Jim Harbaugh courts the chaos … and then thrives in it

The other day, in the run-up to Monday’s Rose Bowl, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was asked a question that wasn’t about playing Alabama. He dodged it.

“A one-track mind about this game,” Harbaugh said.

The question was about whether Harbaugh might be interested in coaching the Los Angeles Chargers next year. It’s the kind of “distraction” that generally causes college coaches to panic and address the situation in some form. (They often lie and claim they have no interest.)

It could have, however, also been about coaching Las Vegas or Chicago or who knows who else in the NFL, where Harbaugh played quarterback for 14 seasons and coached San Francisco to a Super Bowl appearance.

Or it could have been about the contract extension with Michigan that, sources say, is mostly hammered out at more than $10 million per season. Yet it remains unsigned by Harbaugh, despite the school showing intense loyalty to him over the last calendar year.

Or it could have been about the advanced scouting scandal that was the biggest and most crazed story in the sport this season. It caused Harbaugh to be suspended by the Big Ten for three games, briefly pursue litigation against the conference and introduced the world to various characters such as Connor Stalions and “Uncle T.”

Or it could have been about a separate NCAA case that alleges Harbaugh was not forthcoming with investigators when questioned about four Level II violations (meeting with recruits during a COVID dead period, etc.) that morphed into a Level I against the coach. Michigan suspended him three games for that as well.

Or it could have been about how each scandal could still produce additional suspensions in the 2024 season.

Or it could have …

One of the more famous, or at least preposterously comical stories concerning Jim Harbaugh was when he used to tell his players not to eat chicken because he was convinced it was a “nervous bird” and if consumed it might produce nervous players.

He, of course, prefers steak and whole milk. Cows and cattle don’t scare, apparently.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh smiles during a welcome event for the team at Disneyland on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023, in Anaheim, Calif. Michigan is scheduled to play against Alabama on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl, a semifinal in the College Football Playoff. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh smiles during a welcome event for the team at Disneyland ahead of Michigan’s semifinal matchup against Alabama. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

The Michigan coach has since taken to raising chicks in his spare time and having closely observed the birds, he sees it differently: “I was dead wrong,” he declared this fall. “I stand corrected.”

Really though, it was never about chickens. It was about Harbaugh’s obsession with being nervous, or at least confronting and winning the eternal battle of facing nervousness. Harbaugh is like no one else in football and never has been. Part of it is he seeks out, or maybe even creates, the drama, the way a thrill seeker looks for taller and taller mountains to base-jump off. Comfort isn’t his thing.

Amid the chaos there is contentment, which is how Harbaugh could breeze through a season of such outrageous tumult. Cheating accusations. Character attacks. Suspensions. Lawyers. Job prospects. Whatever.

At home in the briar patch, his team — and Michigan Football — is somehow better than ever.

Consider that this week, Alabama players revealed that they were prohibited from watching film on iPads — as they normally do — out of caution that Michigan might cyber hack into their system. Stalions may have been brazen, but his was a low-tech operation and involved no alleged crimes. It was sending a buddy to film a sideline with his cellphone.

Hacking into iPads would be against the law and a next-level scandal. The mere accusation would be a bombshell against anyone else. Michigan, however, has become so accustomed to such wildness, the entire program, let alone Harbaugh, just shrugged.

It’s worth believing Harbaugh’s answer to everything — one-track mind. The circus around him is just part of the experience.

When the Big Ten suspended him back in November, Harbaugh desperately wanted to fight it in court and even testify (which wouldn’t have happened). It was eventually scrapped but during the run-up, sources said, Harbaugh became dismayed when some lawyers tried to talk him out of it, believing they lacked his competitive fire.

It was one more chance to take on the nerves.

As a Michigan player he once guaranteed victory over Ohio State, earning the wrath of Buckeye players and fans, but also his own uber-intense coach, Bo Schembechler. (Michigan won). In the NFL, some of his best seasons as a Chicago Bear came while heatedly feuding with no less than Mike Ditka.

When he coached at Stanford, he almost immediately earned the wrath of USC coach Pete Carroll. His run in San Francisco was so rocky that 49ers ownership tired of him after just four seasons even though he led the team to three NFC championship games and one Super Bowl.

At Michigan, well, count the enemies. It’ll take awhile.

He courts trouble in ways few others would. Many coaches try to remain apolitical — Nick Saban once claimed not to know it was Election Day. Harbaugh dives in. Last year he led rallies and fundraising against a Michigan ballot initiative that would create a state constitutional amendment assuring abortion rights.

He is no classic right-winger though — he attended a State of the Union address as a guest of Barack Obama, is a strident supporter of Colin Kaepernick and marched in a Black Lives Matter rally. In more of a non-partisan bent, he has (seriously) advocated for Judge Judy to be on the Supreme Court.

If people are mad at him, if people are confused by him, if people are puzzled by him, all the better it appears.

So here in a monster of a game that will play a role in defining his legacy as a coach and that of his program, in what may or may not be his collegiate finale, in what is playing out amid a crescendo of chaos, some around the program say he’s happier and more focused than ever.

Just one more test for a one-track mind.

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