For more than a year now, I've seen a lot of opinions about Michigan Football head coach Jim Harbaugh, many of them having little to do with his football acumen or success as a head coach. It's not that people haven't mentioned his coaching record and abilities at all, it's just that the offseason exploits always seem to overshadow his coaching pedigree.
First it was the "Gatorade in his cereal" story, a headline that ran rampant across media outlets last year because of one quote from Jim's son Jay Harbaugh, the team's tight end coach, during an interview for mgoblue.com with Ed Kengerski.
Then there was the ladies he assisted after a car wreck on I-94. Then it was all of the publicity and other stories we heard about how he was shaping the image of the program and his recruiting tactics, which included playing Peru ball shirtless with a group of satellite campers in Alabama, climbing trees and sleeping at a recruit's house, just to name a few things.
Then came Twitter. When Harbaugh officially joined it under the @CoachJim4UM account he had thousands of followers within minutes, myself included. To think that his Twitter account would become a source of controversial news content was not something I or many others could have anticipated, and yet that's exactly where we are today having witnessed Harbaugh use Twitter in the last year to rankle the feathers of Ohio State both indirectly and directly, take shots at several SEC coaches including the King of Tuscaloosa himself Nick Saban, and most recently to take a shot at sports radio host Jim Rome after Rome publicly blasted him on his radio show for abruptly leaving a press conference after refusing to answer any more questions about a pair of currently suspended players.
The actions of Jim Harbaugh on Twitter and in the offseason have been center stage for sports news every summer now since he was hired at Michigan, and some, not all but some people are questioning what it really means if anything. After all, winning the offseason with top recruiting classes, dominating headlines for almost any reason and blasting your critics on Twitter doesn't translate to wins on the field, which is what Harbaugh and Michigan will ultimately be judged on. In fact, there are those who think this "snarky" act by Harbaugh will soon wear thin and brings unneeded and unnecessary attention to Harbaugh while he and his assistants ready their squad for the 2016 season.
The thing is, that "snarky" act is exactly part of the team's preparation......at least that's what it looks like to me.
I've heard from several people in the past year that Harbaugh's "act" is phony and only intended to draw more attention to himself because he wants the spotlight on him as much as possible, which is why he does the satellite camps, wears the different jerseys, does the rap videos and fires quips on Twitter without having won a single thing at Michigan yet. Heather Dinich of ESPN a few months ago told a Detroit sports radio station that Jim Harbaugh needs to start winning football games instead of Twitter battles. That's true, Heather......and no one knows that more than Jim Harbaugh.
In the recent case of the two suspended players, Ahmir Mitchell and Shelton Johnson, Harbaugh and the Michigan staff are adamant that it's an internal matter that they will deal with. Naturally the local sports media, looking to do their jobs and dig as deep as they can to get the story, pressed on further about it and prompted Harbaugh's abrupt exit, which Jim Rome and many others labeled as wrong, uncalled for and thin-skinned.
So the story on the day of the "storming out" was the storming out, and the story on Day 2 was Jim Rome's blast and general criticism of Harbaugh's decision at the press conference in this overly-whiny rant:
Then Harbaugh tweets this about Rome that evening:
The video linked in the tweet is a classic for sports fans: a 90's era ESPN2 interview between Rome and Jim Everett that ends with a table being flipped in Rome's direction because he wouldn't stop calling Jim Everett "Chris," even after being warned not to do it anymore.
So this becomes the story on Day 3, complete with Rome's weak sauce retort:
That of course is in reference to the score of last year's Michigan-Ohio State game, which is weak sauce because Rome is a Cal-Santa Barbara alum, not a Buckeye alum, so he's got no reason to cite that score other than being a complete troll. I digress......or maybe I don't, because with everyone talking about this in relation to Michigan and Jim Harbaugh in the middle of Fall camp, do you know what we are NOT talking about at all anymore?
The two suspended players, Mitchell and Johnson.
Which is exactly what Harbaugh wanted in the first place, for there to be no attention on them.
Harbaugh has been quoted before as saying he doesn't want injury reports and early buzz on players to get out and put pressure on the young kids while they are competing. This is part of his "submarine" strategy to keep everything internal. That's not simply to keep the opposition from learning anything about the team, it's about protecting his athletes from outside pressures and attention. He wants them focused on the task at hand without the big distractions playing a part in it.
This is why he manipulates the media into putting the spotlight on him, while his players take care of business, suspended or not, and it works. Whereas everyone would have been trying to track down the two suspended players and get as much as they can on them, Harbaugh's "storming off" and subsequent response to Rome has now created a three-day story that almost completely ignores those players and focuses squarely on the coach, who at age 52 can handle the media, obviously.
This is like a better, more calculated version of Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy's "I'm a man, I'm 40" rant, only instead of taking an entire post-game press conference to blast the media for what he considered a less than truthful report about one of his players, Harbaugh just forced the media to talk about him for two days instead of his players by being himself at that press conference.
Make no mistake, as much as Harbaugh is thoroughly enjoying his job, this is part of what he does every time a situation like this comes up. Maybe he is like Saban and plenty of other big time coaches and doesn't have the thick skin people think he should, but he's also got a calculated reason for why he does what he does and this is part of it, to deflect attention from his time. Now, in preparation for the 2016 season the players can focus while their head coach deals with the media circus. It won't always happen that way, but it will if Harbaugh can help it.
This tells me more than anything that his focus is exactly where it should be, on his team and his football program. Those who consider his act fake and attention-grabbing are gravely mistaken. He is a different personality that is not above having fun and engaging in publicity, but at the end of the day his actions, however grandiose and distracting they may be to the general public will always come back to "The Team, The Team, The Team."