Harbaugh creates a disturbance in the force

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor with a sterling reputation but with large challenges.

Ann Arbor -- Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett has been wearing a blazing yellow watch on his left wrist since he hired Jim Harbaugh as head coach.

You can't miss the thing.

But Hackett hopes to separate from the watch as soon as possible.

"I wear this to remind him he hasn't won a game yet," Hackett said earlier this summer, smiling. "I'm taking it off when he wins his first game."

Unranked Michigan opens the season in a challenging setting at Utah with a primetime kickoff on Thursday. Maybe Hackett will have the opportunity to take off the watch after that game or maybe not, but he's not worried.

After all, Hackett hired the wildly popular former Michigan quarterback and college and NFL coaching veteran to take over a program that is on its third head coach since 2008, and has been a national afterthought in that time. Since Harbaugh's arrival at the very end of last year following his four years coaching the San Francisco 49ers, season-ticket sales that had been lagging at Michigan are now skyrocketing and there is a buzz among the fans, who have needed an infusion of enthusiasm.

"We have a lot of ground to make up," Hackett said. "(Harbaugh) is as rare a talent that I have seen in my life. I'm talking business, peers. He's a rare talent. I'm happier with what I thought I was going to be delighted about, and the season hasn't started yet.

"For both of us, all the drama around all this is about Michigan earning its rightful place and performing at the level we know we can. We are really clear with each other all the time. I talk to him often; he's a very creative, competitive guy. I've never met a guy, I don't think, more competitive. What I love about him is the authenticity. There's not a second guy in the dressing room who takes his mask off and you find a different person. We're really glad as a community we have somebody like that on our side."

Coming home

Harbaugh returned to Michigan, in part, because he wanted his young children to share the experience he had growing up in Ann Arbor while his father, Jack, was an assistant coach under Bo Schembechler. They spent seven years in Ann Arbor, and Harbaugh returned to play quarterback for Schembechler.

"He said, 'You know what? I've got these three little ones, I'm anxious they share the childhood I had and have those experiences,'" Jack Harbaugh said. "He thought so much of that experience, he'd want his kids to go through something similar."

Jim Harbaugh

Michigan fans feel so good about the Harbaugh hire, his could be a honeymoon that lasts several years. But that's not what he's about. Harbaugh said from his initial news conference that his goal is to win immediately.

To that end, he had his players in what he called "submarine" mode during preseason camp. They had limited interaction with the outside world while focusing on the only thing that matters at this moment – football and the start of the season at Utah.

Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, who along with the BTN crew was offered a brief glimpse of practice during camp, appreciated the submarine approach as a tip of the hat to an older style of coaching. This would have been the norm 15 years ago when there wasn't the added complication of social media to undermine what coaches and teams had been working on in the privacy of their own practices.

"It's kind of a throwback," DiNardo said.

It also is one of the chess pieces Harbaugh has, and he'll make his move when he chooses.

"Bo or any of these guys, they loathe to give anybody an advantage," Hackett said. "(This) sport is like this — it's a mind game and a physical game. (Harbaugh is) really very cerebral, thinking constantly. He's very thoughtful about it."

Just win, baby

The reality is, though, anyone who has followed Michigan football in recent years does not have to take a cerebral approach in terms of evaluating what the program must do. It's simple, really. Michigan has to win again on a consistent basis and become a force in the Big Ten East Division, which it shares with defending national champion Ohio State; Michigan State, two seasons removed from winning the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl; and emerging Penn State.

The Wolverines' arch-rival is Ohio State, but the focus now must be on in-state rival Michigan State, which has owned the series the better part of the last decade. Michigan State comes to Michigan Stadium on Oct. 17 to kick off the second half of the season. The Spartans have won six of the last seven games against UM and play in Ann Arbor for the first time since 2012.

Harbaugh cut his teeth on the Ohio State game and delivered the now-famous guarantee in 1986 as Michigan's quarterback. But he also knows getting to Ohio State means going through Michigan State, which is a much harder task than it used to be for the Wolverines.

In the late spring while Harbaugh and his staff visited Detroit to meet with local high school coaches, he made a point to praise the Spartans with the not-so-hidden meaning that Michigan needs to land those Detroit recruits who have helped his rivals.

"I know we're not the biggest guy on the block," Harbaugh said. "Michigan State's bigger than us on the block, and rightfully so. They've done a tremendous job, and I respect the job they've done."

It has been eight months of Harbaugh hype. His every move — from what he posts on Twitter to his satellite camp tour to a Paris vacation with his wife — have been written about and generated plenty of headlines.

Now, finally, it's game on.