Jim Harbaugh spent eight long years in Ann Arbor as the Michigan Wolverines’ head coach before leaving to take up the mantle of leading our Chargers last month. We all saw his enthusiastic personality front and center when he was introduced to the world as the new head coach. I thought about what kind of article I wanted to write about a man that, for many, epitomizes what a head coach should be and I realized that we are lucky enough to have access to a resource that can provide a deeper look into the nature of our new leader.
In 2017, after back-to-back 10 win seasons, Amazon Prime’s camera crew started to follow Harbaugh, his staff and players around to film their documentary ‘All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines’. This kind of insight, 340 minutes worth, into Jim and the team he created in his image, is invaluable to those seeking to understand him. So I decided to rewatch the series to see if we can find out what kind of coach we have on our hands.
I distinctly remember watching this series soon after its release with very little understanding of Jim beyond his sideline persona, and I thought to myself; this man is the very spirit of football in human form. From his borderline corny catch phrases to his terrifying war cries, the man oozes energy in all the ways you want your commanding officer to, but it is his love for his players and the team they represent that makes me believe in him.
There is a scene in the first episode where Harbaugh is going to meet the incoming freshman as they are moving into their dorms for the first time. He spends time talking with a fresh faced James Hudson III, the current starting right tackle for the Cleveland Browns, after he helped his mother carry his possessions from the lobby all the way to his room. I liked this moment because it seemed to me that he didn’t do this for the cameras where others would have done. He was excited, he wanted to be there for himself as much as for them, to travel down memory lane and remind himself once again as to how it felt to be at the very beginning of a glorious journey.
There are many examples where Harbaugh rallies his troops through impassioned words but of all the times he spoke to the team there was one moment that stood out to me. He wrote a poem which he read out during a team meeting:
“I am obliged for the hard service that you have laid down for me, it is what I expected, it is ordained from on high from the football gods that you should put this suffering in my path. To be tested by you, is the making of my soul”.
Now this may be the most Catholic poem about football ever written but it peels back the curtain as to who Jim Harbaugh is. For him the ‘suffering’ is a necessary part of the journey to becoming a great football player so he is actually grateful for it. He recited this piece of poetry just weeks after taking the entire team to meet the Pope in the Vatican City, for him football is faith and whilst his belief in a higher power may alienate some of his players, all of them will be able to understand the concept of suffering for a greater good.
Jim is not just a tough character though, in fact he comes across just as goofy as he is hard nosed. When he was asked to judge a faculty members diving contest in the bye week he did so with a smile on his face, knowing that he is the Michigan brand personified. What he didn’t expect was that he was going to be corralled into doing a dive himself. Harbaugh didn’t even blink, he climbed up to the 3m platform and jumped off fully clothed to the adoring cheers of a surprised audience.
As we saw from his introductory press conference, Coach Harbaugh has many catchphrases that really seem to motivate players. He utilizes these memorable slogans to affirm the mentality he wants to see reflected in his players and staff.
Whether this kind of rhetoric can manage to have the same effect with professional players when times are tough is another matter, but for now I am going to enjoy watching this team grow to love them the same way Michigan, ‘Niner and Stanford fans still do after he has left their shores.
The Michigan Man
Harbaugh graduated from the University of Michigan in 1986 having started at quarterback for 30 games, leaving on a high after coming third in the Heisman trophy in his senior year. It was this time wearing the blue and maize that made Jim into a ‘Michigan Man’, the phrase coined to describe the type of person that the University could be proud to represent the alumni beyond their days in Ann Arbor. The phrase can roughly be distilled down to the following; Loyalty, Integrity, Work Ethic, Teamwork, Excellence, Leadership, Respect.
Jim embodies this description and to be honest I think he has molded himself around it, everything he does tries to follow the ideals of the organization where he spent his formative years. In a speech to the Michigan team in 2004, long before he came back to Ann Arbor, he talked about a meeting with Bo Schembechler during his playing days:
“Sitting in Bo’s office and I said “Coach, what kind of team are we going to have this year?” and he said “Jimmy, when you guys come back in 15, 20 years from now and we know what kind of men you are, what kinds of husbands you become, what kind of fathers you are, then we’ll know how good this football team is.””
The type of person and coach Jim is can be found in the anecdotes he chooses to portray what he expects of his players, of the Michigan Men in front of him. He very deliberately and repeatedly installs a mentality in his players by surrounding them with the type of people he believes uphold the principles on which he has built his attitude to winning.
The Harbaugh family are football royalty; Jim’s father, brother and son have all been coaches with the culmination coming as Jim and his brother Jack faced each other in Super Bowl XLVII. Jim took the opportunity to ask his brother John, the current head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, to speak to the team when they were in the hotel before their game at Maryland. John said:
“We like Michigan players, we like you guys. There’s a reason 19 guys were drafted last year; you know what they do? they run to the ball, they play hard, they know what they’re supposed to do. You can trust them, they’re accountable, they’re going to come to practice. There’s no coach in the national football league that wants some guy who’s not going to do the right thing, not going to be on time, not going to work hard, not going to be thinking about football. We want football players, we play football. I want guys who want to be out there, I want to win . . . I want a bunch of badasses on my team, that’s what I want because I’m from a Michigan family.”
With this move Harbaugh showed me that he will utilize every resource available to him to instill a tough mentality that embodies his vision of a ‘Michigan man’.
Tough as a two dollar steak
“Be nasty. Be tougher. Be meaner”
Jim Harbaugh expects his players to be tough above anything else. It was clear whilst watching his 49ers team hammer their opponents without mercy and this series portrayed a Michigan team that reinforced those same characteristics. This was no coincident, toughness is a behavior rather than an action and Jim takes every chance he has to establish those patterns within his players;
“Football is a game that I don’t know any other like it. It tests you, this game will work every muscle in your body. When you get on the field you have to tell the truth, there’s no way to bullcrap your way through it. Are you prepared, are you trained, are you talented enough, are you going to give the extra effort?”
At times his pre-game messages go beyond the tried and tested motivational jargon, his eccentric charisma takes center stage and it results in some memorable moments. I think we can look forward to some ‘Harbaughisms’ that could even rival Dan Campbell’s now infamous “Bite their kneecaps’’ speech. Let’s hope the Chargers experience the same success the Lions have since that day.
“Be like a hitman, be like an assassin out there. Be like a vampire bat, let’s go suck the blood right out of these people tomorrow from start to finish.”
Harbaugh described his brother as “tough as a two dollar steak” during his introductory press conference but it was clear throughout this documentary that this description extends his way. If any coach could turn a team with a history of falling short due to not being built for the tough moments, it is Jim Harbaugh.
An experienced winner
The Los Angeles Chargers have appointed a type of coach that they haven’t been able to find since Don Coryell; an experienced winner. Winning is a habit, an attitude that feeds into how you approach everything you do. After a win over Rutgers, Harbaugh is playing football with his son, Jack, out in the driveway and his son says “I’m Michigan and you’re Rutgers” and without hesitation Jim pops the ball out of his then five year old son’s hands and extends over his head exclaiming “touchdown Rutgers”. Even in a moment of pure joy, he can’t help but be a competitor and a winner even if it’s for the other side.
There were times in a difficult 2017 season when Jim was faced with opportunities to show how a winner handles adversity. After the blowout loss to Penn State Jim knew their season had drastically changed for the worse however he knew that this was a chance for him to impart some wisdom for the next time they have to deal with a setback:
“There ain’t nowhere to go to surrender in football. There’s no Appomattox in football. We got opportunities ahead of us, we got to take advantage of them. Don’t look for people outside of here to help you, all you got is right here. All the medicine is right here, the only place you can get fixed is right here.”
Before ‘The Game’ against Ohio State, defensive coordinator Don Brown addresses his players highlighting the efforts of his star players in practice this week, a list that boasted players that went on to play in the pros. However when it was Harbaugh’s turn to speak he took a different route to inspire his players. Instead of looking to his stars he decided to talk about John O’Korn, the second choice quarterback who lost the starting job to the sophomore Brandon Peters, only to gain it back through an injury. Harbaugh shines a light on the way in which John conducted himself throughout this tumultuous season, saying that he has handled the adversity admirably.
“Every time we have asked him to play, every time we’ve needed him to play, he’s the one standing. There’s no one I’d rather have at quarterback for us tomorrow than you John. Let’s go get this done.”
Now this may seem like a simple case of backing the horse you’re sat on but to me the way in which Jim deliberately chose the whole team meeting to deliver this message, to show the trust he had in a quarterback who has let him down in pivotal moments, speaks volumes as to the type of coach he is. Every player in that room looks up to Jim, so when he placed his faith in John in that moment, he instilled a new level of trust that his players would match. This is what a players’ coach looks like, this is a man who commands a respect that goes both ways. This is a man who can turn a franchise into winners.
Faith, Family, Football
The man Jim Harbaugh truly is, can be found all over the eight episodes of the documentary. There are characteristics that some players will shy away from; he accepts nothing less than full effort and he isn’t afraid to tell anyone what he thinks in moments of hardship. If there is fault to be found then he will identify it and correct it without hesitation, his experience has afforded him this privilege but you get the feeling he has been like this throughout his career. He showed his ruthless side when speaking to the team in preseason by quoting Bill Belichick saying “Coaches don’t cut players, players cut players”.
One thing that Jim values highly is putting his faith in his players to take care of business. After an overtime win over unranked Indiana that was, by all accounts, unnecessarily scrappy he said to his players:
“There was a lot of pressure on everybody here, we put our best people on it: our players and you guys came through. Hell of a job.”
I liked this moment because he found a way to empower his players despite them underperforming. A lot of coaches would say use the “we” in this moment, there’s nothing wrong with that when referring to team victories, but Harbaugh made sure his players know that when the tough moments arrive, his players believe they are trusted to execute.
He particularly puts pressure on his quarterback. “A quarterback’s job is: do not let this team lose”. Justin Herbert will almost certainly welcome this, even when he has performed well above expectations Justin is ready to take blame for a loss saying he has to “execute better”. This documentary certainly highlighted just how well these two men of integrity will match up.
At any team meeting held in the 2017 season Harbaugh was addressing 31 future NFL players. Although they came up short on their lofty goals, I am sure every player in that room learned valuable lessons in how Jim Harbaugh handled the difficult moments.
At the end of the day there are no surprises when it comes to Jim Harbaugh; he speaks like a winner because he has proven he is a winner everywhere he has been. He comes across with a certainty in how to get the best out of his players because he has a track record of fulfilling the promises he made to those young men’s parents when sitting in their living room’s during recruitment drives. Harbaugh strives to be a ‘Michigan Man’ in everything he does but in reality he upholds that standard more than anyone asks of him. It is his self appointed requirement to be the best, more than just to win, that should give Charger fans hope for a bountiful future.