To hear Jim Harbaugh tell it, the Michigan coach was raised in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Harbaugh and the first family of coaching gathered in their hometown of Ann Arbor this past weekend for a couple days of reminiscing and preaching the gospel of Football. Jim and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh were inducted into the Pioneer High School (where John graduated and Jim played for two years) Hall of Fame Friday night in a gymnasium across the street from the Big House. Jack Harbaugh, the former coach who is no stranger to hall of fame inductions himself, sat in the front row beaming with pride as his sons dug deep into the memory banks for stories of growing up together.
There were tales of fishing trips, backyard ball games, neighborhood shenanigans, paternal pep talks in the backseat of a station wagon and the time Jim nearly drowned big brother John to prove a point during a family vacation to Amelia Island, Florida.
“The three of us have done a lot of cool stuff together,” Harbaugh said. “This is certainly one of those shining star days.”
Friday night was as comfortable as the younger Harbaugh has looked in front of a microphone since taking over as the Wolverines' coach 15 months ago. It was hard to remember he was the same person who just recently stole a week’s worth of national headlines and ticked off an entire quadrant of the country with an attitude that screamed, “To hell with the way things have been done in the past.”
This is a guy who prescribes push-ups as a cure for the common cold and describes anything less than whole milk as a “candy ass” beverage – a lesson he learned the hard way when he mistakenly brought a jug of two percent to dinner with his childhood friend’s father. He speaks of taking a sick day with a level of disdain and conviction that most folks reserve for ISIS. And yet, here he is throwing Twitter jabs at SEC coaches and inviting WWE celebrities to nation signing day.
How does college football’s most talked-about coach relish the old-school, rub-some-dirt-on-it nostalgia in one moment then in next fire off another of his industry-rattling, rule-stretching innovations?
The contradictory approaches are hard to reconcile. From a distance, one or the other feels like it must be an act. It’s easier to make sense of his opposite attitudes, though, if you look at them as more of a cause-and-effect relationship. Football was a main character in Jim Harbaugh’s Americana upbringing, and he’ll stop at nothing to try to save it. Those two ideas intersected this weekend when he got a chance to thank the mentors of his past shortly after trying to inspire the next generation of coaches.
The three Harbaugh men believe their beloved sport is under attack. They said as much Friday afternoon during a talk-show style conversation in front of a crowd of 2,000 high school coaches at Michigan’s Crisler Arena – the male equivalent of Oprah’s live studio audience. Their conversation was the highlight of Michigan's three-day coaching clinic.
“Our game is under some stress right now with concussion factors and some of these other things,” Jack said shortly after the hour-long chat. “But the feeling I had walking off the stage was that our game is in good hands.”
John Harbaugh made the unusual decision to bring his entire Ravens’ staff to a clinic in the Midwest in part because he wanted to make sure they are all passing on the message of the good that the sport can bring about.
“[These coaches] are leaders of young men in the front lines at high school and junior high schools making a difference for our country, for society,” he said. “It’s not everything. We’re not making it out to be everything like some people want to say. But it’s a darn good thing, and we need to hold on to every good thing we have right now.”
Jim Harbaugh isn’t sleeping over at prospects’ homes and setting up satellite camps because he believes it will make the country a better place. That would be naïve. That side of him is trying to win games. Football raised him to believe that there’s a winner and loser in everything, and you had better do everything humanly possible to end up on the winning side.
But it’s not too far of a stretch to say – and here is where Harbaugh’s dichotomy starts to make a little more sense – that his interest in winning those games is spurred at least in part by wanting to promote a sport with which he is still deeply in love. That much was clear this weekend.