SALT LAKE CITY—If Jim Harbaugh really could turn water into wine, this would have been the time to do it. His Michigan quarterback, graduate transfer Jake Rudock, had just thrown his third interception of the game, a pick-six that gave Utah a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead.
Most Michigan fans probably wanted a drink at that point. Harbaugh? He stayed positive. He encouraged players on the field. The Wolverines still lost Thursday night's season opener, 24-17. But when players kept talking about their bad "execution" in the loss, Harbaugh said: "I think they are being too hard on themselves."
Yes, Harbaugh said that. Then he rattled off all the good things he saw. He knows a great effort when he sees it, and his players gave it. He knows that if the Wolverines played a cleaner game, they could have upset Utah.
And mostly, he knows he inherited a group that went 5-7 last season and was the exact opposite of overconfident. His old coach, Bo Schembechler, was always hardest on his teams when they were winning big. When they were losing, Schembechler propped his players up. His old quarterback paid attention.
For a while this summer, it was easy to forget that Harbaugh had a team to coach. He was too busy getting attention with satellite camps and pictures from Paris, with coaching first base at spring training for the Oakland A's and tweeting about Judge Judy. Sure, some of this was his doing. Putting on a show helps recruiting, and he just has to be himself to do it. But Harbaugh took the Michigan job knowing it would be a grind, and a grind is what he loves.
After the game, in Utah's visiting-team interview room, which was apparently built in an old bathroom stall, Harbaugh sat down in his sweatshirt, his 'M' cap, his trademark khakis, Adidas cleats and, if you must know: white socks. Well, he went to Michigan, not the Fashion Institute of Technology.
"It was a real football game tonight," Harbaugh said, and this was one of those quotes that seems banal when you read it, but didn't feel that way when he said it. "I thought it was a real, physical, competitive football game."
There are not many higher compliments in Harbaugh's brain than "a real football game." He loves the physicality of football the way America used to love it, without reservations. He loves it more than he loves money, more than he loves fame and more than he loves game-planning, though he is admired for that last one. In a way, I think he loves it even more than he loves winning. He likes the struggle.
At times, this game was a mighty struggle for Michigan. But what did anybody expect? Strip away the hype, and you have a team that went 5-7 last year visiting a team that kicked its butt in Ann Arbor last September. There isn't enough speed on either side of the ball. Rudock is a Band-Aid at quarterback until Harbaugh molds somebody else. Rudock had a lousy game Thursday, finishing 27 of 43 for 279 yards with two touchdowns and those three picks, but Harbaugh went out of his way to praise him, in the same way he came to Colin Kaepernick's defense when the Bay Area media questioned him.
You can sum up this team's flaws like this: Harbaugh punted on fourth-and-one from the Utah 45-yard line early in the first half, and it was probably the right call for this team, statisticians be damned. Michigan needs to play low-risk, field-position football against good teams.
There is an enormous gap between the national Harbaugh hype and the daily Harbaugh reality, but he won't complain about it. Harbaugh will not fall into the trap that snares so many first-year coaches: complaining that the cupboard is empty, or talking endlessly about how much time he needs to build his program. What good does that do? He has seniors. It isn't like Michigan will tank for a draft pick. There are games to play, and Harbaugh is driven to win as many as he possibly can.
Michigan was comically secretive heading into this game. Even after Rudock had clearly won the quarterback competition over Shane Morris in fall camp, Harbaugh wouldn't tell anybody. He did not release a depth chart ahead of the game. And when he did, even the starting punter was listed as Kenny Allen OR Blake O'Neill, lest Utah have extra time to prepare for the right punter.
Maybe that's silly. But it breeds competition everywhere, and it let the players know: All that hype doesn't matter. Harbaugh talked about getting "in the submarine" with his players. It was an entertaining turn of phrase that just meant they would focus only on each other.
Harbaugh, for his part, has no problem ignoring distractions. He can take his kids to the office and still get work done. He admits to occasionally reading his Twitter mentions when he has time in the off-season, because he finds them fun. The nasty ones don't affect his mood. Give-and-take with the media doesn't really get to him, either. But his players need to be in that submarine.
He took the Michigan job for all the right reasons, a little romance and a lot of elbow grease—and because, even though he rejected the Big Ten Network's request for access in August, he really enjoys the personal interactions that come with being a college coach. After his first month on the road recruiting, following four years in the NFL, he kept talking about "how great this country is … you've got some quality, quality youngsters out there." He wanted to be clear: "I'm not just saying the guys we got."
He had to know, by the middle of spring practice, that this was not the same kind of program that Urban Meyer inherited at Ohio State. Other than sophomore defensive back Jabrill Peppers, there is not a likely NFL starter in the lineup. Ohio State is loaded. Michigan State is loaded. This will be a long haul.
And yet … well, his first Stanford team in 2007 won four games, but one of them was a shocker over No. 1 USC. Even as too many Michigan drives stalled Thursday, you could see signs of the attitude Harbaugh instilled at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers. Those teams were relentless. And for all the talk about Harbaugh as a quarterback whisperer, one of his strengths is adapting to what his quarterbacks can't do. Andrew Luck, Alex Smith and Kaepernick are very different quarterbacks, but Harbaugh won, in different ways, with all of them.
Watching him chat with his wife Sarah after his first loss, like seeing him in his office, you could tell: even when his team struggles, Harbaugh loves this. He has exactly the job he wants, and how many of us can say that? The off-season show is over. The work has begun. He loves the work.
Earlier this year, Harbaugh sat at his desk in Schembechler Hall and recited Schembechler's three-step guide to living a happy life, always presented in reverse order of importance:
3. Do a job that you love.
2. Work hard.
1. Marry wisely.
With a twinkle in his eye, Schembechler might have added:
1a. Win the damn games.
That part will come.