- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Jim Harbaugh left his khakis at home. He smiled a lot Friday, pulled out a Mike Ditka jersey during his opening news conference at Big Ten media days, posed for a few dozen photos and engaged in chit-chat with Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer.
Michigan’s first-year coach showed his normal side, which still isn’t normal. But he’s not entirely the guy you’ve watched on globetrotting adventures via social media over the past seven months.
Harbaugh, since taking over the football program at his alma mater in December, has embodied the larger-than-life persona of a man who jumped from his car to assist stranded motorists and ran shirtless through satellite camps between trips to South America and Paris.
All when he wasn’t playing exhibition baseball for the Oakland A’s or pouring Gatorade into his cereal.
That coach exists somewhere, perhaps to emerge periodically when it’s best, in the estimation of Team Harbaugh, to shine light on the quirky leader instead of his team, which, frankly, needs an upgrade in talent to compete with the bullies of the Big Ten East.
Just don’t expect the Harbaugh of this offseason to show often on the sideline at the Big House.
Most observers who packed into Grand Ballroom A Friday morning at McCormick Place came to see what Harbaugh would do and say -- and not about his team.
Maybe that was part of the plan from the start.
The 51-year-old coach didn’t necessarily disappoint. Let’s say, though, Harbaugh tempered expectations for the bizarre, reminding us that, yes, he’s been through this plenty in the past, coaching his teams to the Orange Bowl and the Super Bowl. He’s fully capable of fitting in.
Still, his appearance Friday turned heads in a way rarely seen at events like this, which tend to bring out the boring side in coaches.
A rundown of Harbaugh’s day in the public eye:
He took the stage after Minnesota coach Jerry Kill at the open of the morning session.
First question: “Do you have a special adjective” for Ohio State?
“Just Ohio State,” Harbaugh said.
Dressed in a gray suit, maize tie and blue shirt, he soon turned the tables on the media, asking if anyone in the room remembered the preseason bus trips that writers made decades ago from campus to campus in the Big Ten.
“You could never get everyone here on a bus,” Harbaugh said.
He talked of living a few houses from the old home of his former Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler, and of a visit Thursday night with Ditka, Harbaugh’s coach with the Chicago Bears from 1987 to 1992.
Harbaugh said he was “as excited as I’ve been for the start of a football season.”
“I say that every year.”
After the news conference, he greeted a few writers individually and stopped to say hello to the sisters of Wolverines Jared and Jack Wangler. Sierra and Halle Wangler, volunteering for the Big Ten at this event, know Harbaugh personally.
Halle plays basketball at Michigan. Their father, John, played quarterback in Ann Arbor.
“Great guy,” Halle Wangler said of Harbaugh.
Flanked by Michigan associate AD David Ablauf and Zach Eisendrath, the coach’s director of internal communications and operations, Harbaugh visited briefly with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Between his rounds of TV interviews and photo sessions, Harbaugh introduced himself to every Big Ten player he encountered at the cavernous convention center.
“He said he thought he saw me last night,” Purdue cornerback Frankie Williams said. “I don’t know where. I don’t remember meeting him, but he wished me good luck. I wished him the same.
“I’m still honestly thinking, ‘Have I ever met him before?’ Interesting guy. I hear a lot of stuff about him in the media. But from what I know, good dude.”
“He seems pretty wired to me,” said Leidner, the Gophers’ junior quarterback who avoids social media. “I’ve obviously heard about him, but I don’t really know too much. I can just tell he’s got a lot of juice and that’s he’s a good coach.”
The coach was a hit among Michigan fans at the autograph session.
Last to get in place for a photo of the 14 Big Ten coaches, Harbaugh took the final seat between Indiana’s Kevin Wilson and Dantonio, wrapping his arms around the shoulders of his two East Division foes.
He chatted with Nebraska’s Mike Riley, who coached Harbaugh with the San Diego Chargers, then headed for the kickoff luncheon, where Harbaugh sat at the head table aside Dantonio and Meyer, the equally famous Ohio State coach.
Interviewed alongside Riley and Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst at the luncheon, Harbaugh said he felt like a bull before a fight with “snot bubbles coming out” in anticipation of the upcoming season.
Now, there’s the guy who made waves this offseason.
But Harbaugh insisted he’s “not striving to create any buzz.”
“Just striving to coach the football team,” he said. “Not trying to be popular or anything. Anyone who is popular is bound to be disliked.”
It seems Harbaugh is likely not concerned with his popularity. He’s content simply to be Jim, a guy about whom we learned a little more on Friday.