual parting of ways, but Harbaugh dismissed that portrayal after taking the job at Michigan, telling the Tim Kawakami podcast, “I was told I wouldn’t be the coach anymore. … I didn’t leave the 49ers. I felt like the 49er hierarchy left me.”

Harbaugh remained cold toward York publicly for years. In one case, after his brother-in-law, Tom Crean, was fired as the men’s basketball coach at Indiana in 2017, Harbaugh found a way to compare it to his 49ers exit three years earlier.

“Much like my situation in San Francisco, the people that are doing the micromanaging … when it comes to building a ball team, what they know could not blow up a small balloon,” Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated. “In my case, an owner and a general manager.”

The only benefit from those adversarial relationships, it seems, is that they fostered his return to Michigan in late 2014.

MICHIGAN WIDE RECEIVER Roman Wilson was awoken from a nap on the team plane headed to Penn State in early November and was met with the news: The Big Ten had suspended his head coach.

“Blake [Corum] woke me up and showed me his phone and I saw the headline, he’s suspended,” Wilson said. “Then we get on the bus and we see Coach Harbaugh walking on the bus. It was kind of unreal. Somebody shouldn’t be suspended like that.”

In the middle of a season in which he had already missed three games, Harbaugh and the Wolverines had another adversary besides the Nittany Lions or any other team remaining on their schedule: their own conference. And this suspension didn’t come during the nonconference portion of the schedule, it would include the most important game of the season, against Ohio State.

“You could tell when he came back and also when it happened, he was just real upset,” defensive back Rod Moore said. “When we saw him on the runway after the Penn State game, his voice was gone. So you could tell he was in the hotel yelling.”

While shock and anger became the initial teamwide reactions, Harbaugh quickly tapped into a familiar feeling, using the events to galvanize his players not just for the game against Penn State, but for the season going forward. After much back and forth, Michigan and Harbaugh accepted the three-game suspension.

“In some ways when he got suspended, it was almost like a blessing,” Wilson said. “It just gave us that extra boost of motivation and energy.”

As the discourse around Michigan’s sign stealing grew during the following weeks and the program became the antagonist to the rest of the college football world, Harbaugh reinforced the narrative internally to his advantage, and his players followed suit.

“You don’t have anything good to say about us or don’t support us, saying bad things, it’s all right, we don’t really need you,” tight end Colston Loveland said. “It’s us versus everyone who doesn’t want to see us succeed. So I think he took that and ran with it for sure.”

“Everyone was trying to take away all the stuff we’ve done all year and just take away how good we’ve actually been playing,” defensive lineman Mason Graham said. “So I feel like that was a little jab to us. I mean, [Harbaugh] was the key guy leading it.”

As players such as offensive lineman Trevor Keegan describe it, once the initial fervor around the suspension cooled off, Harbaugh was back to his smiling self, cracking jokes to loosen up the team and shift its focus from frustration to motivation. In some ways, this has always been what Harbaugh is best at.

“Deep down he definitely kind of likes being the bad guy,” Wilson said. “He likes being that villain, but he is a good guy at the end of the day.”

Even to his own players, Harbaugh is a bit of a paradox. Yes, he is a khaki-wearing, jolly good fellow who sings Bon Jovi on the team bus, preaches with off-the-wall analogies, and his eccentricity connects with those who see themselves as being cut from the same cloth where the main thread is still football. But he is also a prickly personality who doesn’t just appear to welcome confrontations but relishes the adversarial nature of the sport, utilizing it to his and the team’s advantage even when some of that conflict may be coming from inside the house.

“In the two years I’ve been here previously to this year, I’ve never seen him as happy as he was this year, even with everything that was going on,” quarterback J.J. McCarthy said. “Just being able to see how he handled everything and just the effect that he had on the players and the coaches, just taking everything on the chin, always welcoming the hate, welcoming all the noise his way and trying to deflect it off his players and coaches, it’s like everything you want in a leader.”

IN LATE JUNE, Michigan president Santa Ono and athletic director Warde Manuel met with ESPN inside a conference room down the hall from Ono’s campus office. Ono had requested the joint interview with Manuel, and made it clear the two of them, along with Harbaugh, had built a synergy during a time of great success for the program, while also navigating some controversies along the way.

“We’re three peas in a pod,” Ono said. “It’s incredible alignment.”

Manuel followed Ono’s answer by mentioning, unprompted, the reported tension between him and Harbaugh. Michigan insider John U. Bacon reported in January 2023 that Harbaugh and Manuel had not spoken in months.

The fact that Ono broke the news on social media that Harbaugh would remain at Michigan for the 2023 season — after speaking directly with Harbaugh — rather than Manuel, who isn’t on social media, amplified speculation about the Harbaugh-Manuel dynamic. Manuel and Harbaugh were teammates at Michigan in 1986 under Schembechler, when Harbaugh was a team captain and Manuel a freshman lineman. Although Manuel did not hire Harbaugh, the two remained in contact. Harbaugh interrupted Manuel’s introductory news conference at Michigan by presenting him with a personalized Michigan football jersey with the No. 79, which Manuel had worn for the Wolverines.

“It was just a joke that this is even a question or concern because of what was on social media,” Manuel said. “Jim and I have a great relationship, from my perspective. We always have. We’ve had an open communication since the day I started.”

Manuel went on to add: “I wish Jim was here because when we talked about it, we both were like, ‘Where the hell does this come from? Where’s this coming from that these stories are being made up?’ It doesn’t bother me, but it’s ridiculous.”

Manuel said in June that there’s “healthy” tension between him and Harbaugh on certain topics, just like there would be with any significant and close administrator-coach relationship. They have differences, but the support, Manuel said, is unwavering.

On the morning of the Penn State game, when it became clear that Harbaugh wouldn’t coach, Manuel issued the most direct and notable statement of his tenure as AD. Manuel criticized the Big Ten for imposing a penalty without the full NCAA investigative process concluding, calling it, “an assault on the rights of everyone.” He went after other Big Ten coaches and administrators who had urged the league to act, writing that they “can rejoice today that someone was ‘held accountable,’ but they should be worried about the new standard of judgment [without a complete investigation] that has been unleashed in this conference.”

Manuel also fully backed Harbaugh, who was serving the suspension imposed by the league on Michigan, not on the coach directly.

“You may have removed him from our sidelines today, but Jim Harbaugh is our head football coach,” Manuel’s statement read. “He has instilled his pride, passion, and the team’s belief in themselves to achieve greatness. I will continue to support Jim throughout this process, my coaches and staff, and especially our student-athletes as we continue to play this game and fight to win for Michigan and all who love us.”

The Big Ten suspension only seemed to further embolden not just Michigan’s stance on the matter, but Harbaugh himself to squeeze every ounce of motivation out of the situation. And it worked. Michigan beat Ohio State for the third straight season and advanced to the College Football Playoff.

WITH TWO OPEN Diet Cokes in his hands, Jim Harbaugh walked to the lectern bearing his name on Rose Bowl media day. There was a problem: The chair he was supposed to sit in was too short for his liking.

Michigan staff scrambled to find something to prop the chair on, trying multiple things — even a different chair — to no avail. Finally, a footstool that elevated the chair was found that was appropriate for the man everyone had come to hear from.

Harbaugh’s idiosyncrasies were on full display. He said he thought Jesus would be using sports and agriculture for his analogies if he lived today. He said Jesus would be a five-star. He talked about how this season has been a “spiritual journey” and how his team had been “galvanized” by everything that has happened this year.

“We have a one-track mind,” Harbaugh said of how his team has handled the ups and downs of the year. “That’s really worked for us. That mindset of a one-track mind is in a lot of ways what has gotten us here.”

Michigan touts its collective harmony, but it’s evident that Harbaugh’s ethos is the magnetic force that drives it. Whether he’s been present physically or not, his ability to embrace the villain role and utilize it as a positive bonding agent has given Michigan an edge it may have previously lacked.

“He’s just a steel wall that blocks everything out,” McCarthy said. “But he’s also a filter, negative energy just goes through him, and he passes out positive energy. He never flinches, no matter what comes his way, no matter what allegations he has to face, he’s the same guy. Just being able to look at that every single day, it really is just like invaluable.”

Following the Penn State victory, Harbaugh was quick to crown his team with a new moniker.

“I would have to say it’s America’s team,” Harbaugh said at the time. “America loves a team that beats the odds, beats the adversity, overcomes what the naysayers, critics, so-called experts think. That’s my favorite kind of team.”

Yet despite Harbaugh’s repeated affinity for this Michigan team and what it has a chance to do after everything it’s gone through, it’s impossible to ignore what looms. No matter the outcome in the CFP, Harbaugh’s name — which has been linked to NFL teams in the past — will continue to be mentioned with vacant NFL jobs following the season while a contract extension with Michigan remains unsigned. On Saturday, ESPN also reported that Harbaugh had hired agent Don Yee, who represents Tom Brady and Sean Payton among others and has deep NFL ties.

With not one but two NCAA investigations involving him and yearly NFL rumors, there’s a question of how much of Harbaugh a program can take. On the other hand, just as his team has been galvanized throughout this season, Harbaugh’s commitment to Michigan going forward may have been strengthened through this process, too.

“It’s been a happy mission,” Harbaugh said. “It’s been a joy to watch guys make the choice to play as a team, to be unselfish, to play for each other, to give it their very best. As I said before, you know when you’re on a real ball team, and that’s what our team is.”

As, for the third time in three seasons, Michigan stands on the brink of a game that would give it a chance to win the national title, the one adversity Harbaugh can’t deflect or turn into a positive is that Michigan has lost in this position two years in a row. Overwhelmed by Georgia in 2021 and upset by TCU in 2022, if the Wolverines can’t beat Alabama, three would constitute a pattern.

As Bowlsby said, plenty have put up with Harbaugh because he wins. And while he has beaten Ohio State three years in a row, being unable to reach the national title game, let alone win it, could soon become the defining struggle of his Michigan tenure.

Whether Michigan wins or loses, however, the one thing this season has shown is that this isn’t America’s team. It’s Harbaugh’s, so long as he wants it.


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