To say there was a buzz in the air in Ann Arbor on December 30, 2014 is the understatement of the century. That was the day that Jim Harbaugh finally returned to be named head coach of his alma mater.
Even though things were glum and the Wolverines were coming off of a depressing 5-7 season and had just fired their second coach in four years, fans had packed the Crisler Arena parking lot and bought tickets for that afternoon’s basketball game against Illinois. But all of these fans that flocked to Ann Arbor were not there to see a basketball game.
They were there in hopes of getting a chance to see their savior, Harbaugh, get announced as the new J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Michigan head football coach.
The pitch for change all started after a disheartening 30-14 loss to Minnesota at Michigan Stadium on September 27. The loss will be remembered as the Shane Morris concussion game, but I will always remember it as the day when it became apparent that Brady Hoke was not going to coach Michigan in 2015 and it was proven by gandering at the Michigan message boards all over the internet. Just about every website was calling for Hoke’s firing and some even were already dreaming of Harbaugh.
From there, the Hoke-led Wolverines lost four of their final seven games including two disappointing losses to their rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State. On December 2, the Hoke era officially came to an end and the hunt for Harbaugh to come home to Ann Arbor began.
Weeks of rumors later, Harbaugh tripped his way into the press room at the Junge Center before he sat down in the front row with his wife Sarah, his parents Jack and Jackie, and children.
Fans crowded outside of the Junge Center hoping to catch just a split second glimpse of Harbaugh. At 12:02 p.m., Harbaugh walked in and officially, publically was becoming the new Michigan coach. The rumors were over and he was standing right before our faces in a suit and Michigan tie. He was fulfilling his childhood dream that he first dreamt up in Bo Schembechler’s office while his dad was a Michigan assistant coach.
Harbaugh was asked many outlandish questions from if he was comfortable being the messiah of Michigan football to if he has any guarantees for his new, old rivals.
But the question that sticks with me to this day was actually asked by Harbaugh to me.
“Were you the young reporter at the airport last night?”
“No, that was not me,” I responded.
That question single-handedly changed my life. For a moment, I forgot I was in the midst of what was an international sports event being broadcasted on every network. For once and for all, no, I was not the reporter at the airport on December 29.
The press conference continued and following its conclusion I went to the back of the press room to write my article for The D Zone about it.
When the article was completed, I casually checked my cell phone. I was stunned to see hundreds of Twitter comments tweeted at me, 50+ text messages from people I hadn’t talked to in years (even some from numbers I did not recognize), dozens of Facebook posts, and three Snapchat videos of the interaction live on ESPN. I was dumbfounded. This was the moment when I realized that Harbaugh was going to be a celebrity at Michigan. To this day, when I least expect it, someone will bring up that airport question and we have a good laugh about it.
Now two years later, Harbaugh has completely turned around the Michigan football program. What was perceived as a washed up program has turned into a top-5 program on the verge of a national championship.
One player that noticed the change was Cesar Ruiz, a center originally from Camden, New Jersey that transferred to IMG Academy in Florida.
“It is amazing what he (Harbaugh) has done. He completely changed the program.” Ruiz said.
The culture change was one thing, but Harbaugh has focused on recruiting different areas that Hoke did not. One state he has focused on is Alabama.
“He changed the whole culture. I really wasn’t paying much attention to Michigan before coach Harbaugh was hired, but I could tell after doing some research that the whole culture changed for the betterment of the team,” safety J’Marick Woods, of Florence, Alabama, said.
It is no mistake that Ruiz and Woods are both officially signed with Michigan as early enrollees for the 2017 class.
I did not realize that Harbaugh coming back to Michigan was going to be the huge buzz it is two years later.
Harbaugh the Blue Collar Worker
In his two years at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh has done everything off the field imaginable. He has done everything on the field except make the College Football Playoff, win the daunted Big Ten East Division, and beat Ohio State.
My first taste of Harbaugh’s extreme work ethic came on January 15, 2015 which was the first day of the final contact period of the 2015 recruiting class. Harbaugh went to Detroit Catholic Central, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, and Farmington Hills Harrison High Schools all in one day. He handed out his first scholarship offer to Harrison defensive lineman Khalid Kareem (who went on to play for Notre Dame).
Shortly after spring practice began February 24, word got out that Harbaugh was taking advantage of the maximum hours the NCAA allowed for practice. Harbaugh’s new Wolverines were practicing four hours at a time.
When Harbaugh announced his “Summer Swarm Tour” idea in the spring of 2015, the college football world started out silent. By the spring of 2016, the NCAA banned satellite camps which were defined as camps with coaches from multiple universities away from their home campuses. The buzz bothered southern coaches such as Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher and they all spoke out, but only temporarily got what they wanted. The ban on satellite camps was lifted before Harbaugh’s new and improved 2016 version kicked off.
Transfers were not a thing during the Hoke, Rich Rodriguez, or Lloyd Carr era. Before June, Harbaugh had formally announced Jake Rudock (Iowa), Wayne Lyons (Stanford), and Blake O’Neill (Weber State) were all coming to Ann Arbor for their senior seasons.
On June 12, Harbaugh wrapped up his Summer Swarm Tour with a stop at Macomb Dakota High School in Michigan for the annual Sound Mind Sound Body camp. He trotted around the field as if he was a player. On stage in the auditorium, Harbaugh demanded all cameras and recording devices be turned off as he addressed the campers. But his speech was not ordinary. He showed how to and how not to sit in class and demonstrated how his daughter, Addie, wakes up every morning by making a bed on the floor of the stage and suddenly exploding off the floor as if he suddenly had caffeine injected in his veins.
Just over a year from its Adidas contract ending, Michigan announced in early July that they would be returning to Nike. Harbaugh was traced to the Nike choice and eventually the Jordan brand for football which was announced a month later.
In July, defensive lineman/tight end Keith Heitzman gave Harbaugh more headlines by sharing that Harbaugh made him and other fifth year seniors to-be “try out” for a spot on the team. Initially, it was thought of as taboo until it was reminded that scholarships are only for four years and that the fifth is completely arbitrary. Heitzman transferred to Ohio University, quarterback Russell Bellomy to the University of Texas-San Antonio, and cornerback Blake Countess to Auburn.
At Michigan Media Day on August 6, Harbaugh slyly slid into an answer to an unrelated question that him and his team were going into a “submarine and bunker” and that they would not be seen or heard from for fall camp until he felt it was time to surface. He went 21 days without being seen.
When Michigan landed in Orlando for preparation for their Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Florida, the players thought it would be like any other bowl game they had experienced. Wrong. Harbaugh renamed it “Christmas Camp” and did not allow much free time at all. The strict rules paid off as his Wolverines capped his first season with a dominating 41-7 win over the Gators.
On January 12, multiple recruiting websites reported that Harbaugh was intending on sleeping over at 2016 Rockford kicker, Quinn Nordin’s, house the night of the end of the recruiting dead period. This was no hoax and Harbaugh followed through with the rumors by indeed sleeping over with Nordin and Connor Murphy a few weeks later, who signed with USC.
Late in January rumors began swirling about a one-of-a-kind National Signing Day party. Sure enough, on February 3 at the Hill Auditorium, Harbaugh and Michigan hosted the “Signing of the Stars.” Signees were announced to the select crowd by celebrities and Harbaugh loved every minute of it. At the conclusion of the event in his normal signing day interview, Harbaugh casually introduced his next big idea that would cause triple the controversy “Signing of the Stars” did: spring break practice at IMG Academy in Florida.
Once again, the southern coaches outcried. Despite a desperate effort to veto Michigan’s spring break trip by just about every southern coach, it went on as planned. The Wolverines spent the first week of spring practice at IMG in Bradenton, Florida and practiced as usual.
At the end of his second annual Summer Swarm Tour, Harbaugh hosted a quarterback-only camp for the second year as well called the “Ann Arbor Aerial Assault.” But it included much more than football. Players were tested by throwing a baseball, catching a baseball, dodgeball, volleyball, and maneuvering through a bounce house. Harbaugh let his assistant coaches run the camp as he met with recruits in his office. Harbaugh finally appeared at the end of the camp wearing a Lee County High School t-shirt. Aubrey Solomon and Otis Reese, both of Lee County, had just verbally committed minutes prior. Harbaugh immediately jumped into a game of dodgeball.
At midnight on August 1, 2016, Michigan finally became a Nike and Jordan brand school. There was a monster pep rally that shut down State Street. Harbaugh jumped on stage to sing The Victors to the crowd. Later in the day, at a private ceremony in Detroit, Harbaugh and Michigan unveiled their new uniforms and football gear.
Harbaugh the Different Bird
Less than a month after being hired, Harbaugh spoke at a Michigan high school football coaches clinic in Lansing in January of 2015. His first of many stories and hilarious personality quirks came out. He told the coaches, who paid top dollar to gain coaching insight, the story of the first time he made a tackle in youth football. Harbaugh claimed he was intimidated by “Ralph”, a kid 50 pounds heavier than he, and wanted to quit football, but out of fear of Jack did not. After making the tackle, he thought he was dead, but quickly realized all of his limbs were still attached. The story has since been told at least twice more (Prattville, Alabama satellite camp and Sound Mind Sound Body, both in 2015).
Harbaugh soon became the first head Michigan football coach to own a Twitter account. On February 7, he took to it for his first of many cryptic, suggestive tweets. It was the day after Ohio State running backs coach, Stan Drayton, left for a position with the Chicago Bears. Harbaugh wanted to send a message to Ohio State about their recruitment of Mike Weber, a one time Michigan commit from Detroit Cass Tech. “Thought of the day- What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!- Sir Walter Scott.”
At Harbaugh’s press conference after the first spring practice, he spoke the words in his head about what that day meant to him.
“We in football treat the first day of spring practice as the new year. It’s like your birthday, New Year’s, Thanksgiving… You’re thankful that you participated in football. It’s like Christmas, you have this gift. It’s a family reunion. All those things rolled into one. It’s a happening, it’s like the first day of school. You lay out your clothes the night before and pack your lunch box tight and head off to school.”
On March 3, Harbaugh declared his love for Judge Judy by tweeting at her congratulations for her new contract extension:
Big Congrats to Judge Judy on signing her contract extension thru 2020 from a Devout Fan!
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) March 3, 2015
The same day as the Judge Judy tweet, Harbaugh and associate athletic director, Jim Minick, made national news by pulling a women from a car accident to save her life on the side of I-94.
At Michigan football’s coaching clinic in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh’s brother and Baltimore Ravens coach, John, spoke to the coaches and told a unique story of a Harbaugh family vacation. Jim paid for the whole family to go to Amelia Island in Florida. What started out as a friendly wrestling match (in the water) turned into Jim holding John under water for a while before he finally let up. John thought it was the day that Jim finally “snapped.” It was not, but maybe that day is still coming.
After the University of Michigan banned the viewing of the new movie “American Sniper”, Jim tweeted out his support for the movie on April 8. In the tweet, Harbaugh said that if him and his team watching the movie offends anybody “then so be it!”
Late in April, HBO aired a special on Harbaugh with Andrea Kremer. The two walked around Ann Arbor as Harbaugh told her all the stories of his youth. This was where it was first known that Harbaugh was a big fan of milk as he once was a milk distributor in elementary school. Also, he played mock baseball games against a wall at a local store in Ann Arbor.
On one of the first stops in the first year of the Summer Swarm Tour, Harbaugh took his shirt off in Prattville to play his made up game, Peru Ball, with campers.
On June 12, Harbaugh finally returned home to Michigan at Sound Mind Sound Body. Here, he could be seen high fiving his coaches while receiving a phone call from Antwaine Richardson, a cornerback from Florida, who had just verbally committed to Michigan. Richardson eventually decommitted and signed with Maryland.
Harbaugh’s eccentric side came out again when I spoke to him one-on-one for the first time. There was a small crowd of local media members and I introduced myself and we chatted about the introductory press conference misidentification and he laughed and apologized. I told him it was my 21st birthday. He did not believe me and forced me to show my I.D. I did and asked if he had any wise words. He responded quickly, “drink a gallon of whole milk tonight. None of that candy ass 2-percent stuff. And absolutely no alcohol.” All the media members and some campers in the area broke out in laughter.
On June 30, Harbaugh threw out the first pitch at a Detroit Tigers game. He chose to wear a Mark Fidrych jersey with a maize and blue Tigers hat. The next day, Harbaugh famously hung up on ESPN’s Colin Cowherd during a national interview.
In Harbaugh’s first game against Utah on September 3, he acted stoic and calm. After Rudock’s third interception, Harbaugh patted him on the back and did not show any anger. The next week against Oregon State, Harbaugh had his first Michigan sideline temper tantrum by throwing his play sheet after a bad call. Later in the year against Rutgers, Harbaugh became irate when the officials ruled a screen pass to Jake Butt was against the rules and “attempted to deceive” the Rutgers defense.
In the final weeks of the 2016 recruiting cycle in January, Harbaugh slept over at Nordin’s house, climbed a tree at David Long’s house, and slept over at Murphy’s house. The next month, Harbaugh wrestled 2017 commit Phillip Paea on a visit in Ann Arbor.
In May, Harbaugh and Rick Leach participated in a softball home run derby in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh was seen practicing at the softball season the week before.
At Sound Mind Sound Body in June, Harbaugh shared sunscreen with campers and talked to as many people as he could. Pictures with high school campers were prohibited due to a new NCAA rule that came from Harbaugh taking pictures with every camper at previous camps.
In the dead of July when football was still over a month away, Harbaugh released a one-of-a-kind rap video with Bailey and made headlines again. The image of a head football coach doing his own rap video is apparently not common.
“My default is usually yes… I think the cool people liked it,” Harbaugh said about the rap video at Big Ten Media Day.
On August 5, Harbaugh unveiled his new book, “Enthusiasm Unknown To Mankind.” It is a 300 page book of pictures by David Turley that chronicled Harbaugh’s first full year back in Ann Arbor.
At Michigan’s first game of the 2016 season against Hawaii, Harbaugh had Michael Jordan as the team’s honorary captain. He even spoke to the team the night before.
Following the loss to Ohio State in the final game of the regular season, Harbaugh ranted that he was “bitterly disappointed” in the officials in a postgame press conference rant. That disappointment led to a question at the pre-Orange Bowl press conference.
“That was a tough loss, but as Sir Andrew said, ‘fight on, me men.’ Sir Andrew said ‘I’m a little bit hurt, but not slain. I’ll lay down and bleed a while and then I’ll rise to fight again.’”
Harbaugh is not the ordinary, mundane coach. He loves his job and takes it extremely seriously. He goes from serious to laid back to peculiar on the flip of a switch. You never know what he’ll do next.
Michigan has a 20-5 record since Harbaugh took over. He has brought back the relevance to Michigan football and arguably has the program “back.”
What’s your favorite Harbaugh memory so far? Let us know in the comment section below!
Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images