The only possible explanation for Jim Harbaugh’s nature is that he’s hooked 24/7 to a hidden adrenaline IV.
Or perhaps his inner speedometer goes up to 240 mph.
Or maybe those glasses of whole milk or cans of Diet Pepsi he’s always drinking from are spiked with a potion that inhibits any tendency toward slackness or surrender.
Even by the standards of winning-is-the-only-thing Vince Lombardi or chair-throwing Bobby Knight, Harbaugh is an intense coach. He wears cleats daily, the better to jump into drills or race sprints with his players. He grades them on weightlifting goals or on the speed and precision with which they trace the Michigan Mile on Mondays in the shape of the letters of the next opponent’s name. He holds four-hour practices, Friday scrimmages -- and once smeared a player’s blood on his own face. He even coaches his kids on how to collect the most Halloween candy by jogging from house to house, then changing into a secondary costume and repeating the neighborhood circuit. He calls it the “Halloween Hustle.”
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But it is Harbaugh’s undeniable talent for infusing athletes with his energy that has uplifted each football team he’s coached. In two seasons at Michigan, Harbaugh has remade the dormant program into a national championship contender. A controversial double-overtime loss at Ohio State last month kept Michigan out of the College Football Playoff.
So Harbaugh and the No. 6-ranked Wolverines go into Friday’s 8 p.m. Capital One Orange Bowl game against No. 11 Florida State with extra incentive to prove how far they’ve come. Harbaugh hasn’t been as brash as he was in 1986 when, as Michigan’s senior quarterback, he predicted victory against Ohio State and delivered a Rose Bowl berth. But he does feel good about the chances of his airtight defense against FSU running back Dalvin Cook. The last time he was in the Orange Bowl, he brought a Stanford team he’d transformed from weakling to powerhouse with quarterback Andrew Luck and beat Virginia Tech.
“He is the ultimate competitor,” said Michigan senior tight end Jake Butt. “Down to the last tick of the clock, he’s going to compete on every play, every block, every tackle, every whistle. We’ve got the same players but he brought in a totally different fired-up attitude. Everything counts, all the time.”
Harbaugh’s wife, Sarah, said it’s a myth that he never relaxes. He does. Sort of.
“He loves to go to the movies and sit in the dark, eating popcorn and drinking Diet Pepsi,” she said. “Yes, these are war movies and spy thrillers. When I want to see a romantic comedy, forget it.”
He tells his children not to miss a day of school and they’ll win a perfect attendance award.
“I guess I could get annoyed but he’s not like a Tiger Mom; he’s more like a big kid,” Sarah said. “We played gin. My game was strong. He won outright. He smirked. You’d think he would let his wife win but he doesn’t let up.”
Harbaugh, 53, has a 20-5 record at his alma mater following the 15-22 swoon under Rich Rodriguez and the four-year dropoff under Brady Hoke that left Michigan 5-7 in 2014 – and also ended the sellout streak inside the Big House. Michigan hasn’t won the Big Ten since tying for first in 2004 and has only beaten arch rival Ohio State once in the past 13 years.
Harbaugh led the second-largest scoring differential turnaround in his first 24 games among Power 5 coaches, second in immediate impact to Oregon’s Mark Helfrich, according to espn.com data. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer was third, FSU’s Jimbo Fisher was eighth and Florida’s Jim McElwain was 15th. He moved Michigan’s recruiting class back into the top 10 by expanding his reach with satellite training camps and has 11 Florida players on his roster. Four Wolverines are projected as first and second-round NFL Draft picks.
How was Harbaugh able to change the culture so quickly?
“He goes into a situation and gives people the confidence to be at their best,” Sarah said. “He really believes in everyone’s potential to be a winner and gradually they believe it, too. It’s sincere and therefore they rise up. Jim makes you want to be better.”
Harbaugh came home to Ann Arbor two years ago, after he was fired by the San Francisco 49ers despite his success in turning a demoralized 1-11 franchise into a Super Bowl team (he lost to brother John’s Baltimore Ravens). Harbaugh’s demanding personality and rah-rah motivational tactics frayed the nerves of seasoned pros and 49ers owner Jed York. His “shark face” – sometimes his mouth falls open and his eyes narrow into a stare as his mind wanders to a replay of a touchdown or sack – gave people the wrong impression he was standoffish and humorless.
A coalition led by Michigan’s athletic director and former players such as Jon Giesler and Tom Brady had mounted a campaign to woo Harbaugh back, as documented in Jon U. Bacon’s book “Endzone: The rise, fall and return of Michigan football.” They sent him DVDs and maize-and-blue neckties, told him UM was his “manifest destiny.” It wasn’t just the seven-year, $40 million contract that lured Harbaugh, but the appeal of returning to the place where he grew up as the son of UM assistant coach Jack, a ball boy who used to spin in the chair of his future coach, Bo Schembechler.
“Since Jim got here, it’s like night and day,” said David Dever, a former player whose son also played for UM. “He is Bo.”
Jim Wangler, a former UM quarterback and grad assistant who recruited Harbaugh, said his two sons on the team worked harder under Harbaugh’s meritocracy.
“It’s amazing what one coach can do for team chemistry,” he said. “Jimmy installed competitiveness in every detail.”
The Michigan fight song could have been written with Harbaugh in mind because he’s been hailed as a conquering hero, attracting 60,000 to his first spring practice, inspiring fans to wear “Ann Arbaugh” T-shirts or his “uniform” of khaki pants, blue block M sweatshirt and cap. Like Steve Jobs did, he wears the same clothes every day so he doesn’t waste time deciding.
“What’s been great here is you got it all: I love football, I love the University of Michigan, I love coaching,” Harbaugh said. “As my dad would say, who’s got it better than us? Nooooobody.”
His philosophy doesn’t wear thin with college players.
“Play with great resolve,” he said. “All the way back to Bo, that’s what you’re taught as a Michigan player. Play as fast as you can, as hard as you can, as long as you can.”
At the University of Miami, there is great hope that Mark Richt can also turn around a once-dominant program.
“It’s almost all about leadership,” trustee Ron Stone said of the hiring of Richt last year. “It’s a quality that’s hard to articulate. A certain kind of charisma and confidence that causes others to follow and draw out of them what they didn’t know they had. Mark’s got ‘it.’”
Vinny Testaverde agrees.
“One coach can change your history,” he said. “Mostly it’s believing.”
That’s the message Harbaugh delivers to his team and on a recent recruiting visit to Aledo High before it won the Texas state championship.
“Six seconds per play – six seconds of absolute rage, go all out into a crescendo,” he told players in the locker room. “You’ve got more to give. Nobody’s going to die. You’ll puke and pass out before you die if you’re giving everything you’ve got.”