Max Cohen: Not a job for a lesser man

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Jim Harbaugh holds his son Jack during a press conference to announce his appointment as the next head football coach at Junge Center Tuesday. Buy this photo

By Max Cohen, Managing Sports Editor
Published December 30, 2014

You probably thought Jim Harbaugh was joking. Everybody else did, too.

Tripping and catching his balance when he walked to the podium was the second thing Harbaugh spoke about Tuesday in his introductory press conference as Michigan’s football coach, after he apologized for his hoarse voice.

“A lesser athlete would’ve gone down,” Harbaugh proclaimed about his misstep.

It was his first bold statement as Michigan’s head coach, one that emulated a famous Bo Schembechler quote. The room filled with Michigan football dignitaries was overcome by laughter and clapping, the Wolverines’ new football coach seemingly fit for both a side job as a comedian and the ability to fill the shoes of Schembechler.

Harbaugh was only half joking.

Last week, his former players at Stanford remembered a similar moment from when he coached them, when he used the famous Schembechler saying again. That time, he reacted differently.

It was during a team meeting when Harbaugh spoke in front of auditorium-style seating. In the middle of his speech, he headed toward the steps to continue to make his point. When he walked up the first step, he tripped.

The entire team laughed. Harbaugh popped to his feet and looked at his players until they were completely silent.

“A lesser man would have gone down there,” Harbaugh said.

His players don’t remember a hint of exaggeration or tomfoolery.

“It was just one of the most ridiculous things that I think I’ve ever heard come out of anyone’s mouth,” said former Stanford offensive lineman Bert McBride with a laugh. “But he was serious.”

That’s why Michigan fans are so excited for Harbaugh, why the press conference felt more like a coronation than an introduction. It’s not because of his outstanding record as an NFL head coach, the fact that he’s coming home or even the fact that Bo is his coach and mentor.

It’s because Harbaugh believes in himself to such an extent that it’s nearly impossible to envision him failing to get the job done. He’s so competitive he makes tripping a point of pride, that he runs drills with his players only to yell “halftime” when they think they’re finished, and that he’ll even smear their blood on his face if it means inspiring the team.

He has told recruits he’ll be calling Tuesday night and even mentioned how excited he is to start winter conditioning. That’s right, winter conditioning.

The idea of working on the field with his players excites him more than anything else. If he could, he’d strap on pads every day. His players have seen it before.

Former Stanford and San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Chase Beeler remembers a 2012 rookie mini camp, when the team’s front office had neglected to sign a quarterback to attend the camp. The rookies had no idea who would run the offensive drills.

Then one of the rookies noticed something unusual.

Along with his customary khaki pants and black Nike sweatshirt, Harbaugh was wearing cleats.

When the veterans finished their workout, Harbaugh approached the field where the rookies gathered. A trainer approached him, carrying a football helmet.

Harbaugh took the helmet and put it on the ground. Then Harbaugh ripped off his sweatshirt and the T-shirt underneath. He was wearing a No. 4 49ers jersey. The khakis came off next. Underneath? Game pants.

Harbaugh was 48 years old and 11 years removed from playing in the National Football League, but he played quarterback and administered the team’s offense that day anyway.

That’s what Harbaugh has done for Michigan, coming out of left field to reinvigorate the program. The Wolverines have struggled for the greater part of a decade, a Big Ten title absent from the trophy case since 2004.

There have been bad losses to rivals, even worse losses to rivals, fired coaches and changes of athletic director. Michigan has stumbled, and it’s Harbaugh’s job to fix.

It’s not a task for a lesser man.

Cohen can be reached at maxac@umich.edu or on Twitter @MaxACohen