Jim Harbaugh wanted blood.
It was 2007, his first year as Stanford’s football coach, and during what was meant to be a motivational speech, Harbaugh told his players that he wanted to play in the game alongside them. He wanted this so badly that he informed his players that he wanted their blood on him if they bled during that week’s game.
Offensive lineman Chase Beeler and many of his teammates thought nothing of it. There was no way Harbaugh could’ve been serious. It was a maniacal request, at best. More likely, it was insane.
But in the game, right tackle Chris Marinelli ran off the field with the rest of his offense after a touchdown drive, his arm bloodied. He went straight to Harbaugh to show him.
Harbaugh looked at the blood and did exactly what he said he would. He took his hand and wiped it on Marinelli’s arm. The player’s blood was on the coach’s hands.
Then, Harbaugh took it a step further. He smeared Marinelli’s blood all over his own face like war paint.
“(Harbaugh is) standing on the sideline with the offensive line, really jacked up, screaming, yelling, jumping around with blood smeared on his face,” Beeler said.
This blood-painted figure is the man Michigan wants as its next football coach, the person many believe can inject life into a football program struggling through years of mediocrity. He has yet to accept Michigan’s offer, but speculation mounts by the day as his season with the San Francisco 49ers crawls to a close.
Harbaugh’s former players at Stanford will tell you that mediocrity is unacceptable with the coach. Normalcy is anything but common.
In four years, Harbaugh turned Stanford — a program that was 1-11 the year before he got there — into an Orange-Bowl winning team. He did it his own way, which includes a mixture of lunacy and extreme competitiveness.
“You have to kill the guy to make him quit,” said former Stanford offensive lineman Joe Dembesky.
During his first Division I head coaching gig at Stanford, everything was a competition for Harbaugh. One day Dembesky and some of his teammates saw Harbaugh and then-special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin playing one-on-one on a basketball court near the coaches’ offices.
An hour later when the coaches finished playing, the players asked what happened in the game. The final score was 3-3.
“They were sweaty, busted up a little bit,” Dembesky said. “They were fouling each other hard, but they were so competitive and had so much pride nobody would call a foul. They basically just fought each other on the court for an hour.”
The level of competition Harbaugh demanded of himself extended to what he required of his players. If they ran around cones in practice, they were expected to run around the cones as if they were trying to do so faster than everybody else.
“He made competition central to everything that we were doing,” said former Stanford offensive lineman Andrew Phillips. “It went from ‘Let’s go out and run gassers just for the hell of it’ to ‘Hey, let’s go, you’re going to compete with this guy and there’s going to be a point system.’ ”
Frequently, the sole purpose of Harbaugh’s training drills was to elicit competition. During some 6 a.m. workouts, he’d place his players in groups of three to participate in what he termed foot wrestling.
Each player tied a sock around his ankle and got down on all fours. Then the three players wrestled, tasked with ripping the sock off both of their opponents’ ankles while protecting their own.
It had nothing to do with football, but everything to do with what Harbaugh expected of his players.
“He just wanted you to compete,” Dembesky said. “It does translate a lot. A lot of people didn’t get it at the time. A lot of people were like, ‘This is stupid, why are we wrestling?’ It’s just a mindset that he puts you in. It’s a mindset you have to have to be competitive.”
His methods were often eccentric. His players watched him with a combination of amusement and admiration.
There was the time he performed an entire skit from the TV show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as a motivational speech, inserting the words “Stanford football” to make his point. Another week he memorized an entire Shakespeare soliloquy from “Henry V” about fighting and going to battle. Then there was the time he used “The Old Man and the Sea” as a metaphor for going on a journey.
One of his favorite phrases was to tell his players “no cupcaking,” his term for talking to their girlfriends when they were supposed to be thinking about football. Nobody understood why Harbaugh called it that, but he did it anyway.
When he wasn’t thinking of unique ways to get his point across, one constant source of motivation for Harbaugh and his teams was Bo Schembechler.
“He referenced him frequently in sort of deeply philosophical and reverent tones,” Beeler said.
Harbaugh quoted Schembechler’s “those who stay will be champions” mantra so frequently that one balding former Stanford player, who now plays in the NFL, uses the saying about his remaining hair follicles.
Harbaugh played for Schembechler at Michigan in the 1980s, and his father Jack was an assistant under Schembechler at Michigan from 1973-1979. When Jack was Stanford’s running backs coach in 2009, Beeler remembers watching father and son go back and forth, discussing the strategic brilliance of Schembechler and Woody Hayes, marveling at the way they fostered greatness in one another.
“There’s an extreme reverence there,” Beeler said.
This reverence of Schembechler is part of the reason many believe Harbaugh will end up in Ann Arbor if his tenure with the San Francisco 49ers concludes Sunday. It’s either his alma mater or another job at the NFL level.
But can Harbaugh’s love for his alma mater defeat his insatiable desire of winning everything humanly possible? He hasn’t won a Super Bowl yet, a feat that many consider the pinnacle of Harbaugh’s profession.
Beeler doesn’t claim to know Harbaugh’s intentions, but he doesn’t believe his former coach will view things in that light.
“I don’t think of the greatest NFL coach as somehow being inherently better or more accomplished or more brilliant than the greatest college football coach,” Beeler said. “And I don’t think Jim sees it that way either. I think he looks at it as two independent, free-standing ecosystems with their own requirements and demands and their own uniquely defining attributes of success.”
If he accepts the Michigan job, he will have plenty of work to do to establish himself as the greatest college football coach. He would inherit a team that failed to make a bowl last season, one that was a major disappointment by all metrics.
But Harbaugh won’t be intimidated if he accepts the job.
He doesn’t back down when things get bloody. He kind of likes it.