LOS ANGELES — When it was time for Jim Harbaugh to take his podium at Rose Bowl media day, there was an immediate problem. The black leather chair that had been placed on stage for him was too low. He wanted to be higher.
As Michigan workers scrambled to find something they could use to support the chair, Harbaugh stood aside, chatting with a journalist about the chickens he raises in his garden – a subject he is always happy to discuss.
Was he just trying to outrun Michigan’s time in front of the media, delaying uncomfortable questions about sign-stealing, the double suspensions that forced him to miss six games this season and his potential interest in the NFL? Or was he really uncomfortable sitting in a full-sized chair?
With Harbaugh, you really never know.
There is only one coach in college football who could manage to produce such mundane and bizarre moments 48 hours before the biggest game of his career at Michigan.
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There’s only one coach who could answer a question from a religious publication at media day and come up with a sentence like “Jesus would have been a five-star player, no doubt about it.”
There is only one coach who can brush aside controversy so easily with just a few words – “one mind” – which he kept repeating on Saturday, to the point of frustrating those of us who were trying. to extract something meaningful from it. on what this chaotic season has really been like.
And let’s hope that after Monday’s Rose Bowl, the sport doesn’t lose it forever.
Because as bizarre, opaque and calculating as Harbaugh may seem, his nine years at Michigan weren’t just good for the Wolverines. They were good for college football.
A sport that desperately needs characters − and the bad guys − accidentally received a great gift this season. From a fight with the NCAA over minor recruiting violations to America learning Connor Stalions’ name to reaching the College Football Playoff, Michigan and Harbaugh have officially become the beast of sports.
And whether or not Harbaugh wins a national championship in the coming days, it will all end if he leaves Ann Arbor and returns to the NFL.
“We’re 48 hours away from the Rose Bowl,” he said, putting an end to any questions about his future. “That’s it. That’s our total goal.”
It’s easy to see why this race in Michigan feels a bit like a last hurray for Harbaugh. After back-to-back playoff failures, this is the team he spent nearly a decade trying to build. This is the season when college football’s traditional championship-winning blue bloods have been diminished just enough to open the door for a program like Michigan, which – let’s be real here – has the stars aligning by a certain way to get into this mix. There’s a reason the Wolverines, for all their tradition, have only half a national title since 1950.
But this period was also marked by immense difficulties. Harbaugh was in the NCAA’s crosshairs last year, and he gave them enough material to sow doubt about what his tenure would look like if he returned next season. He’s interviewed with NFL teams over the past two offseasons, and his interest in returning to that league is undeniable. His relationship with Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel had its ups and downs during his tenure.
It just makes sense that Harbaugh would take his last, best chance at winning a title, then return to a league where he doesn’t have to worry about answering a pencil-pushing NCAA investigator.
But here’s the thing about Harbaugh: you never know what he’s thinking. Nobody does it. Even the people who work with him, who relate to him, who see a side of him that the public doesn’t see, are no more insightful about his future than those of us who shout questions to which we know ‘he won’t answer.
No matter what happens against Alabama, or possibly the following Monday in Houston, there’s no way to guess. Harbaugh reportedly had a contract extension in front of him that would make him one of the highest-paid figures in sports.
There have also been reports recently that he did not agree to all provisions of the deal, including one that would prevent him from signing with NFL teams for at least the year next. There may also be controversial questions regarding Michigan’s ability to terminate the contract if more significant NCAA violations are found.
It seems like there is some sort of negotiation going on through the media, which can get weird for both sides. It also suggests that not everything is as simple as Harbaugh makes it out to be with his constant stream of positivity about everything happening around his program.
“It’s been a spiritual journey. It’s been a mission,” he said. “It’s daily, weekly, monthly. It’s been a year now. A year with this team that they’ve been on this mission. It’s been a happy mission.”
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It’s also a mission that shows what a truly remarkable coach he is. Harbaugh undeniably lives outside the rules. He’s been doing it since he got to Michigan, and whether he’s getting hammered by the NCAA over the Stallions’ actions or his own refusal to tell the truth to NCAA investigators (about what appear to be violations minor recruitment issues), all of this is self-inflicted.
That kind of anvil hanging over the program would tear most teams apart. Michigan’s season could have been derailed several times, including the news on Nov. 10 after arriving in State College, Pa., that Harbaugh had been suspended by the Big Ten for the remainder of the regular season.
And yet, week after week, regardless of the circumstances or the fear about what kind of accusations might be thrown at this program next, Michigan performed consistently week after week. It’s a credit to not only Harbaugh’s organization, but the type of players he recruited, that everything stayed on track despite so many opportunities to see this thing fall apart.
“In the two years I’ve been here before this year, I’ve never seen him as happy as he was this year, even with everything that was going on,” quarterback JJ McCarthy said. “He’s a special guy, a special, special guy.
“You know, he’s human, so obviously I feel like he feels it a little more than he says. He talks about how he has this iron belly where there’s nothing that really shakes him up. There’s no emotion that really hits him. his speed in doing what he’s capable of doing on a daily basis.”
In an industry where we often wonder what these guys are for and if they really care about their players, Harbaugh is a player that is never questioned. He has flaws, he’s high maintenance and is often frustrating in his public distancing, but you only need to spend a few minutes around the Michigan program to understand how well his guys buy into everything he brings to the table .
“He’s definitely a players’ coach,” linebacker Michael Barrett said. “He’s always going to fight for his guys.”
He’s also one of the few coaches who has come out publicly and said college athletes should be paid, making Harbaugh an invaluable voice of reason as sports undergo some of these massive changes.
If this is it for Harbaugh, he did everything he was supposed to do and more. He restored Michigan’s respectability on the field. He turned the rivalry with Ohio State around, winning three Big Ten titles in a row. If he wins a national title, it’s pure gravy.
It’s also true that, fair or not, this season has made Harbaugh the most polarizing figure in sports. If Michigan wins on Monday, the cheating accusations will continue to roll into Houston. If the Wolverines lose, there will be schadenfreude and schadenfreude from Columbus, Ohio, to Pasadena and probably a bunch of places in between.
But for all his faults and all the accusations of bickering that have surrounded Michigan this season, college football is better with him than without him. Hopefully Monday won’t be the last time we see him with the M block on his chest.