Jim Harbaugh’s goofy side is gone, as if the Michigan football coach exiled his previous oddball personality to the Upper Peninsula.
It used to be that Captain Khaki Pants came off as a coaching eccentric who made headlines more for winning Twitter than for winning games. Harbaugh was in his 50s, throwing a football while shirtless — it remains impossible to unsee that image — and sleeping over at the home of recruits.
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When he arrived in Ann Arbor in 2015, Harbaugh was a more glowering version of Mike Leach, the Washington State coach whose off-kilter ways have won him admirers. The difference is that Harbaugh often seemed unhappy with his situation, probably because the Wolverines weren’t very good.
As Michigan has ascended, Harbaugh’s mood has improved. He can still be brusque, but he no longer needs attention-seeking antics to create positive optics for his program. He has become, dare we say, conventional.
At 10-1 and sitting fourth in the College Football Playoff rankings, Michigan is nationally relevant again, but ultimate respect hinges on finally mastering Ohio State. Beat the Buckeyes on Saturday in Columbus, and the Wolverines win the Big Ten East and end a six-game losing streak to OSU.
From there, the Wolverines would be off to Indianapolis to face Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game, seeking their first conference title since sharing one with Iowa in 2004. Michigan is a 4½-point favorite, the first time it has been favored at Ohio Stadium since 2004.
And if Michigan loses and Harbaugh falls to 0-4 against Urban Meyer? No worries — at least not with job security, said John U. Bacon, who has written several books on Michigan football.
“The notion that Jim was ever on the hot seat is unfounded,” Bacon said. “At Michigan, it’s simple: The polls, press and to some extent the fans (don’t make the call). The athletic director decides, and the vote is 1-0 in Jim’s favor.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Harbaugh won’t tire of the criticism and move on.
“Your kids go to school and (hear negative comments), and if you’re not getting the recruits you want, that strikes me as not much fun,” Bacon said. “If it gets old for long enough, the NFL will always throw out the red carpet for Jim.”
Seasons like this one keep it from getting old. Bacon believes that Harbaugh is as comfortable as he has ever been, and not just because of the record, the only loss coming to unbeaten Notre Dame.
“It’s the best staff he’s ever had. The offense and defense get along amazingly well, and he has unusually likable players,” Bacon said. “Jim’s approach has been, ‘Don’t screw this up.’”
It’s a smart approach, considering that Harbaugh has screwed things up before, especially against the Buckeyes. His defenders don’t agree, but the belief outside the program is that Harbaugh tightens under the pressure of Ohio State-Michigan, and the tension manifests in questionable game management.
A similar knock hounded John Cooper at Ohio State; his 2-10-1 record against Michigan stains an otherwise-impressive run.
Meyer on Monday addressed how pressure affects the rivalry, and whether players read their coaches for emotional signals.
“For someone to say there’s no pressure, that’s not true. (But) does it trickle down?” Meyer said. “Dwayne Haskins is going to feel pressure, but he’s got to have confidence with Ryan Day and myself that we’re going to put him in the right positions.”
Meyer is a stout 6-0 against the Wolverines. Despite OSU’s struggles, particularly on defense, 7-0 is not out of the question.
“I don’t care what anyone says, the game is a tossup,” Bacon said. “There’s always the voodoo of the Horseshoe.”
Harbaugh hopes it finally leads to Michigan magic.