Jim Harbaugh wants to let Michigan's play, not his words, tell the story
CHICAGO—Of course Jim Harbaugh brought a bag with him to the main stage early Friday morning. And of course that bag contained a No. 89 Bears jersey with DITKA stitched across the back. And, of course, Mike Ditka himself bestowed this gift unto the new Michigan coach, who is one of his former players, when the two dined at Ditka’s downtown restaurant one evening earlier. And of course Harbaugh held the jersey aloft in a city that has deified Da Coach, beaming like a kid who got exactly what he wanted for his birthday.
“I’ll be proud to wear that,” Harbaugh declared.
Of course he will be.
Soon, mercifully soon, the days of souvenir jerseys and shirtless long-tossing at satellite camps and Judge Judy and snapshots from a McDonald’s in Paris will be over. Soon, The Harbaugh Show can move on to its next episode. It will be one in which substance trumps style, when results will not be measured in retweets and everything will operate a little more like you’d expect under James Joseph Harbaugh. This has all been great fun, absolutely. And maybe an energy jolt is the first thing a listing program needed. But the time draws near when Jim Harbaugh and Michigan probably should accomplish something.
The good news: Harbaugh and Michigan are likewise happy this is the case, as they appear to realize they’ve done nothing at all.
“Strive to be about it, not talk about it,” Harbaugh said during his Big Ten Media Days debut. “It’s that simple. Hard work. Determination. All those Midwestern values.”
There is very little value in media day prophecies. Michigan’s new coach set himself apart by essentially refusing to say much at all, all the way down to acknowledging he had a working group of five starting offensive linemen while declining to identify who they were. Implicit in every non-answer Harbaugh delivered Friday was an utter inability to blow smoke up everyone’s rear just to play along. If we compare this to the last two Michigan coaches to parade through this annual July rite, Harbaugh essentially represents the best parts of his predecessors, without the flaws that would doom them.
Like Rich Rodriguez, he is a good coach inclined to straightforward appraisals; unlike Rodriguez, Harbaugh has belief and patience on his side. Like Brady Hoke, Harbaugh has history with the school. Unlike Hoke—whose obnoxious 2011 media day ad hominem answer “We’re Michigan” is still a forehead-slapper—Harbaugh evidently prefers to let production tell the story. If this approach pervades the program already, all the better for the Wolverines.
“Jim and I think about what’s good for Michigan,” interim athletic director Jim Hackett said Friday. “What’s good for Michigan is to earn its rightful place by its performance. Not by decree. Not arrogantly reminding everybody about it. You have to earn it. I’ve got a lot of confidence we can do that. But we still aren’t there yet.”
That’s a perfectly stinging rebuke to the bluster that blew through Ann Arbor in the years preceding Harbaugh’s return.
Less direct, but telling in its own way, was a set of mostly empty replies from Harbaugh regarding almost all football matters of any import.
Sure, there were goofy tangents about the Big Ten press caravan of the 1970s. Or about how people in Paris talk in hushed tones. (“You can observe a lot by just watching,” Harbaugh said. “It’s the new me.”) He likened a new season to “coming out of the womb, into chaos.” There were heartfelt homages to his father and his former Catholic grade school, which his daughters will attend this fall. And there were Ditka jerseys. But as for specifics about Michigan in 2015, Harbaugh had nearly nothing meaningful to say, which can be read a few ways.
One is that he doesn’t want to divulge any information; Harbaugh did cite competitive disadvantage at one point. Another way: The personnel he inherited isn’t worthy of exalting, at least not yet. Still another: He doesn’t have much information to divulge, good or bad, because no one has done anything of note.
“I don’t know that could be a thing right now,” Harbaugh said. “First day, that’s when things will start.”
Is running back Ty Isaac’s size (6’3”, 240 pounds) impressive?
“Yeah, his size is impressive, yes,” Harbaugh said.
Is he rebuilding culture at Michigan?
“I think everybody uses it a lot as a buzzword,” Harbaugh said. “We’re just working.”
What are the differences between recruiting at Stanford and Michigan?
“Again, one of those lists I didn’t bring,” Harbaugh said.
Does Harbaugh have a nickname for Ohio State, a la Hoke’s “Ohio”?
“Just Ohio State,” Harbaugh said. “But great to see everybody this morning. Wonderful turnout.”
To be clear, none of this could be classified as combative or testy. This is just how interactions with Michigan’s coach evidently will go: Almost without fail, Harbaugh won’t contrive a reply if he doesn’t have one. And if the greatest unknown in his world is who will be doing what for his team in 2015, then the conversation may run dry pretty quick.
It is frustrating to everyone with empty notebooks. But it’s also a logical development if the idea is valuing performance over potential—especially potential based on accomplishments gathering dust.
“It’s like when I ran Steelcase—it was No. 1 for 40 years,” Hackett said, referencing the office furniture company for which he served as CEO. “There was no guarantee it was going to be No. 1 again. There’s zero guarantee, actually, that you’re going to be who you were.”
Soon, we find out what Michigan is, beyond Twitter snapshots and Cracker Barrel. We’ll find out what the four-hour spring practices wrought. We’ll find out if Harbaugh can play quarterback whisperer with Morris or Rudock. We’ll find out if, as linebacker James Ross III put it Friday, there’s “a little more chippiness” inspired by Harbaugh’s example.
Michigan’s new head coach said he was imagining what it’s going to be like on Aug. 7, when the preseason begins. He said he was as excited as he’s ever been for a start of a season, though he then admitted he says that every year. The answers that matter, about the depth chart minutia and everything else, arrive soon. We’ll find out how far away Michigan is from what it was.
“It’s coming,” Jim Harbaugh said. “Be patient. We’ll be playing games soon.”