Jim Harbaugh showed edge early

Super Bowl coach remembered as intense, emotional leader at Michigan

Updated: January 31, 2013, 3:27 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Jim Harbaugh walked up to the line of scrimmage during his first game of the 1985 season, put his hands underneath his center, Bob Tabachino, and started his pre-snap machinations.

Tabachino felt a tap at his side. This was his first game at center after moving over from guard and Harbaugh's first game after returning from an injury which knocked him out for half of his sophomore season. Then Harbaugh asked Tabachino something he didn't expect.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
Mike Powell/Allsport Jim Harbaugh often called his own plays at the line of scrimmage at Michigan.
Despite calling the play moments before and going through all the checks, Harbaugh had forgotten the snap count.

"He asked me what it was on," Tabachino said. "That, to me, he's just so intense and so excited and such a competitor and that was a part of Jim. That was one of the funniest things I experienced."

Not much has changed in Harbaugh from then to now, leading the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl on Sunday in new Orleans against the Baltimore Ravens. He might be coaching instead of playing, but he carries the same mannerisms, the same intensity and the same passion he did when he was the Wolverines' quarterback almost 30 years ago.

He is that same fiery, focused, passionate person. Sure, it sometimes leads to well-publicized kerfuffles -- with Pete Carroll at USC in college and then with Jim Schwartz with the Detroit Lions in the pros -- but that is just part of who Harbaugh has always been, which can be somewhat surprising as a now-former quarterback.

"Normally quarterbacks aren't as emotional or physical in their response to the play on the field," former Michigan running back Ben Logue said. "Jim had both. He was very deft at both being a student of the game and being a great practitioner while at the same time being a physical competitor at the quarterback position.

"He was not afraid to tuck the ball and run or deliver a hit or contribute a block or anything like that in college."

It showed during the 1984 season, when Harbaugh broke his arm against Michigan State and the Wolverines spiraled to a 6-6 record. It was Bo Schembechler's worst season at Michigan.

"That was the start of the demise of that season," Tabachino said.

The Michigan linemen, Tabachino said, wanted to protect Harbaugh as much as possible -- not because he was their quarterback but because of the way he played, with what he called the mentality of an offensive lineman instead of the recognizable face of a program.

He always showed himself to be a leader, both in words and actions. Still, Harbaugh never gave an inclination he wanted to follow his father and brother into coaching.

Part of that had to do with Harbaugh, who helped revolutionize how quarterbacks played at Michigan. When he left Ann Arbor, he had become the first Michigan quarterback to throw for more than 5,000 yards (5,449) in a career and the first to throw for more than 2,500 in a season (2,729 in 1986). He was also the first Michigan quarterback to average more than 200 yards a game passing (209.9 in 1986) and over 175 yards for a career (175.8).

"He didn't exhibit any real desire or really, any real traits, to be a football coach except that he did study football," former Michigan assistant Jerry Hanlon said. "I think that was one of the things, we ran one of the most sophisticated offenses because a lot of our plays were called at the line of scrimmage and the reason for that is we let the defense tell us what we should do instead of us trying to guess.

"He had to be very well-schooled to go to the line of scrimmage, read the defense and call the right play, throwing the pass, reading the coverages. I think we did that as well as anybody did for a long time."

The personality he carried then has translated to his coaching persona today. As his pro career wound down, he helped his father at Western Kentucky before embarking on his own career, first at San Diego and then Stanford and now San Francisco.

When he ended up going into coaching, he wanted to show off what he learned while coaching the Las Vegas All-American Classic, a college all-star game, in 2006. So Harbaugh had his dad call Hanlon and asked him to come out and help him coach for the week.

"It was worth it to coach with him," Hanlon said. "You could see he had a hankering to be a good football coach."

Harbaugh's path had been set. A year later he would be at Stanford, and six years later, he's coaching in the Super Bowl. But it all started back at Michigan for Harbaugh, who has said he espouses many of the philosophies he picked up from both his dad and his former college coach, Bo Schembechler.

"Jimmy hires good people to be around him and wants them to coach," Hanlon said. "That's a carryover from Bo. Bo wanted good people around him because you don't do it by yourself and you better have somebody else to help.

"He got that from Bo, to hire good people and work as a unit. If there's anything Jimmy had to learn, and he's done it, is organization and leadership."

As a player, that wasn't an issue. Now that he mastered it as a coach, it has led the former Michigan quarterback to the Super Bowl.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter