Jim Harbaugh is a khaki-covered salesman, trafficking in two interconnected commodities.
First is Jim Harbaugh himself, the eccentric football coach keenly aware of his press clippings. A man who never met a video camera or microphone he didn’t like. A man out to prove he’s not just smarter than everyone else, but that he is the most precious of all the snowflakes and there are none even remotely similar.
Michigan fans have bought this in bulk from the moment he was announced as the next savior of the storied Wolverines. So has much of the national media, evidenced by the stampede to anoint him as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Dissenters, such as myself, have remained nonplussed while suggesting the carnival act may be too outsized for its own good.
In two years, Harbaugh has posted back-to-back 10-3 seasons. Ann Arbor is once again home to a title contender. The problem, of course, is that no real titles have been achieved. The Wolverines have finished third in the Big Ten East both years despite a deeply rich roster and consistent play.
But Harbaugh is selling something else and is far outpacing the rest of the college football world. Harbaugh is selling the Michigan Experience — a remarkable and ever-evolving foray into the bizarre and far-flung. And that experience cannot be judged with the same clear bottom line that Harbaugh, The Football Coach is judged.
There is no doubt both Harbaugh and Michigan fans would trade a national championship or — hell, a Big Ten crown — for the ancillary trappings. They are more interested in lifting hardware than a Signing of the Stars Event, a hobnobbing relationship with Derek Jeter, or an excursion to the Roman ruins. It’s unfair to suggest, as many have, that Harbaugh is over his skis in building up a bizarro funhouse before he’s proven the ability to beat Ohio State or win a meaningful road game while leading winged helmets.
Collegiate athletes, especially football players at a money-making program like Michigan, are denied their fair-market value. Harbaugh’s gimmicks help provide his players with priceless experiences. They are less quirks than they are features of the culture he’s aiming to build. They may serve to help build his personal brand, but the benefits to his team are obvious.
Sports are supposed to be fun. Levity and life lessons are not solely reserved for 14-0 or 13-1 teams.
The simple fact is this: Harbaugh is best when he’s selling the Michigan Experience. And access to his unique football brain is part of it. Legitimate questions about the on-field outcomes he brings can be asked. It seems prudent to weigh those, in context, against his brilliant salesmanship and product development in other aspects of the job.