Why has Harbaugh-mania subsided in Year 3 at Michigan?

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Updated: November 21, 2017

9:00 AM ET

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Harbaugh cut himself shaving about a month ago, and there’s a pretty good chance you didn’t hear about it. This is a positive step toward regaining the sanity that was temporarily suspended around Michigan’s celebrity head coach during his first few years on campus.

Harbaugh’s nasal nick (“Protruding nose,” was how he explained the incident after asking reporters if his shaving mishap was causing him to bleed during a news conference) was a good test for the oft-floated theory from those on both sides of the maize-and-blue divide that “If this guy so much as sneezes it’ll make national headlines.”

An illustrated guide to rivalry week

Some games, such as Alabama-Auburn, have major playoff implications. Others, such as Ole Miss-Mississippi State, are just about good, old-fashioned hatred. Either way, these are the battles this weekend that make college football great.

  • Dream and disaster playoff scenarios for each Power 5 league

    The CFP committee should have an easy task Tuesday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App), but what if Alabama doesn’t play for the SEC title? Or a three-loss Ohio State wins the Big Ten? Some scenarios are great for each league. Others could be disastrous.

  • If the possibility of something so minor actually creating a media stir seems snort-worthy to you, please remember that this is a man who just last year inspired Zapruder-style YouTube videos and actual news reports questioning whether or not he picked his nose on the Wolverines’ sideline. That public discourse reached such a level of absurdity that both Harbaugh and his famous brother, John, who coaches the Baltimore Ravens, felt compelled to publicly address his booger disposal habits.

    The shaving story spawned a few chuckles and a couple of tweets and then the conversation quickly returned to football. Harbaugh-mania, it appears, has subsided to a healthier place.

    There is more than anecdotal evidence that Harbaugh demand has dropped. Google Trends tracks the frequency that its engine is asked to search for particular terms over time and charts them on a scale of 0 to 100. A 100 is the busiest time for that topic and a score of 1, for example, would mean that search requests at that time were 1 percent of the peak.

    The peak for “Jim Harbaugh” searches — his 100 mark — in the past three years came in January 2015, the week after Michigan introduced him as its new head coach. His first round of satellite camps that June registered as a 50 and the controversial loss to Ohio State in November 2016 garnered an 84. In 2017, the search rating hasn’t reached higher than a 30, and rarely has it climbed into double digits.

    “I wasn’t doing anything to get on the radar then, and I’m not doing anything now to stay off the radar,” Harbaugh said this week. “Just coaching the football team. That’s always been my goal.”

    So why then has America’s interest in minutiae like Harbaugh’s shaving habits waned? Occam’s razor would suggest that it’s a result of middling results on the field. The coach of an 8-3 team that will finish his third year without a championship and a scant supply of rivalry victories isn’t incredibly interesting no matter how he carries himself. Some of you have almost certainly already yelled some version of this at your computer or phone screen.

    The simplest answer contains plenty of truth. It also has been three years, and newer objects of obsession — Lane Kiffin, whatever is happening in Tennessee at the moment, the fight over Chip Kelly, etc. — have emerged to entertain the college football-watching universe this fall. However, there is still something to learn from watching Harbaugh and his ability to adjust as the spotlight gets a little less bright.

    On a recent episode of the family’s weekly podcast, Jack Harbaugh, his dad, said he was proud of his son’s restraint on the sidelines this season. Through 11 games, he has not yet been flagged for crossing onto the field of play or discussing a referee’s decision with too much enthusiasm. He has yet to break what some, as Jack Harbaugh notes, around college football are calling “the Jim Harbaugh rule” that was instituted this past offseason. The older Harbaugh said their brief exchange on the podcast is the only time they’ve actually talked about Jim’s sideline demeanor, but he has witnessed some change.

    “He became a story,” the elder Harbaugh said. “I never sat down and talked with him about it, we never had a discussion about it, but I think in other discussions that we’ve had I think he believes wholeheartedly that the game is about the players. In those 60 minutes we focus on the players and as little attention as possible should go to the coaches and other objects of focus should be secondary.”

    Does any of that spill into his thinking on non-game days? His father doesn’t think outside perception enters Jim’s decision-making process. Those in Harbaugh’s inner circle know that trying to pull him into a strategy session to revamp his public persona would be foolish and quickly nixed. His actions and reactions are genuine, not calculated and that has worked pretty well for him to date.

    However, it’s not a stretch to imagine that a man who regularly examines every facet of his football program in search of a competitive advantage has in some small ways considered how his own reputation impacts the bottom line of wins and losses.

    The most consistent thing Harbaugh has done during his three years as Michigan’s head coach is evolve. The way he recruits, the spring practice trips, the national signing day extravaganzas, the way he expresses his social views — he’s pushed boundaries on all of these things, evaluated the results and then tweaked them (usually for the better) for the next time around. In that way, he is not a stubborn man.

    Will that same trend apply to the way he manages the grand stage of one of college football’s most-watched football programs? Does it need to? Does he actually have any way to control any of it? One way or another, it’s a safe bet that Harbaugh hasn’t had his last lightning-rod, viral moment as the Wolverines coach. In the offseason ahead, though, it will be interesting to watch whether he’s interesting or not.

    Article source: http://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/21502058/why-harbaugh-mania-subsided-year-3-michigan-wolverines