LINCOLN — The slightly cartoonish mug right out of a Tank McNamara or Gil Thorp comic strip. The bold, vaguely flakish one-liners seemingly borrowed from a quote book. That unpredictable, manic intensity that masks a deep knowledge of the game and a gut-level instinct for play-calling.
There is one Jim Harbaugh in college football. He's at Michigan, and he was the story of the 2016 recruiting cycle.
It's hard to know whether Nebraska and Big Ten fans should love or loathe Harbaugh, but he's wormed his way under the SEC's skin. That league has met its match.
The SEC is trying to keep Harbaugh from holding a week of spring practice in Florida. The SEC and ACC are trying to keep the Big Ten — mostly Harbaugh — from running satellite camps in the South. The college football national media — always hungry for clickbait and page views — are trying to keep up with every last one of Harbaugh's antics.
Climbing trees. Sleeping over at kids' houses.
The coach's Twitter account has become a must-follow. His Twitter profile even lists a phone number. It's his number, all right — one of many, I'm sure — even if the call, after a perfunctory message from "Coach Harbaugh," goes to voicemail, which is full.
Harbaugh won at Stanford. He won in the NFL with the 49ers. He won 10 games at Michigan in year one. No surprise there, Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said. A few of the other things, though, have been.
"Did I think he was going to climb a tree? No," DiNardo said. "Did I think he was going to sleep at a prospect's house? No. But I'm fine with it. Much like the rest of our business, the customer is always right. If it helps makes sales — if it helps persuade someone to come to your school — I'm fine with it. Some coaches don't like it, some coaches do."
DiNardo is one of the few college football analysts who openly talk about the importance of recruiting rankings. The former Indiana, Vanderbilt and LSU head coach follows them closely, tweets ranking updates throughout the year, and takes major stock in where teams fall in the rankings.
"If you track the SEC during the BCS era, you'll see four in the top 10 in recruiting and three or four in the top 20," DiNardo said. "That's where the Big Ten has to get. You have to win the national championship during the first Wednesday in February. I mean, Alabama has proven it. Ohio State's proven it."
OSU and Michigan finished in the top 10 of 247Sports' composite rankings. As for the rest of the league?
"I thought there was going to be four teams in the top 10, and I was hoping for two more in the top 20," DiNardo said. "It didn't really end that way."
In the 247Sports composite service — which I prefer since it is an average of many recruiting services — Penn State finished 19th and Michigan State finished 22nd. Nebraska was the top Big Ten West team at 24th. That's five programs in the top 25. In comparison, the SEC had nine teams in the top 25, the Big 12 had four, the Pac-12 three and the ACC, if you include Notre Dame, had four.
Big Ten recruiting is better, he said. But its best recruiting programs are in the East Division. There's more talent in the East. It's just not easy for West Division teams to attract those players for unofficial visits in the summer, when many top prospects want to decide. That's especially true when West teams aren't winning conference titles.
DiNardo — like Nebraska coach Mike Riley — supports a rule that would allow official visits before a prospect's senior year. So does Harbaugh.
"It's an outdated system," Harbaugh said at his signing day press conference. "The system has been in place for 30-some years, and the process has changed. I would vote that you could sign a national letter of intent at any time."
That last sentence is part of what makes Harbaugh such a paradox. Michigan had a slew of commits drop the program — or get dropped by the Wolverines — in the two months before signing day. Two of them claimed to have been misled by Michigan's staff as to whether they still had a scholarship available. Harbaugh took heat — rightly so. That much recruit turnover, so close to signing day, reflects poor communication. Clearly, Michigan had cooled on certain players. If a guy could sign his letter of intent at any time, Michigan couldn't have done what it did, which was make room for better players.
"There were mistakes made," Harbaugh said on signing day. "I take full accountability for them, but I don't apologize and we'll keep forging on."
When asked for specifics on those mistakes, Harbaugh responded with silence. If you watched many of Harbaugh's pressers over the years, this is common. Irritated silence.
He's chattier about his stunts with potential recruits.
"The more time that you can spend with them, whether it's waking up, sleeping at their house and waking up, having breakfast, going to school, meeting the teachers, meeting the counselors, being immersed in the family, it's so invaluable because when the youngsters come here then I'm so much more comfortable calling family members," Harbaugh said.
"They're so much more comfortable calling me."
Coaching rivals have noticed. Riley — who actually coached Harbaugh in the NFL for his final seasons — said he watched what Harbaugh was doing on the recruiting trail recently.
"I think that there is some stuff there that's interesting and makes everybody think a little bit," Riley said.
The spring practice in Florida is making people think. Michigan plans to hold it at IMGAcademy, an athletic boarding school hoarding elite high school football players from all over the nation.
Harbaugh's purpose in putting the camp at IMG is transparent. IMG has a lot of top prospects. All those prospects will know Michigan is on campus, and nothing will stop them from attending those practices. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey argued that Harbaugh's decision robs Michigan players — or, you know, student-athletes — of a spring break to get away from the program.
But Harbaugh, during his signing day press conference, had a pre-emptive answer for that.
"Everybody's going to get a spring break," Harbaugh said. "There's no youngster that can't afford to fly somewhere (who) won't be able to enjoy his spring break. What better way to be doing that than to be playing football? The other thing it's going to allow us to do by practicing during our spring break is both weeks of finals, winter finals, are going to be no football. They'll be discretionary weeks so guys can concentrate and focus on the finals. We'll be outside, we'll be in Florida, go to the beach."
Pretty clever. Harbaugh plays on the inherent poverty of some of his players — some of them are too cash or credit poor, after all, to take the kinds of spring break trips many fans wrongly assume all college students take — and gives the team time off to concentrate on finals. It's hard to argue that this trip is hurting any academic mission.
Mostly, it's denying players a chance to chill and party on their own — an infringement on their personal freedom. Of course, Harbaugh's preference for immersive education — all football, all the time — has never exactly been conducive to anyone's liberty but his own.
Still, if that's what it takes to catch Ohio State, Michigan may forge forward. And somehow, the rest of the Big Ten will have to keep up. According to 247Sports' composite service, the Buckeyes signed 39 top-100 prospects in the last five recruiting classes. That's more than the rest of the Big Ten combined. Nebraska signed one — incoming defensive back Lamar Jackson. OSU's Urban Meyer is a recruiting juggernaut.
DiNardo said Ohio State has long been a talent giant.
"Even during the Ten Year War between Ohio State and Michigan, Woody (Hayes) always had better players than Bo (Schembechler)," DiNardo said. "Michigan would go to Ohio and find the kids that Ohio State didn't offer. That's still going on to a certain degree. The best go to Ohio State."
Perhaps the Buckeyes do have it better than Harbaugh and his guys. A 42-13 win over Michigan in late November says as much.
But the rest of the Big Ten? Not really.
Soon enough, because of Harbaugh, that answer may change to "hardly."