Michigan swept up in Harbaughmania
Ann Arbor — John Harbaugh is on the East Coast minding his own business coaching his team, the Ravens.
But he can't avoid following the news that his kid brother, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, has made his way into national stories in a wide range of ways — helping car-accident victims on an icy highway, coaching first base for a major league baseball team, inventively taking a dig at Michigan's arch-rival via Twitter, using social media to communicate with the star of his favorite TV show, and sending a message of support to one of the world's most well-known entertainers and former Michigan student, Madonna.
What's next for Jim Harbaugh? Changing into his cape in a phone booth?
Harbaughmania struck as soon as he became Michigan's coach, and knowingly or not, he has helped polish a bigger-than-life image that already had been shaped by hopeful Wolverines fans desperate for a return to consistent winning before he had accepted the job.
Jim Harbaugh, it seems, is everywhere. When he's not posing for photos at Michigan with NFL and college football standouts, and, of course, circulating those photos via Twitter, he drops by Michigan sporting events. He has gone to men's and women's basketball games, and he most recently participated in "Score-O" during a Michigan hockey game at Yost Ice Arena, where he was wildly cheered on by the crowd.
John, who dropped in on a practice last week and was the main speaker at a two-day Michigan coaching clinic, spoke to reporters about his brother's unusual week two weeks ago. That's when Jim Harbaugh and staffer Jim Minick came upon a violent car accident on I-94 and assisted the two survivors. A few days later, Jim was in full uniform at A's spring training coaching first base.
"That's his personality," John Harbaugh said. "My wife and I laugh. We open up the news, he's coaching the Oakland A's now, too. Man, he gets around. Full regalia. That's who he is. He loves being out and about and being with people."
Eric Wright, president and executive director of Ann Arbor-based Joyce Julius, a sports sponsorship research firm that evaluates corporate sponsorship, examined a 30-day snapshot of traditional media mentions from print, television and news coverage.
Wright compared mentions of Harbaugh, named coach Dec. 30, to Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose team is coming off a national championship, and Alabama's Nick Saban
"(Harbaugh's) name was referenced three times more often than Urban Meyer and Nick Saban in that period," Wright said. "I realize it's the offseason, and I'm sure Nick Saban retreats into the background, but it kind of tells you 30 days in the middle of the offseason how much attention Harbaugh has received."
Wright also used that same time period to compare Harbaugh mentions to those including Super Bowl-winning Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The two were close, but Harbaugh had a slight edge. And then he pitted Harbaugh mentions against John Calipari, whose Kentucky basketball team is undefeated and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Calipari, whose team is in-season, had twice the mentions as Harbaugh during that snapshot.
"It's hard for me to comment on how he's moving the needle in terms of perception, but what I can tell you is he's getting the name out there more frequently," Wright said. "I have to add, Michigan has always been a lightning rod for coverage ... but he's taking it to a new level, at least so far."
Not long after Harbaugh took the Michigan job, he appeared on the sideline of a Ravens playoff game in support of his brother. At that time, Harbaugh was shaping his staff and trying to play catchup in the recruiting game.
"He was on the sideline of Ravens game, and that's interesting because most relatives are up in a box," Wright said. "He had to know the cameras were going to find him. I do think it's thought out. There's a coach that wants to get his name out there, because he's recruiting, and he wants everyone to see him being relevant. He's using every tool at his disposal."
Harbaugh arrived at that game wearing a black quilted adidas jacket with a black block M. There were 48 of those jackets made, and they sold out in a few hours. The M Den could not get more in stock.
"(That) is probably the best representation of the impact the new coach has had and how quick we all have to move on the merchandise front right now," Scott Hirth of the M Den said. "Anything our new coach is seen wearing in public, people call us immediately to see if we have it. Overall, our new coach has generated quite a buzz and great feelings amongst Michigan fans, and that certainly has an impact on sales."
The M Den is selling Harbaugh-like khakis with a Block M above the right rear pocket. Also among the items is a T-shirt that reads: Maize Blue Khaki.
On the sideline this fall, Harbaugh will wear khaki pants, a crewneck polar fleece with a skinny Block M in the middle, all-black cleats and is expected to be the only coach wearing the skinny Block M hat like legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, for whom he played.
A few days after Harbaugh became coach, he also developed the university's biggest Twitter presence. He has more than 200,000 followers and trails only Meyer for the most among college football coaches.
Harbaugh's feed includes famous quotes as part of his occasional "Thought of the day" offerings. He gave Madonna a shout out after her fall during a recent concert, referring to her as a fellow Wolverine, and adding "We respect your toughness!" He also tweeted congratulations to his friend "Judge Judy" Sheindlin, the feisty, non-nonsense judge with the popular TV show, on her recent contract extension. She responded to Harbaugh on Twitter, and he replied.
Judge Judy responded to an interview request from The Detroit News with a comment via her publicist.
"Having Jim and his dad as Judge Judy fans has finally given me some stature with my grandchildren," Sheindlin said in the email. "The visit that I enjoyed with them was filled with classic Harbaugh energy and good fun."
What really counts
Last December before Harbaugh was hired, Norman O'Reilly, chair of the department of sports administration at Ohio University, spoke to The News about the potential marketing and economic impact of someone like Harbaugh. He has studied the impact of star athletes on cities in which they play.
O'Reilly said Harbaugh as a coach is similar in name recognition as a star athlete, and that is rare.
"(Harbaugh) would meet the star status where he has attention outside of the local market in which he works," O'Reilly said. "He clearly would fit that bill. When you look at the local-hero category on the players' side (of research), maybe the second best guy on your bench happens to be from your town. ... Harbaugh covers both (the star with national appeal and the local hero)."
Michigan officials do not yet know the effect Harbaugh might have in terms of ticket sales since renewals don't start until April. With a home schedule that boasts rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, it seems unlikely Harbaugh, Michigan and Michigan Stadium will be a hard sell.
With the season months away and spring practice ending April 4, who knows what Harbaugh will do to keep himself in the national headlines.
But by the Sept. 3 opener at Utah, it won't be about Judge Judy and meals at his favorite restaurant (Cracker Barrel). It will be about whether the guy who has captured the Michigan fan base can return the program to winning.
"There's no doubt Michigan is going to win, obviously the variable is going to be time and how fast they pick it up and how the ball bounces," John Harbaugh said. "They've got a bunch of good players out here.
"My message (last week) to the players was you've got a fighter for a coach. The message was they're going to fight, they're going to battle, they're going to be in every game, (and) they're going to win games at the end because it matters more."