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Harbaugh's refreshing press conferences

Coach Jim Harbaugh
Maize & Blue Nation
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University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh at a previous press conference.

In the news business, a lot of what we do pops up unexpectedly, forcing us to drop whatever we’re working on to handle the breaking news.

Not so the Big Ten Media Days.

Credit John U. Bacon

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, every summer the Big Ten football coaches, players, and reporters gather in Chicago for the Big Ten Media Days. But if you had to choose between the swallows and the coaches, you’d probably take the swallows. Why? Because the swallows would give you more interesting quotes.

In case you have better things to do than listen to 14 head coaches, I can save you the two days of press conferences by boiling it down. Turns out, all fourteen teams had a great off-season, worked really hard in the weight room, and have tremendous senior leadership.

What are the odds?

If they struck a gong every time a coach used the word "excited," you wouldn’t be able to hear anything else.

So I found Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s appearance on Monday rather refreshing. After he took the podium, instead of launching into a five-minute pep talk about the state of his team and his philosophy, he said, "Good afternoon. Glad to be here. I’ll take any questions.”

And that was it, thereby breaking the record for the event’s shortest preamble. Harbaugh kept it up throughout the Q&A, where the reporters’ questions usually ran ten times longer than his answers.

One reporter started his question with a long set up about Michigan having more experienced players coming back this season. Then he contrasted that with last year’s Michigan team, the youngest in the country. And then he closed by asking how Harbaugh felt about that.

When Harbaugh got a chance to reply, he said, “I feel great about it.”

Then he stared out at the crowd of reporters, waiting for the next question.

Another reporter prefaced his question by saying Harbaugh was the “most hyped coach in college football,” yet has not finished higher than third in his division. The reporter added that Harbaugh has beaten rivals Michigan State and Ohio State only once in six tries. So, the reporter said, getting to his question, how did Harbaugh plan to meet those high expectations?

Harbaugh didn’t take the bait.

Despite fielding a dozen questions like that, usually preceded by a long list of knocks, Harbaugh’s blood pressure didn’t seem to rise one tick. Instead, he simply said, “We need to improve. That will lead to success. And that will lead to championships.” And that was it.

When another reporter followed up by asking how Harbaugh would “prove to the Michigan community” that he can beat Michigan’s rivals, Harbaugh all but repeated the same answer: "Improvement will lead to success and that will lead to championships.”

When Harbaugh’s allotted 15 minutes ended, my peers grumbled about his short, flat answers, but they probably didn’t see him in the break-out interviews that followed.

There, when reporters asked him about his players or his coaches, he went off on long soliloquys about this linebacker or that assistant, complete with anecdotes, humor, and passion. The guy was clearly enjoying himself, and had no problem filling a full hour.

And that’s the answer to the riddle that is Coach Jim Harbaugh: If you ask him about himself – or his record, his reputation, or anything else that reflects on him – you’ll be lucky to get a five-word answer.

But if you ask him about the people on his team, you’ll get five minutes.

And that’s how it’s supposed to be.

John U. Bacon is the author of nine books. His latest is The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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