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How Jim Harbaugh made Michigan a national power once again

Why is Jim Harbaugh smiling? Wolverines cornerback Jourdan Lewis says "[Harbaugh] is definitely applying pressure to everybody around the country. People see us as a threat now." Yeah, that would definitely explain the smile. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The premise alone ticks off the #GoBlue crowd.

Michigan, they say, has always been a national program. Just check the top of college football's all-time wins list. List the great players from around the country who wore the winged helmet. The Block M is one of the most recognizable marks in American sports. Michigan Stadium is among America's most significant sporting venues.

Their prideful annoyance mirrors the mood after Michigan won the 2012 Sugar Bowl. On that celebratory night in New Orleans, coach Brady Hoke, athletic director Dave Brandon and others answered the prevailing question -- Is Michigan back? -- in lockstep: Michigan never left.

But Michigan did leave for a while. In terms of national relevance, more than a while. Michigan went 55-46 between 2006, when it last contended for a national title, and the end of the 2014 season. Other than brief mentions, mostly obligatory nods to U-M's distant past, the program didn't belong in the national college football conversation.

Things have changed rapidly. Jim Harbaugh has accomplished a lot in his first 447 days as the Wolverines' coach. Perhaps his most significant achievement is nationalizing Michigan football again.

Harbaugh is undoubtedly the biggest driver, using his celebrity, coaching credentials, eccentricity, social media precociousness and cage-rattling personality, as well as his latitude with the fan base as a made (Michigan) man who played for Bo Schembechler. He has also tapped into Michigan's attributes -- the program, the university, the brand -- and recognizes that for Michigan to matter nationally, a national approach is required.

"We've always been national, but that block M, it's definitely a different feel," cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. "[Harbaugh] is definitely applying pressure to everybody around the country.

"People see us as a threat now."

Here's how it happened.

Recasting in the national recruiting waters

Michigan's last national title-winning roster had a quarterback, Brian Griese, from Miami. Top running backs Chris Howard and Anthony Thomas came from Louisiana. Top pass-rushers James Hall and Josh Williams came from New Orleans and Houston. The backup quarterback, a guy named Tom Brady, grew up in the Bay Area.

The 1997 Wolverines also had plenty of regional stars -- Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, a Fremont, Ohio, native, among them -- but drew from all corners.

"It was like a 50-50 thing," Griese said. "Michigan was a destination."

Regional recruiting was a priority, but the coaches understood the changing demographics for prospects, as well as Michigan's reach in football and academics as a top-5 public university.

"The power of that concept alone, you should be able to go anywhere throughout the United States to go find players," said Shemy Schembechler, Bo's son, who worked on the school's recruiting staff in the 1990s. "It's always gone beyond the Midwest.

"The head coach needs to have that perspective."

Harbaugh does. His first full recruiting class at Michigan, which ESPN ranked sixth nationally, includes only three in-state players and, more shockingly, none from Ohio.

Michigan signed five of the seven highest-rated prospects from New Jersey and six total, including defensive lineman Rashan Gary, the top-ranked player in the entire 2016 class, according to ESPN.

The Wolverines also signed six players from Florida and three from California, a historic hotbed for the program.

"Jim wanted the best players: 'Go get them,'" said Erik Campbell, a teammate of Harbaugh's at Michigan and a longtime Wolverines assistant (1995-2007) who worked in recruiting operations for U-M last year. "He didn't care where they were coming from. That's going to make them a national contender."

Hoke also signed the nation's No. 6 recruiting class in 2013, but his approach was more regional. The 2013 class had 17 prospects from Ohio or Michigan, and only four from outside the Big Ten footprint, including top-rated recruit Derrick Green (Virginia). Hoke signed only two California recruits and three Florida recruits in four classes.

Those who understand Michigan's situation value Harbaugh's national approach. Regional recruiting resources are limited, and Michigan competes not only with historic heavyweight Ohio State but emerging power Michigan State as well.

"Are there enough players in Ohio and Michigan alone for those programs to all be national title contenders? No," Griese said. "That's why you see them supplement with national recruiting. It's not like LSU. They can go up and down the [Mississippi] river."

The most famous college coach in America

Harbaugh has spent less than a decade in major college coaching, but he's arguably the sport's most recognizable coach.

According to Repucom's Celebrity Davie-Brown Index (DBI), which measures and qualifies celebrity influence and relevance both locally and worldwide, Harbaugh is unmatched by his peers. The index, which features more than 7,000 celebrities, doesn't include every FBS coach, but Harbaugh's Celebrity DBI score of 54.24 ranks higher than Ohio State's Urban Meyer (45.31) and Alabama's Nick Saban (44.37).

Harbaugh has a 47 percent awareness among the general public. He's the highest-ranking college sports coach in the database, edging Duke basketball's Mike Krzyzewski. Only two NFL coaches in the database have higher Celebrity DBI scores: Seattle's Pete Carroll (62.43) and New England's Bill Belichick (61.82).

It helps that Harbaugh has won as a coach in college and the NFL. He left the San Francisco 49ers more because of personality clashes than prolonged failure, which helps his reputation, according to Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. As the only college coach who had a decorated NFL career (and a budding acting career, apparently), the old QB's Q-score is boosted even more.

"It's Michigan," Campbell said, "but at the same time you have a national name coach. He wasn't unknown."

Social media has also propelled Harbaugh's reach. He has tweeted only 534 times under the @CoachJim4UM handle. But whether he's trolling SEC coaches or endorsing Judge Judy for the U.S. Supreme Court, almost every dispatch makes waves, and not merely among his 393,000 followers.

Last month, Harbaugh, a pro wrestling nut, cheered ringside at WWE's Monday Night Raw in Detroit. When Bruce Madej saw it, the longtime Michigan sports information director recalled how he'd told Bo Schembechler to bring wrestling to Michigan Stadium in 1990. Bo's reply: Are you kidding me?

"It's that type of thinking that's out of the box," Madej said of Harbaugh. "Do you notice how Jim can get publicity on radio? On TV? On social media? Jim has been able to capture more platforms than [Michigan has] in the past. It's the way the world is. Jim is the perfect football coach for the 21st century. He's a 21st-century character.

"The media's attracted to it. People are attracted to it."

Even if they're not, they're paying attention.

A national branding mindset

Last spring, Harbaugh completed a nine-day, seven-state blitz of satellite camps, including several in the heart of SEC country. Asked afterward by USA Today if his intent was rebooting and broadening Michigan's famous brand, Harbaugh replied, "I don't know what that means, a brand."

Nobody's buying that.

"It's all about getting mentions on the crawl or getting talked about on Mike & Mike or SportsCenter," Southall said. "It's about making sure the Michigan name is out front. It's really interesting to discuss with our students in marketing and sales classes. The things we talk to them about [what] you need to do, Michigan's doing.

"Harbaugh is the spokesperson and the head of this."

He engineers events that place him and Michigan in the national spotlight. It started with the satellite camps, complete with shirtless Peruball. There were sleepovers at recruits' houses and his tree-climbing attempt.

Then came "Signing of the Stars," the national signing day event filled with pomp, circumstance and celebrity. Partnering with The Players' Tribune, Derek Jeter's outfit, Michigan had Jeter, a Wolverines fan, and Tom Brady introducing recruits. Ric Flair wooed and Jim Leyland hit the Dab with hip-hop group Migos.

"Michigan has always been a huge player on the college football scene," said Jaymee Messler, president of The Players' Tribune. "With the addition of Coach Harbaugh, the national spotlight was on them more than ever."

Was the event over the top? Yes. Did it generate attention? No doubt. The only reason to look away from the live stream was when Gary announced his Michigan pledge on SportsCenter. More than 200,000 unique users viewed the stream, which was watched for an average of 30 minutes.

Messler thinks the event provided a "glimpse at what the future of signing day will entail." But how many programs could successfully copy it? USC, Notre Dame ... and? Michigan has a unique mix: famous school, famous football team, famous fans and alumni, massive fan/alumni base.

"It's Jim, obviously, but you have a brand at the university," Schembechler said. "It just brings two powerful entities together to take advantage."

As with the satellite camps, Harbaugh took advantage of a rules loophole and scheduled four spring practices during Michigan's spring break at IMG Academy in Florida. Commissioners and coaches complained, but Harbaugh's show again went on. Thousands watched Michigan practice, including some of the academy's prized recruits.

Spring break practices could be prohibited next year, but Harbaugh achieved his goal. Michigan dominated headlines during a gap in the sports news cycle.

"He's on the cutting edge of college football," said Tim Drevno, Michigan's offensive coordinator. "The decisions that he makes, it does expand us. It makes people know us more."

Michigan roots allow Harbaugh to think bigger

There's a paradox here.

Harbaugh isn't the first coach to color outside the lines, but he's employing brazen methods at a historically conservative program steeped (many would say stuck) in its own traditions. Yet, he's receiving no resistance.

Michigan fans accept Harbaugh and his quirks because of his roots: played for Bo, father coached with Bo, grew up in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh's chutzpah isn't new to them. They remember his guarantee before the Ohio State game in 1986, when he said Michigan would beat the Buckeyes and play in the Rose Bowl.

"His pedigree both as a player and a coach gives him some leeway for some of his more radical ideas," said Ryan Stayton, a student manager at Michigan in the late 1990s who earned two degrees from the school. "People are going to give him the benefit of the doubt because he came in with a savior moniker already attached."

How would the base react to Harbaugh if he were an outsider? Madej acknowledges the obvious: "I don't think Rich Rodriguez could have pulled it off."

Rodriguez, like Harbaugh, arrived with strong coaching credentials. But he had no Michigan ties. When he deviated from tradition -- assigning the No. 1 jersey to a non-receiver (a freshman, no less), choosing weekly captains, recruiting un-Michigan-like body types -- he was skewered.

Harbaugh, meanwhile, has wisely reinforced his Michigan-ness, from attending the ultimate frisbee team's practice to smashing a buckeye at Bo's grave before The Game.

"You try to grow the pie by getting new fans, but he does some interesting things to reach out to the old fan as well," Southall said. "That's his whole khaki deal. Go back and look at Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes, how those guys used to dress. It's pretty similar."

Former players such as Butch Woolfolk welcome Harbaugh's new approach, noting it can be good at a place like Michigan.

"He believes in the history and the tradition," said Woolfolk, an All-America running back at Michigan. "So if he's going to make a few, subtle changes to fit his personality, I see nothing wrong with that.

"He's not a Bo Schembechler clone."

Harbaugh could ultimately usurp Schembechler on the national stage. While Schembechler dominated the Big Ten -- a record .850 winning percentage in league play, 13 league titles -- he never won a national championship and went 5-12 in bowls (2-8 in the Rose Bowl). Harbaugh must first end Michigan's league title drought, but his nationalized approach suggests he has bigger goals.

Shemy laughed when asked what his dad would say about Harbaugh's spellbinding start as Michigan's coach.

"Jim, you're a complete ham-and-egger. Keep doing it."

Andrea Adelson contributed to this story.