Is Jim Harbaugh straight-up crazy or is he crazy like a fox? The question was posed to former Stanford outside linebacker Chase Thomas, and he doesn't pause too long before his answer.
"He’s definitely got his own way of doing things that tend to work," Thomas said. "You can’t deny his success rate. Whether he’s crazy or not, I don’t think it matters. He just seems to win and that’s what’s important."
That is what's important for Michigan, which desperately wants to win again, starting with its date as an underdog at Utah on Thursday night. With that hated school down south seeming about to take over college football under Urban Meyer, Wolverines fans view Harbaugh as a savior, a Michigan Man who once guaranteed victory against Ohio State as Bo Schembechler's record-setting quarterback and delivered just that.
Harbaugh, however, is an enigma. Many of the best coaches are, of course, but Harbaugh's mystery isn't as much about a pushback against media penetration, as it is with, say, Chip Kelly, Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. Instead, it's about the curious things he publicly says and does. Everyone, it seems, has a Harbaugh story.
He became a national figure by leading Stanford from futility -- 1-11 the season before he arrived on The Farm in 2007 -- to a 12-1 record and final No. 4 ranking in 2010 before leaving for the San Francisco 49ers. He took a soft team that couldn't run the ball or defend the run and made it into a rugged team that ran it down your throats and stuffed the run. He transformed a program into his own image.
It was an eventful run with plenty of colorful moments and quotes, from providing his players blue mechanics shirts to inspire a "blue collar" mentality, to telling his players, "We're going to win with character, but we're also going to win with cruelty."
Upon his hiring at Stanford, he announced his mantra, "We will attack this day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind," and then shortly thereafter he enthusiastically volunteered that Pete Carroll would leave USC in one year because, "I heard it inside the staff." When challenged on the facts and, yes, wisdom of his comments, Harbaugh offered that, "We bow to no man. We bow to no program here at Stanford University." A tone was set before he'd coached a game.
Of course, he would not only upset Carroll's Trojans his first year as a 41-point underdog, he opted to run up the score against him in 2009 in a 55-21 victory, electing to go for two with a commanding lead in the fourth quarter, which inspired the notorious, "What's your deal?" handshake with Carroll afterwards.
At a fundamental level, Harbaugh's deal is about winning, which is why Michigan anted up a seven-year contract that averages out to $5.7 million a season. Yet winning can describe a flash of success or a sustained epoch, and Harbaugh has only produced the first. He's never coached anywhere more than four years, and his firing in San Francisco was one of those rare instances when an NFL coach is dispatched for a reason other than losing -- such as being a pain in the butt.
"The bottom line is he is always in competition mode," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "There’s no 'off.' Some guys turn it off. There’s no 'off' for Jim."
Shaw, 42-12 in four years since replacing Harbaugh, has sustained the tough-guy culture Harbaugh cultivated, but without the theatrics. Or the hurt feelings behind the scenes.
It's also worth noting that Harbaugh did his best work at Stanford and the 49ers with Greg Roman running his offense and Vic Fangio running his defense. Both stayed in the NFL with the same coordinator titles -- Roman with the Buffalo Bills and Fangio with the Chicago Bears. Behind Harbaugh's colorful quips, there were quieter folk scheming away.
But back to "competition mode." It's impossible to consistently thrive in sports without being competitive, and celebrating superhuman levels of competitiveness for an athlete or coach is a media trope. But Harbaugh's competitive nature is more feral because it's not only about the joy of winning. It's about an unfettered glee in beating someone. Though many coaches talk about playing a "nameless, faceless opponent," Harbaugh seems to feed off the identified face of an opponent, particularly when it's unhappy -- Carroll being exhibit A and his post-handshake altercation with Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz in 2012 being exhibit B.
Harbaugh hasn't changed much since his Stanford days. He's still quirky -- he loves Judge Judy and Cracker Barrel! -- and is willing to zig when it's predictable to zag.
He seemed to take an oblique shot at Meyer on Twitter in February after losing a recruiting battle. He said the start of spring practice in Ann Arbor was "like your birthday or New Year's or Thanksgiving... It's like Christmas. It's like a family reunion. It's all of those things, all rolled in one."He defended his sport by telling HBO's "Real Sports," "I think [football]'s the last bastion of hope for toughness in America in males."
He pretty much blew off the media this preseason, most notably being the only Big Ten coach to decline an interview with the Big Ten Network. And this is how he described his upcoming game with Utah.
"You want to be at the big boy table," he said. "Big persons table it may be better to say. Because there’s another table. It’s over there in the kitchen for those that aren’t seated at the big persons' table. If someone wants to go over there, no one is going to be upset with them, if they do. But this is what we signed up for."
Michigan is probably OK with the crazy after seven years of feckless tumult, especially if crazy is likely to bring winning along for the ride. The larger curiosity, however, is whether Harbaugh can produce sustained excellence or is only a short-term solution.