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He had a golden arm, but he might be best known for his mouth.
Jim Harbaugh, after all, was the one who as a star quarterback guaranteed a win against Ohio State and a Rose Bowl appearance in 1986. When he was an up-and-coming coach arriving at Stanford, he picked a fight with Pete Carroll, who was then the patron saint of college football. He famously jawed with Jim Schwartz in the NFL, and his sideline histrionics get transformed into GIFs by the dozens.
But one of David Shaw's strongest memories of Harbaugh is accompanied by silence.
It was in the L.A. Coliseum in 2007, after Harbaugh had told the press "We bow to no man, we bow to no program here at Stanford University." It was the sound of 85,000 fans who had come to watch the Trojans blow out an opponent they were favored to beat by 41 points completely and utterly stunned.
"I've never heard anything like it: It was stark," Shaw said, recounting memories in Burbank in July. "It was extremely loud to nothing."
Harbaugh may draw attention to himself. He may seem brash. But he's going to try to back up his words.
And he often does.
It's something to consider as Utah prepares to host Michigan at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night. The pregame conversation has been utterly dominated by Harbaugh, who left the San Francisco 49ers (and an apparently frosty relationship with team management) to coach his alma mater.
He's fed the press with fodder, from cryptic tweets to stirring satellite camp controversy to coaching with his shirt off in front of eager cameras. His presence on the sideline is absorbing, magnetic. Like an eclipse, Harbaugh's first game as Michigan coach seems to blot out every other storyline.
Harbaugh doesn't appear to see it this way: "Nobody is above the team," he said in a conference call this week. "Everybody does a little. That's our mindset."
But he commands respect in the coaching world enough to match the bluster. He's a relentless recruiter who maps out exact "prototypes" he wants at each position. He dedicates hours to film. His schemes and personnel have changed over the years, but his teams are physical and leave opponents licking their wounds for the next week.
"He's a heck of a coach," Kyle Whittingham said. "He's a proven commodity. He's been successful everywhere he's been. He knows how to get it done. I thought it was a great hire for them."
The 51-year-old swept in like a tornado with changes. And it's not just the boosters who have been pleased. Michigan players, many of whom still hold a great deal of affection for former coach Brady Hoke, say the "Harbaugh effect" is way more than just hype. Practices have been long and full of energy, and meetings are brisk and business-like. And at the end of the day, Harbaugh's enthusiasm is unflagging.
"He always brings energy and intensity, no matter what," senior fullback Sione Houma said. "We've stepped up a lot more this year. I feel like the same things he did in the NFL, he's brought them here."
But even before Harbaugh was an NFL head coach, he was turning around programs. In his two final seasons at San Diego, he was 22-2 with two conference championships. When he was named head coach at Stanford, he was tasked with turning around a program that had just gone 1-11 and hadn't won a bowl since 1996.
Then his offensive coordinator, Shaw got a front-row seat on how Harbaugh rebuilds.
He gets talent Andrew Luck was among his first recruits but builds around toughness.
It was three seasons before Harbaugh's Stanford teams had anyone taken in the NFL Draft, but slowly he won four games, then five, then eight while making the Cardinal notorious for knock-down, drag-out games, the same reputation that persists today.
But Harbaugh also has a way of keeping players and staff alike off-balance. He has no problem breaking from script to throw a curveball, like a new drill or unexpected conditioning check. He's also hands on, like when Michigan players affirmed he entered a passing drill to show his quarterbacks the correct form for center-quarterback exchanges.
At Stanford, competition wasn't limited to the gridiron. Coaches played pick-up basketball games and racquetball games which Shaw described as so intense, "guys didn't know whether they would get to keep their jobs afterward."
"Every day there's a twist. Every day there's excitement," Shaw said. "That's the environment he creates. It all boils down to competition. And there's no off-switch for Jim. You're gonna sink or swim."
At Stanford, they swam. The Cardinal stunned the world with a 24-23 victory over the Trojans that Sports Illustrated listed as the No. 2 upset of the year (in a odd twist, No. 1 was Appalachian State's win over Michigan).
Shaw remembers coming back to Palo Alto and meeting a group of supporters rallying and celebrating in the middle of the night. Harbaugh disappeared into the mob … then emerged atop the masses, standing on a wooden box and armed with a microphone, delivering a fiery speech.
The next week, Harbaugh was a ghost around Palo Alto. He was busy fielding television interviews. Once he finds a pulpit, you can bet he'll start preaching.
"But it was a smart move for our program. He knew it was big, and he was going to capitalize on it." Shaw said. "We knew every team we played, they would be in for a fight."
A fight is what Utah is expecting Thursday night: Little else is known about this Michigan team. Whatever schemes they'll play will be physical, and the Utes will scrap to make sure their stadium isn't silent at the final whistle.
The Michigan turnaround may not begin in Salt Lake, but most who are familiar with Harbaugh's body of work expect that the turnaround will come. He did it in San Diego, and at Stanford. And of those programs, Michigan is the one with the actual winning tradition: The Wolverines have the most wins all-time, 42 conference championships and 11 national titles.
"When it's all said and done, Jim Harbaugh bleeds Michigan Blue," Shaw said. "He's a Michigan man through and through, and he wants to restore that team to its past glory."
Is Jim Harbaugh good for college football?
"I don't know if it's good or not," Shaw said. "I know it's not boring."
Jim Harbaugh's coaching file
1994-2001 • Western Kentucky, offensive assistant
2002-2003 • Oakland Raiders QB coach, coached MVP Rich Gannon
2004-2006 • University of San Diego head coach, won two Pioneer League titles (29-6)
2007-2010 • Stanford head coach, won the 2011 Orange Bowl (29-21)
2011-2014 • San Francisco 49ers head coach, went to Super Bowl XLVII, three NFC championships (44-19)