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Unlike Jim, Sarah Harbaugh stays out of the spotlight

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

While Sarah Harbaugh headed west to San Francisco to tie up loose ends with the family’s home two weekends ago, her husband, Jim, was entrusted with babysitting their three children under 7.

Jim Harbaugh, of course, is Michigan’s football coach and a guy who never seems to take a break.

“I thought they would have a nice, relaxing time at home,” Sarah Harbaugh said.

Hmmm.

“And he said, ‘Let’s go on a road trip!’ ” she said.

Harbaugh packed the kids in the car and headed to Milwaukee to see his parents.

“I’m trying to imagine 3-, 5- and 7-year-olds on a trip with him,” Sarah said. “And he was flawless. He said they didn’t complain once. I want him to relax when he’s home, but he wants to go, go, go. He just runs busy.”

As does Sarah, but in a different manner.

Sarah will be the Harbaugh in charge Thursday as the honorary chair of the seventh Michigan Softball Academy, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society organized and run by Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins, her staff, players and a number of supporters.

The event is an annual success and this time has the added bonus of a home run derby between two former Michigan quarterbacks, Jim Harbaugh and Rick Leach, who also played Major League baseball. It is a separate fundraiser for the same cause and donations have been brisk.

While Sarah has largely stayed out of the Michigan limelight, she has enjoyed her involvement with the softball academy.

“I’m really excited,” she said. “I’ve run into so many people who have said if you have a chance to go to the softball academy, how much fun it is and how different it is from other fundraising type of events. I’m honored they asked me. I love doing it, especially when it’s a great cause like this.

“We do need to be reminded how fortunate we are with our health every day. There are so many people who aren’t. I’m just excited to be able to have this opportunity to put myself out there. Hopefully people will listen. Some people listen to Jim.

“With getting him involved — he’s all over the place, obviously, and sometimes I have to steer him to places — he’s been really excited about this. He loves Hutch and has so much respect for her.”

Her brother had pediatric cancer and Sarah, along with her sister, spent plenty of time at the hospital visiting him. This is among the reasons why Sarah and her husband have become active at UM’s Mott Hospital along with the softball academy.

“Most people have been touched by cancer or some disease, and when you hear a story and you can connect personally from your own experience, it gives it that much more of a profound meaning,” Sarah said. “The more of these you do, the more awareness you help bring and hopefully conquer all the cancers.”

While her husband is the face of the Michigan football program, Sarah is very much a part of her husband’s career, but she focuses her energy and attention on their three children. She also has three stepchildren, Jim’s sons Jay, James and daughter Grace.

Sarah is active working at the kids’ schools and jokes about, but dismisses, the title of “First Lady of Michigan football.”

“Anyone who knows me would never call me the first lady of football,” Sarah said laughing. “I try to get involved with the kids’ schools. Being Jim’s wife I could be busy every hour of the day, but I’m trying not to let the kids think anything else is more important. Right now I’m trying to stay afloat and keep my kids alive and myself alive.”

She then laughed the laugh of many an exhausted mother who juggles so much to maintain balance and happiness for their children.

Sarah is more than aware of the extraordinary nature of their lives in Ann Arbor and the attention her husband receives not only locally but across the country, which makes her all the more aware of understanding the focus their children need.

“The more normal my kids feel, which means having us around, is really important,” she said. “I feel if I were gone doing everything I could be doing, they would feel there’s something more important to us than them. In the end, it’s about family. I think that’s the most important thing.

“With the children, they’re so excited now, more so than anyplace we’ve been, being here with this program. They love being able to go to work with Jim at the football office and going to the games, so they get that great side of it, but I’m trying to make it middle ground. I try to make them realize they’re no different than anyone else in the community, and they haven’t acted like they’re any different.”

Sarah said the family has acclimated well to Ann Arbor and the Michigan community.

“I feel like being in this area and feeling how accepting and welcoming everyone has been has been so nice,” she said.

And as Jim continues to generate headlines, Sarah is supportive but remains not keen on publicity. She tries hard, she said, not to be a constant presence, because it simply is not her style.

“That’s for him,” Sarah said. “My job is to balance him out at home. I’m not exactly 100 percent comfortable (in the spotlight). People want to take pictures of him, and I will scatter out of the way. I try to hide as much as possible. He’s good with it. I’m not on social media at all and people will tell me what’s going on. It appears he’s putting himself out there, but people find him and make it out of the ordinary. It makes me laugh. It’s a different world.

“It’s great in the sense there’s so much love for Michigan football, there always has been, but I wasn’t expecting the abundance. Every place we’ve been, people have loved the team or the coach, but here there’s an all-around love for the University of Michigan. Every day I understand more and more why there are 500,000 alums, and every time I run into a Michigan alum, I’ve never heard a negative story."

Because she’s so busy with the children, Sarah doesn’t have a chance to listen to sports talk radio or read coverage of Michigan football. That’s also partly by choice.

Being married to a coach has layers of challenges, including the fact that as a public figure he’s going to face plenty of scrutiny, and as everyone knows, that’s not always a positive. And if he is facing the attention, good or bad, so does his family.

Sarah said her husband has fun living life, but doesn’t seek out attention.

“That’s why I don’t turn on talk radio,” she said. “He’s so misunderstood by so many people, and I’d want to call in to defend him. It makes me angry because I can’t defend him.”

Now she can sit back and laugh about all the things “insiders” were saying about why Jim would never leave the NFL for a college job, even Michigan. Among the stronger reasons why — that Sarah wouldn’t leave the West Coast. She grew up in the Kansas City area and loves the Midwest.

“That was one of those frustrating things I couldn’t fight back on,” Sarah said. “Anyone who knows me, knows that’s not me. I’m a Midwesterner. People had this misconception I was from California and would never leave.

“I’m so happy to be back and happy for the future. I hope it’s a long future here.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/chengelis

Michigan’s 7th Softball Academy

When: Thursday, 5 p.m.

Where: Alumni Field

Home run derby: Jim Harbaugh v. Rick Leach, 7-7:20 p.m.

Social mixer: Runs 7-9 p.m. Cost is $50

Charity: American Cancer Society. To donate to the Academy or the Home Run Derby and/or buy tickets go to msoftballacademy.org