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CHICAGO -- Like a summer blockbuster, Jim Harbaugh invaded the Big Ten Conference football media days Monday and kept everyone on the edge of their seats. All that was missing were the 3-D glasses and tubs of popcorn.
The Michigan coach/gadfly displayed some fuzzy math, used a word twice and then wondered if he’d made it up (he hadn’t), spoke about soccer and NASCAR and how NFL players are the world’s greatest athletes. And left a room full of reporters alternately laughing and scratching their heads.
It was a microcosm of what Harbaugh has brought to the Big Ten coaching ranks in just two seasons at the helm of his alma mater. No one knows what he’s going to do or say next -- and no one can look away. Oh, and he’s a pretty good coach, too, with a team expected to challenge for the Big Ten title.
“His antics or whatever you want to call it is real. That’s the kind of person he is,” said Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell, who, like seemingly everyone in attendance Monday, was asked about the Michigan coach. “I can see why the players would love that.”
Harbaugh shared the love for his players, the words pouring out of his mouth with no regard for syntax or even coherence. On tight end Jake Butt, he said:
“One of the most gung-ho players I've ever been around. Can sit through a two and a half-hour, three-hour meeting and be interactive, be on the edge of his seat, walk out of that meeting with a bounce in his step and put his football gear on, kind of hair on the back of his neck is standing up, excited to get out on the field and he practices and whether he's going out to hit his sled or rattle somebody's fillings, just excited about doing that as he is as running a post route or corner route and catching a ball.”
On encouraging his players to make incremental improvements each day:
“We got one percent better as a team each day, then after 30 days we'd be 30 percent better. After 60 days, we'd be 60 percent better (those percentages apparently don’t compound in Harbaugh’s world). Now, even if it's can we get .01 percent better each day, then that would be something that would be worthwhile. That would be worth pursuing, aspiring to. Another way to say is look at the NASCAR boys. They will try to stay up all night long to get one mile an hour faster. Can we get one mile faster each day?”
Harbaugh, wearing a Michigan baseball cap with his suit, said he hoped to attend the Real Madrid vs. Chelsea soccer match Saturday in his football stadium. “I’ll be rooting for the team that plays the hardest to win,” he asserted.
He spoke of the “meritocracy” of earning playing time on his team, then wondered if that word existed before he spoke it Monday. He seemed disappointed to learn that it had.
On his rap video that went viral, Harbaugh declared: “I think the cool people liked it.”
More from Big Ten Media Days:
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- What we learned about Iowa's Big Ten opponents
- Jim Harbaugh's quirks a good thing for buttoned-down Big Ten
- Media Days takeaways from Monday's sessions
- Depth chart breakdown: What we learned about Iowa
- Drake product Chris Ash tackles Rutgers rebuild
His senior wide receiver, Dowling Catholic graduate Amara Darboh, was happy to confirm this, saying: “I definitely wouldn’t turn that down, being in a rap video with him.”
“That’s his personality and he’s not afraid to be himself,” Darboh elaborated. “If you’re the same person all the time, it says a lot about you and allows guys like me as players to get a better feel for him.”
Former Iowa quarterback Chuck Long, who competed against Harbaugh when he was the signal-caller at Michigan, said Harbaugh is good for the Big Ten, a league that had been known for buttoned-down coaches like Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer.
“I think Michigan has to be relevant for the Big Ten to make the Big Ten relevant to some degree,” Long said. “Because it’s such a traditional, storied powerhouse. And he’s brought a lot of credibility back to the school and a lot of toughness back to the school. They’re going to be Michigan again. I think it makes it a lot more fun.”
It’s fun because beneath the showmanship, Harbaugh has proven to be a winning coach. Michigan went 10-3 in his debut season last year. He has a 68-30 record as a college coach, and took the San Francisco 49ers to three consecutive NFC Championship games, winning one only to lose in the Super Bowl to the Baltimore Ravens, coached by his brother, John.
But he is known for antagonizing his bosses while constantly tweaking his rival coaches. It is an act that can wear thin. It hasn’t yet at Michigan.
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Harbaugh’s Wolverines will visit Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 12 for a sold-out night game. The last time Harbaugh was in Kinnick, his No. 2-ranked team lost 12-10 to Long’s top-ranked Hawkeyes in a 1985 classic.
Harbaugh was asked about making a return trip this fall, and his answer was perfectly rambling and articulate, summing up what football means to Harbaugh, and maybe what he means to football.
“Let it be raucous, and let the fans have at it. Ultimately, it’s 11 on 11 at all times, with the officials being the only other people on the field. So that’s fair. That’s healthy,” Harbaugh said. “There’s nothing better -- well, again you’re comparing but -- hard-pressed to think of anything better than going into another team’s stadium, competing against their team and their fans. And if you could throw in the elements, too. If you could throw in the cold or rain or some kind of weather you have to beat as well and come out the victor, there’s nothing better in life that I’ve found.”