CHICAGO – Jim Harbaugh’s first Big Ten media day was filled with awkward pauses, clipped answers — and warmhearted stories, such as the one about his recent trip to Paris with his wife.
Michigan’s new coach changed gears on the fly Friday, sometimes mid-answer, calculating when to go deep and when to punt.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, like Woody Hayes, refers to Michigan as “the team up north.” Brady Hoke tried tweaking the Buckeyes by calling them “Ohio.” So that was the first question for Harbaugh — any nicknames for your archrival?
“No … just Ohio State,” Harbaugh said. “But great to see everybody this morning.”
And it was great to see Harbaugh, too, at least for anyone pulling for the Big Ten on a conference level. Some may not realize what a turnaround project he faces — much tougher than what Meyer faced at Ohio State in 2011 — but boy, this should be fun.
Harbaugh’s father, Jack, was an assistant under Bo Schembechler during Michigan’s so-called “Ten Year War” with Hayes and Ohio State. Harbaugh later spent three years as Schembechler’s starting quarterback for the Wolverines.
“Not a day goes by, really, where I don’t think about Coach Schembechler — from the time I leave my house to go to the office,” Harbaugh said. “I live about five houses away from where Bo lived.
“And no matter which way I take to work — whether it’s Devonshire or Geddes or Stadium — I’ll often think, ‘Well Bo probably took this right.’ … Then I park my car and walk by his statue.”
The history is irresistible. In 1968, Hayes took his “super sophomores,” including Rex Kern and Jack Tatum, to the national title. Another title seemed almost certain the next year, but the top-ranked, 8-0 Buckeyes went to Ann Arbor and lost to a first-year coach. His name was Bo Schembechler.
But Michigan fans better be patient. Harbaugh inherits a team that got worse every season under Brady Hoke and finished 5-7 last year. Now, there isn’t one Michigan player on Athlon magazine’s preseason All-Big Ten list, and just one on the second team: tight end Jake Butt.
Harbaugh was at the podium Friday for 13 minutes, 53 seconds, and there wasn’t a single reference, from anybody, to one of his players. He left the press room, and most reporters flocked to him in the hallway, leaving Rutgers coach Kyle Flood to speak to mostly empty chairs.
Finally, about three minutes into Harbaugh’s side session, a reporter mentioned a player’s name. It was Jake Rudock, the former Iowa quarterback who transferred to Michigan from Iowa as a graduate student.
“He’s got a bounce in his step, he’s got some real pizazz,” Harbaugh said, unconvincingly.
Rudock and Shane Morris are considered the two leading candidates for the starting quarterback job. But neither one will remind anybody of Andrew Luck, who turned into a star under Harbaugh’s tutelage at Stanford.
“Jim has more work to do because Urban got to Ohio State first,” said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo. “I don’t know that [Michigan] can be as competitive for the national championship for two or three years, maybe four years. That wasn’t really true with Ohio State.”
The Buckeyes won at least a share of the Big Ten title under Jim Tressel every year from 2005 to 2010. So even after the tattoo-parlor scandal, Tressel’s dismissal and the Luke Fickell season, there was still plenty of talent when Meyer arrived.
His teams are 24-0 in Big Ten regular-season play. The Buckeyes won last year’s national title with another group of super sophomores, and they currently have the No. 1-ranked recruiting classes for 2016 and 2017.
With Michigan State established as another national power, and Penn State on the rebound under James Franklin, Harbaugh faces a huge task, just in the Big Ten East. But he seems to be having fun. He certainly enjoyed Paris with his wife.
“Sarah and I — we figured out that it’s been eight years since we’ve spent more than a day — just her and I, and not all the kids or some work-related thing,” Harbaugh said. “[Paris is] where she wanted to go. And I really enjoyed it.”
He paused again for an extended moment before adding, “Hopefully she enjoyed it.”