Sports

What Is Jim Harbaugh’s Deal?

He may be the only person in the country who admires Samuel Alito, Colin Kaepernick, Clint Eastwood, and Malcolm X—the embodiment of the most American sport there is.

Harbaugh running onto the field with the Michigan players in uniform running behind him
Harbaugh before Michigan’s game against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 9, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

It’s a day ending in -y, so University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh has likely said or done something that you do not typically see a college football coach—or, in many cases, any other kind of human—saying or doing. At the time I began writing this article, that thing was going face-first down a water slide on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, but, to excerpt the enumeration here by the Athletic’s Austin Meek, Harbaugh’s recent activities have also included:

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• Delivering the keynote address at a right-to-life fundraiser in the Detroit suburbs and declaring his belief that abortion should be illegal even if it “might involve incredible hardship for the mother, family, and society.” (His employer’s stated response to the recent Supreme Court decision striking down Roe is that it believes strongly in the right to an abortion and “will continue to offer abortion care” in its own medical facilities.)

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• Following those comments up by telling ESPN that if a Michigan player or staff member impregnates someone or becomes pregnant and does not want to or cannot care for the resulting child, he and his wife will take it and raise it in their family. In his exact words, “Sarah and I will take that baby.”

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• Telling the assembled press at the Big Ten’s preseason media day that he believes the league’s television revenue is premised on the use of college players’ so-called “name, image, and likeness” rights—and that, as such, the players should receive some of the money, a comment that casually made him, as far as I can tell, the first major college coach or administrator to support direct revenue sharing in NCAA athletics.

• Hosting former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been effectively blackballed from the league since 2016 for protesting police brutality by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, for a throwing exhibition at Michigan’s spring scrimmage.

If that strikes you as an unusual combination of sociopolitical positions, well, we’re just getting started. During his tenure at Michigan, Harbaugh has invited Barack Obama to be an honorary captain, announced that he would show his team Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper after a screening elsewhere on campus was canceled, cited both Malcolm X and ex–Ohio State coach Woody Hayes (a public supporter of the war in Vietnam) as inspirations for a pair of black-rimmed glasses, participated in a Black Lives Matter march, and made multiple D.C. appearances on behalf of a federally funded legal-aid nonprofit called the Legal Services Corporation. (The university reversed its decision to cancel the Sniper screening, and, per the Michigan Daily, Harbaugh met privately with Muslim students to discuss the issue.)

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In the meantime he’s been all over the place as an on-field coach. The team had a losing record in the COVID-shortened 2020 season and went 0–5 in his first five games against Ohio State, but won last season’s Big Ten championship on the strength of a snowy, cathartic, decisive, dominant, and obliterative 42–27 win over the Buckeyes. (I am a Michigan football fan.)

During the team’s recent trip around its state—the one that included a visit to Mackinac Island—Harbaugh took his players to a jail in Flint to meet with inmates and to the historic Black vacation community of Idlewild to do restoration work. Earlier in the offseason, he hired the first female “graduate assistant”—basically a junior coach—in major-conference football history. (He is careful about using gender-inclusive language when he praises the team’s staff.) He also appeared on a fratty podcast called Bussin’ With the Boys, which is hosted by a former Michigan football player who was identified on a police report as having threatened to retaliate against a woman who accused another player of rape during his time on the team. The podcast is distributed by Barstool Sports, which is run by a Michigan graduate named Dave Portnoy who has recently been accused of sexual misconduct himself. (The player-host has denied making such a threat, which was reported to authorities by a third party and was not said to have been made directly to the alleged victim. He was not charged with a crime. Portnoy says he has never committed sexual assault. Michigan’s athletic department responded to a request for comment on the appearance as follows: “Thank you for reaching out. Your message has been received.”)

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How does a person end up like this?

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I’ve been engaged in Harbaugh Studies for some time; my upcoming book, The Hot Seat, is an account of the 2021 college football season that follows the coach and his team. (Out Aug. 30 and currently available for pre-order anywhere books are sold!) Its motivating purpose was to answer a question that’s larger than Harbaugh himself: Why does the sport of college football drive otherwise well-adjusted, successful, popular, and physically attractive people like me insane? It turns out the answer helps explain Harbaugh and his limitless capacity to polarize and astound.

The root of it all is that college football is the U.S. sport most closely tied to local identity and local institutions. That’s why it is popular—people care about where they are from and who they are—and also why it is perennially troubled, disorganized, and feuding bitterly with itself.

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The U.S. has an unusually decentralized system of higher education, in which standalone institutions compete against one another for prestige and resources. Many of America’s universities, moreover, were founded during the 19th century, a period of economic and political competition between states and territories themselves. It was hoped that the schools would be intellectually and culturally distinguished, but also that they would be engines of industrial and agricultural advantage, as well as training academies that could turn the children of regular working people into great men of history.

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When American football arrived in the later part of that century, it was in some ways an ideal fit for this environment. It required collective coordination and ingenuity, but also individual courage and aggression. It was, relatedly, exciting and spectacular. This made it a good way to get members of the local population, not just the highly educated ones, to support a university and think of themselves as members of its community. Regional success (or in the case of schools like Notre Dame, affinity group success) and university football team success were mutually related.

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However, when one thing is supposed to appeal to and represent everyone, certain conflicts can arise, as executives at Disney are presently being made aware. NCAA football is a violent, militaristic game played in cities that are generally known as regional outposts of liberalism and high culture. (Michigan in particular must balance the interests of its hippie-Boomer Ann Arbor community with those of alumni and donors like Stephen Ross, a real estate tycoon with an estimated $7.6 billion net worth who threw a high-profile 2019 fundraiser for Donald Trump.) It requires collaboration between older, right-leaning white men and younger, left-leaning Black men. Also, because it started at schools, its players are also supposed to be students.

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These are some of the sport’s most long-standing sources of volatility, but there are some up-and-coming newer ones as well. College football is covered by an increasingly nationalized media for which the stoking of viral controversy is one of the only viable business tactics, and its fans—who, to repeat, have plausible reasons to see its games as referendums on their educational and/or geographical worth—have access to technology that allows them to be stoked obsessively day and night. Many of the institutions that conceive of themselves as the game’s most important are located in a part of the country (the Midwest) that has been in relative decline for more than 40 years. Supreme Court decisions regarding television rights and amateurism have destroyed the NCAA’s authority over Division I football, making it the only major U.S. sport of which no one person, or even one group of people, is in charge.

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A college football coach’s seemingly impossible job is to satisfy all of these parties and their interests—and to make them proud through both on-field performance and manifested character.

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So, back to Jim Harbaugh, who has been familiar with these circumstances and demands all his life. It’s often said that if thing X didn’t exist, environment Y would have had to create it, but in this case, college football really did create him: He was raised in university towns (Ann Arbor and Palo Alto) by a Catholic father who was a college football coach himself. Harbaugh was raised to believe that scholarship and high-level athletic competition should go together. It is natural and obvious to him that a football team, and even more acutely its head coach, should be one of the most important symbols of everyone—everyone!—in the university and geographic community.

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Other coaches might steer around the treacherous ideological terrain that this role confronts them with by going through the motions—making the usual appearances and saying the usual things even if they might privately doubt the necessity of everything they are doing. But Harbaugh is not a going-through-the-motions kind of guy. Few people have ever been as compelled as he is to exude palpable belief in the urgency of everything they do. (Said Michigan football fan and writer Taylor Fulton in a column on the site Meet at Midfield that was otherwise very critical of the coach’s statements about abortion: “I do not doubt for a moment that Harbaugh and his wife would raise an unwanted baby if one got left at his door.”)

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No one, perhaps, can explain exactly why he is this way, but everyone agrees that he … is. “I’ve met John [his brother], and I met Jack Sr. [his dad], and they’re pretty normal,” one person I talked to while researching my book told me. “Jack Harbaugh is a normal grandpa. Is he a football coach grandpa? Yes. But he’s a pretty normal guy. John’s the same way. Jim is just wired so differently, in even his own family.”

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Harbaugh thus responds to the tensions between college football’s various norms and incentives by ignoring them. He behaves as if, with enough enthusiasm, one can simply do and be everything at once—a world-class football player, a top teenage student, a million-dollar advertising commodity, and a humble servant of the community. What has been emphasized in recent weeks is just how far this all-of-the-above attitude extends in the political sphere, in which he treats the Catholic position on both social justice and abortion with equal seriousness. (This sort of Catholic used to be much more common in American politics—Joe Biden was one—but has declined at the hands of louder religious political movements.) He celebrates every interest group—white-collar and blue-collar, radical and traditionalist, bro and feminist. (Political convictions, I think he believes, should meet on a level playing field in mutually ennobling competition, as football teams do.)

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This has (mostly) worked for him at Michigan. In alternating interludes, he’s given everyone in the program’s enormous extended community, including those with no ideological commitments besides winning 10 games a year, something to root for. (His actual coaching and team management is a lot like his public persona, in that his energy and originality are usually sufficient to make up for his tendency toward the mystifying and the alienating.)

Or, as this guy on Twitter put it:

Max S. is right! Jim Harbaugh is weird, and college football is weird, because people are weird. It is appropriate that he should be the main character of Michigan’s most recent win over Ohio State, the kind of moment of Sports Emotion that is often described as transcendent. A transcendent moment, after all, must transcend something, whether it be the banal routine of everyday life, or the differences between us.

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