When Jim Harbaugh spurned lucrative NFL offers to return to college and coach the Michigan football team this offseason, the overwhelming reaction nationally was one of surprise — surprise that Harbaugh would leave the sport’s highest level, and surprise that he would forsake the financial benefits that come with that challenge.
Harbaugh’s first agent during his NFL playing career, Leigh Steinberg, had no such reaction. He has seen Harbaugh’s love for Michigan, ever since the first time he met Harbaugh in Ann Arbor soon after Harbaugh’s college career ended. Harbaugh was ill that day, answering the door wrapped in blankets, but the two still met and forged a player-agent relationship that lasted much of Harbaugh’s playing career.
Steinberg, once an NFL superagent, is widely considered the inspiration for the movie Jerry Maguire, in which the agent’s primary client frequently yelled at the agent, “Show me the money.” Harbaugh, Steinberg said Thursday, was never that kind of client.
“He might be, of the 300 to 400 athletes I’ve worked with, the least concerned with what the economics were of his contract,” Steinberg said in a phone interview.
In Steinberg’s experience, most players use contract negotiations to prove their value compared to other players. Once, when Steinberg negotiated an expensive deal for Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas, Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith insisted that his next deal be worth one dollar more than Thomas’.
Harbaugh had no such request during his contract negotiations.
“Even though all of the figures were explained to him and he had all of the information, his only question was, ‘Do you think it’s fair?’ ” Steinberg said.
If Steinberg answered in the affirmative, Harbaugh would agree to the deal.
Steinberg visited Ann Arbor this week to speak in front of the University of Michigan Sports Law Society. Steinberg’s book, The Agent, My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game, was recently released in paperback. Steinberg will also lead the Leigh Steinberg Agent Academy on Sept. 26 for aspiring agents.
Steinberg has struggled at times in recent years, battling alcoholism and financial difficulties. His life has experienced drastic changes since the peak of his career. After a hiatus from his job to recover from those issues, Steinberg has been sober for six years. He has four players on NFL rosters and has restarted his agency, but is no longer the premier agent he once was.
But in Harbaugh, Steinberg sees a rock, a coach who acts very similarly to the way he did during his playing days. Steinberg stopped in to visit Harbaugh during his trip to Ann Arbor, and it was just like old times.
They joked about their memories — especially the time during Harbaugh’s rookie year when they fired squirt guns at a Bears executive to ease the tension during contract negotiations — and talked about the present. In Steinberg’s eyes, Harbaugh is as happy as he has ever been. He’s at the school he loves with a family he loves and a coaching staff that will work hard with him.
None of Harbaugh’s coaching success surprises Steinberg. He claims that he could see a coaching career in Harbaugh’s future even in the early days of his playing career. He points to the way Harbaugh dealt with adversity, particularly in how he earned the nickname “Captain Comeback” when he quarterbacked the Indianapolis Colts.
“He had a unique ability to tune out all the discord and notes that might come with adversity and to elevate his level of play in critical situations,” Steinberg said.
Like everyone else, he sees the quirkiness in Harbaugh. He remembers a Super Bowl party in the San Diego Zoo when Harbaugh disappeared for a couple of hours, only to be found “ensconced back in a cage somewhere, having a good time.”
That quirkiness, Steinberg believes — combined with Harbaugh’s sense of humor — helps him stay composed and keep perspective in stressful times.
“He’d like to see the irony in things,” Steinberg said. “So whenever things are going wrong, it’s like, ‘What’s next? Locusts? A river of blood? Darkness?’ He had a great perspective about things. It was not that he was oblivious to adversity, it’s just that he accepted it and could joke about it.”
Steinberg has no doubt that Harbaugh will turn Michigan into a power in the next few years. He has seen the coach’s values remain strong and unbending, his mettle tested time and time again.
More than anything else, Steinberg knows that Harbaugh is not involved in the game of football just to see the money.
Correction appended: This article has been updated to provide better context regarding Steinberg’s use of alcohol.