CHICAGO — Around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, James Joseph Harbaugh took the stage and an otherwise lobotomized first day of Big Ten media day festivities got interesting. All he had to do was wear the baseball cap, really: Michigan’s coach later explained his accessorizing was the product of going five weeks without a haircut and his affinity for the skinny ‘M’ logo. But Harbaugh also would go on to wonder aloud if he had coined the term “meritocracy.” When asked about appearing in a recent video released by the rapper Bailey, he said cool people liked it while only “uptight white people” didn’t. When asked about the national perception of how he operates, he said cool people liked him.
Harbaugh talked about going back into the “submarine” and cutting off all access to his team early in preseason camp, but he conceded he might resurface if reporters stuck bamboo shoots under his fingernails and made him talk. He reminisced about sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley Field when he was a quarterback for the Bears, catching home run balls. And he talked about breaking his leg on the first day he lived in Iowa City as a kid, after he got hit by a mail truck.
“You see it as madness,” Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “We see it as genius.”
Oh, this was essentially the same act Harbaugh brought to this same event last summer—toting a Mike Ditka jersey to the dais and embarking on all manner of tangents throughout the rest of the day—and the reaction is only slightly different than it was last July, too. Back then, we wondered if all the entertaining and eliding would precede actual wins; 10 of those followed in the fall. This time we’re left to wonder if the reprise performance will precede a championship, because a formidable defense and some top-tier offensive skill talent suggests that’s plausible. So it’s not entirely true that you choose between madness and genius with Jim Harbaugh. They’re probably the same thing.
Because there are the acts of the mad genius. And then there is the subsequent defiance. The satellite camp tour was “much ado about nothing,” Harbaugh declared, and don’t hold your breath for apologies to Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, Alabama coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Kirby Smart over some prickly tweets; that forms the philosophical basis for why Michigan is on the verge of being Michigan again. And there is the synthesis of all those ideas into the Wolverines expecting to chase conference and national titles, explained, naturally, by an analogy about getting made fun of in middle school.
“If nobody’s laughing, you didn’t set your goals high enough,” Harbaugh said. Then, in his most authentic moment of the day, he added: “Everyone has critics, but screw them. They’re irrelevant.”
This is the root of belief in Ann Arbor, which is now a very dangerous thing in 2016, given the bodies in which the belief exists.
Michigan needs a quarterback, yes. For preseason camp, Harbaugh proclaimed the slate “clean and wide open” in the competition to start between junior Wilton Speight, senior John O’Korn and senior Shane Morris. This uncertainty might worry most teams with championship aspirations, but one way to mitigate the concern is by turning the quarterback on the other side to mush. Enter Don Brown, the new defensive coordinator who directed a Boston College unit that led the nation in eight defensive categories in 2015 and who will deploy a far superior level of athlete in an aggressive scheme aimed at total disruption. The Michigan defensive line might be the Big Ten’s best. Lewis could be an All-America and future first-round pick at corner. And then there is Jabril Peppers, the 6' 1", 208-pound potential Heisman Trophy candidate who will settle into a hybrid linebacker role all but created to maximize his gifts.
“You can plan on seeing some aggressive defense,” Lewis said. “You can plan on seeing some pressure. You can plan on seeing the quarterback on the ground. That’s what (Brown) hangs his hat on. He’s the best at it.”
Said Michigan receiver Amara Darboh, “This was felt most acutely by the Michigan offense during spring practice. It was very confusing. I’m glad I’m not the quarterback. (Brown) doesn’t allow the quarterback to hold the ball very long, which challenges receivers, too, to be quick in and out of breaks. He knows what he’s doing.”
Harbaugh went on a long monologue after saying the mention of Brown’s name brings a smile to his face—“Dream hire for the Michigan football program,” Harbaugh said—but that had more to do with all the testimonials the Wolverines coach says he’s heard about the 61-year-old Brown since the hire this winter. The real reason to grin is the ability to hone all that defensive talent in a scheme that unsettles the other side while simultaneously buying time for the Wolverines to figure out whatever they need to figure out on offense.
Nothing mad about that plan, at least. “They’re coming from everywhere,” Harbaugh said. “I think the scheme is going to be tough to beat.”
As he walked from one hotel ballroom to another Monday afternoon after holding forth for more than an hour, Harbaugh paused to sign an autograph … on some dude’s biceps. Sometimes you make the crazy. Sometimes the crazy finds you.
But it’s a testimony to Harbaugh’s genius or industry or serendipity—whatever you want to call it—that the product doesn’t suffer. That for all the misdirections in other areas, he has Michigan in the right place.
“We are in position to get the things we want,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the fact.”
It is, even if rap videos and blue baseball caps preoccupied Monday’s crowd more than a championship run. Mostly, everyone laughed along at the first of two Big Ten media days, but it’s like Jim Harbaugh plainly told everyone who’d listen: He wouldn’t have it another way.