Excitement swells as Utah braces for Harbaugh

Matthew Piper
Salt Lake Tribune

Salt Lake City — There seemed to be an extra measure of giddiness among Utah fans at Saturday’s annual athlete meet-and-greet, knowing that on the very turf they tread upon, they’d soon see what their Utes were made of.

And that, this year, so will the rest of the nation.

The cheapest remaining tickets for Utah’s opener against Michigan — elsewhere known as “Jim Harbaugh’s debut” — were selling for $200 on StubHub on Sunday, and those wanting to sit somewhere between the 20-yard lines were looking at $300-plus.

It’s just the third time Utah has hosted an opener against a team that has previously won a national championship (they’re 2-0, beating Texas A&M in 2004 and Pittsburgh in 2010), after three games in four years against FCS opponents.

More than that, it’s Michigan.

Sure, the focus is Harbaugh, who enjoyed unprecedented success at San Diego, reinvigorated a flagging Stanford and took San Francisco to the Super Bowl.

The son of a Michigan assistant and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy while quarterbacking the maize and blue, Harbaugh is expected to be the savior of a program that claims 11 national championships but just one since 1948.

Since his hire, he’s made headlines for coming fourth in voting for Michigan’s student body president, shirtlessness at satellite camps that riled SEC coaches, helping two women in a car accident and sharing his support for Lil Wayne and Judge Judy.

Now he’s emerged from his “submarine” — three weeks without a media appearance — to talk about Utah.

Where he’s not especially well-liked.

Fans haven’t forgotten that rather than fully embrace former Utah star Alex Smith, Harbaugh courted Peyton Manning and gave the job to Colin Kaepernick when a concussion sidelined Smith — 19-5-1 to that point under Harbaugh.

Longtime season-ticket holders Mike and Madason Barney went from 49ers fans to Chiefs fans, they said at Saturday night’s Fan Fest. Echoed Keith Gines of Bountiful, Utah: “I used to like the 49ers until he dropped Alex Smith, and then, naw. We’re ready to kill him.”

Utah is playing up the animosity, giving away 11/2-by-2-foot Smith cutouts to 100 fans at the players’ pregame Ute Walk.

The Utes also will sport new “satin red” helmets for the occasion, promoted as “Wear Red vs. Big Blue,” while Harbaugh’s Wolverines will don all-white road jerseys inspired by the team his father helped coach in 1974.

Some fans had hoped Harbaugh’s debut would bring ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew to Salt Lake City for a third time, but ESPN opted for the neutral-site showdown between No. 3 Alabama and No. 20 Wisconsin at the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

Instead, Utah will get the “Harbus,” wrapped to resemble Harbaugh’s trademark khakis, with a blue Michigan sweatshirt and a play card stuffed into the waist. With it comes the “Harbros,” five Michigan students who have taken the bus on a national tour to advertise the game for Fox Sports 1.

After it rankled some Utah fans that the network’s buildup was so Harbaugh-centric, former Panthers tackle Jordan Gross took a turn at the wheel of the bus in Charlotte, and ex-Falcon Jamal Anderson shut down the Harbros as they attempted his “Dirty Bird” touchdown dance in Atlanta.

That’s all in good fun, but Utah — favored by 51/2, fresh off a 9-4 season — has the potential spike the tires on the hype bus.

They did so in 2008, when Rich Rodriguez was the new head coach in Ann Arbor, and you can remember how that season turned out for both teams.

Of course, the Wolverines have a bevy of four- and five-star players who will well remember last year’s disappointment, slumping soaking wet into the tunnel as jubilant Utah fans outnumbered their own in a bizarre early evening at the Big House.

Said Gines: “This is great, isn’t it? For Salt Lake? Michigan coming, Harbaugh ... yeah, we’re ready to take ’em.”

Michigan at Utah

Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City

TV: Fox Sports 1

Radio: WWJ 950, WTKA 1050

Series: Utah leads 2-1

Line: Utah by 51/2