ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Sometimes, Jim Harbaugh sounds as if he is talking to himself during team meetings. Other times, he is the star — or stars — of a one-act play for his team that sends a particular message.
Tight end Jake Butt recalled Harbaugh once showing and telling the Wolverines to take advice from a guy getting a 4.0 grade-point average in all of his classes, not someone who cheated on a test.
“He’ll act it out and have conversations between the two people that he’s describing,” Butt said. “Like imaginary conversations.”
Or there was the time a call didn’t go the Wolverines’ way and Harbaugh went “insane,” according to Butt, while arguing on the sideline even though his team was leading Northwestern 31-0.
“He streaks for perfect in everything he does,” Butt said.
Harbaugh is certainly putting on a show six games into his tenure at Michigan. He has his players’ rapt attention, and he is working on the rest of the college football world, too.
No. 12 Michigan (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) already has matched last year’s total number of wins under Brady Hoke. The Wolverines, led by their No. 2-ranked defense, have won five straight games since opening the season with a loss at Utah.
Harbaugh has thrown himself into the task of rebuilding the proud program where he starred as a quarterback under Bo Schembechler, and he is doing it mostly with players he didn’t recruit. His team is loving every minute — quirks included.
“Nobody, actually, thought it would come this quickly,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “He’s a football genius. And, this is just a byproduct of that.”
The Wolverines are favored to beat No. 4 Michigan State (6-0, 2-0) by about a touchdown on Saturday at the Big House, where the buzz is most definitely back.
“I’m sure there’s going to be attempts to build the game up,” Harbaugh said, refusing to promote the intriguing matchup. “But we’re working and not worrying.”
The Spartans have won six of the last seven meetings, but they haven’t faced Harbaugh and his rapidly, improving new-look team yet.
“In the past six to eight years, you didn’t see the team get markedly better as the season went along like they are now,” former Wolverines player and current play-by-play broadcaster Jim Brandstatter said. “They were the same, or they had gotten worse, by the end of the season.”
Instead of playing a soft zone on defense, cornerbacks play in-your-face coverage. On offense, a slew of formations are used and anyone, including fullbacks and tight ends, are options.
“When I sit up there in the stadium and watch them play, it’s just fun to watch,” former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Harbaugh has generated a ton of attention since he returned for a second time to Ann Arbor more than nine months ago instead of staying in the NFL.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio insisted he doesn’t have a problem with Harbaugh or the adoration he has been showered with in the state and around the country.
“That’s not the man, that’s the hype,” Dantonio said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “He has handled himself extremely well. Obviously, he is a great football coach. That has been proven.”
Harbaugh grew up watching Michigan football because his father was one of Schembechler’s assistant coaches from 1973-79. After his dad left to be an assistant at Stanford, he came back to Ann Arbor to play quarterback for Schembechler and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 1986.
Following his NFL career, Harbaugh coached quarterbacks for the Oakland Raiders for a couple years before getting a shot to be a head coach. He led San Diego to a 29-6 record in the second tier of college football before turning around his first program. Harbaugh took over a Stanford team that had won only one game in 2006 and increased the team’s number of victories each year before going 12-1 in his fourth season.
The nearby San Francisco 49ers were impressed enough to hire him and he won nearly 70 percent of his games over four years in the league, leading the 49ers to the NFC championship game in each of his first three seasons and making it to the Super Bowl once.
When it was clear Harbaugh and the 49ers were going their separate ways, with one year left on his contract, Michigan’s interim athletic director, Jim Hackett, swooped in and wooed him back to a place he considers home.
“How often do you have a coaching search when 99.99 percent of the fan base wanted a guy, and they get that guy?” Brandstatter asked. “At his radio show, so many people come out just to see him that some fans are mad that they can’t sit in the front row anymore because there isn’t enough room. I wouldn’t say he’s a messiah, but he is a rock star here.”
To his players, he’s simply coach Harbaugh and they’re thrilled to follow his lead.
“He makes me love football more than I ever thought was possible,” Butt said. “In everything he does, it makes my passion grow for the sport. He just rubs off on everyone around him.”