CHICAGO — Jim Harbaugh walked onto the Big Ten Media Days stage in a grey suit and a Michigan baseball cap, ready to stump for satellite camps, take pride in his rap lyrics and set higher bars for his program.
He wasn’t here to apologize.
The only thing Harbaugh has built quicker at Michigan than its competitive spirit has been his own brash pseudo-celebrity, one that rides in fancy cars on camera and shoots attacks at Nick Saban and Ohio State for all the world to see. Even by his own standards of intensity, he’s had a bit of a wild offseason. And now, he was here to explain it.
Over the course of more than an hour, he bounced through topics both light-hearted and personal, from football to free time to his and his program’s integrity. For everyone involved, this was locking into a pressure cooker with Jim Harbaugh, staring hard for one theme to tie together and explain the unexplainable.
“We want to dream so big that people would laugh at us,” he said. “If they’re not laughing at us, then we haven’t set high enough goals.”
It’s a saying that’s verging on cliché, but Harbaugh is a walking reference book sometimes, and this was one he used over and over again. This was what could tie together a rap video begging for laughs and some fiery tweets responding to those who would dare.
“Particularly, back in my junior high years, that might have been some of the worst times where people are making fun of how you look, your teeth are crooked, you don’t have the same nice clothes, you’re fat or you’re too skinny or you’re too short or you’re too tall or something. Everybody gets it, and everybody has critics.
“Well, screw ‘em. They’re irrelevant, and I think of it the same way as a football team.”
It’s the no-effs approach Harbaugh is operating under at Michigan, which went 10-3 in his first season. What got him pushed out of his last job in San Francisco is now becoming the bedrock of his new one at Michigan. It’s the foundation by which he’s hoping to return his alma mater to glory.
“You’ve gotta love it,” Michigan senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “You can see how authentic it is. He’s not holding anything back.”
The Wolverines haven’t won the Big Ten or the Rose Bowl since doing so in the same season in 2004. They’ve beaten Ohio State once since 2003 and Michigan State once since 2007. The slip has run through a “Michigan man” in Lloyd Carr to an outsider in Rich Rodriguez and back to a traditional hire in Brady Hoke.
Now, if the return is to come under Harbaugh – a different kind of Michigan man – it seems it will happen on his terms, and his way. It will ruffle some feathers, and he says he will apologize when he needs to.
He just doesn’t feel like he’s needed to much so far. Not for the tweet about the Ohio State tattoo scandal at Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith, or the one about Alabama’s rule-breaking to Nick Saban, or the one about misplaced cheating accusations at Kirby Smart.
“Well, I would put that in the category of if somebody shoots one over your bow, and you shoot one back over their bow,” Harbaugh said. “Usually, I subscribe to the ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ philosophy, but when somebody talks about somebody you love or some thing you love or makes a personal attack, then you have a right to shoot one back over their bow.”
Somebody attacked that bedrock, he believed. More specifically, somebody laughed at his goals and dreams. It’s a warped cycle, but it’s the one he’s cultivating at a program that has kept it close to the vest for long enough.
“Just from how much attention this program gets for different things that we’ve been doing,” senior tight end Jake Butt said, “I do think there’s going to be a target on our backs.”
Soon enough, Harbaugh’s fire is going to spill into the fiercest games against the biggest rivals. And in time, he’ll be judged on his ability to win those games, as the fired Michigan coaches before him have been. He’s fine with that.
In fact, he’s asking for it.