ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Jim Harbaugh stumbled ever so slightly while entering the room for his introductory news conference at Michigan — a misstep so slight it probably went unnoticed to many of the people watching.
In fact, it was Harbaugh who drew attention to it.
“I don’t know if anybody saw me trip on the way in,” the Wolverines’ new coach said. “Did anybody see that? A lesser athlete would have gone down!”
The quip was classic Harbaugh — confident, enthusiastic and a bit goofy. The question now is how he’ll handle a return to college football after four years in the NFL. At his last two stops, Harbaugh won big with the San Francisco 49ers and at Stanford, and expectations are already high for a Michigan program anxious to rejoin the nation’s elite.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Harbaugh tried to temper expectations a bit — a tough task for a man viewed as nothing less than a coaching savior by a significant portion of Michigan’s increasingly desperate fan base.
“I’m not comfortable with that at all,” he said. “I’m standing on a foundation that’s been built for over 100 years by some great men. I feel like I’m standing on their shoulders. I want to do a good job.”
Harbaugh didn’t leave the NFL for just any college job. He was a standout quarterback at Michigan three decades ago, and his father was once an assistant for Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler. The thought of becoming Michigan’s coach had crossed Harbaugh’s mind before.
“I can remember thinking about it as a youngster, nine or ten years old, I was sitting in Coach Schembechler’s office,” Harbaugh said. “I was sitting in his chair, I had my feet up on his desk. He said, ‘How you doing, Jim?’ I said, ‘I’m doing great, Bo. How you doing?’ He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m sitting in your chair, Coach.’ I couldn’t think of anything better to say.”
If Harbaugh wanted to offer any red meat to the fan base Tuesday, he could certainly have done so. Brady Hoke, his predecessor, tried that route after he was hired, passionately talking up Michigan’s stature in college football. Before long, people all over Ann Arbor were emulating Hoke, using only the word “Ohio” to refer to archrival Ohio State.
Harbaugh, on the other hand, played it cool when asked about Ohio State and Michigan State — a sign that he might try to temper expectations at the outset. That doesn’t mean Harbaugh is shying away from the task ahead of him.
“I think he embraces that pressure,” former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “If you don’t embrace it, that’s a problem.”
This is the same exuberant Harbaugh who has annoyed opponents on any number of occasions — even in Michigan. In 2011, his fired-up handshake and backslap with Jim Schwartz after a victory at Detroit infuriated the Lions’ coach. Harbaugh also clashed with Pete Carroll when he was at Stanford and Carroll was coaching Southern California.
On a less confrontational note, Harbaugh has become known for his quirky phrases, such as: “Who’s got it better than us? No-body!” That one made an appearance at his initial Michigan news conference, when a member of the audience called out the first part of it.
Motivation shouldn’t be a problem for a Michigan team coming off a sub-.500 season, and Harbaugh has already had a chance to chat with his new players.
“He told us that line about a team being a bunch of relationships. He really hit home on that,” offensive lineman Jack Miller said. “Everyone is looking forward to the next couple of weeks when we can start working together.”
There’s been some talk that Harbaugh’s style might fit better with college players — not that he could necessarily change it anyway.
“I feel like it’s the only personality I have. The other ones were all taken, so I got this one,” he said.
The 49ers referred to Harbaugh’s departure as a mutual decision, and whatever issues there were between him and CEO Jed York, returning to college offers the coach a different climate. The honeymoon phase figures to be lengthy at Michigan, where the fans admire Harbaugh as a former player and are eager to revere him as a coach.
“This was a decision I basically made without a list, without a ‘pros and cons’ approach to it,” Harbaugh said. “Something that I’ve dreamed about. It felt it was time to live. Decision I felt like, ultimately, I made with my heart for myself and my family.”
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