Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, an Update From the Bo Schembechler Line


“Bo was not happy,” said Carr, who later became a Michigan head coach.

This week, Michigan plays the same opponent in a similarly emotional moment — and one with perhaps even higher stakes. The No. 3 Wolverines will face the No. 2 Buckeyes on Saturday afternoon in Columbus, Ohio, with the chance to go on to win the Big Ten championship, cementing a place in the season-ending College Football Playoff.

Harbaugh has not assured victory this time around — “I made a guarantee a long time ago, and I’ve learned from that,” he said at his introductory news conference in 2014 — but in virtually every other respect, he is the same cocky gunslinger: aiming warning shots on Twitter at rivals; ruffling feathers with his nationwide satellite camps; elevating college football to show business.

Harbaugh, who returned to Michigan after four years at Stanford and four more in the N.F.L. with the San Francisco 49ers, is undeniably Schembechler’s successor: the son of a longtime Schembechler assistant and the old coach’s former quarterback. Yet Harbaugh also represents a decided swerve from the gruff, Cold War-era personality of Schembechler, who revived Michigan after taking over in 1969 and reigned over his program with storied benevolence for 21 years.

John Arbeznik, who played center for Schembechler, said Harbaugh was quite the contrast: “He takes his shirt off,” Arbeznik said, recalling a notorious moment from a summer camp. “He’s kind of goofy.”

But he is, to his core, a Michigan man, and Michigan fans place almost as much stock in lineage as do royal houses. Like a foreign-born conqueror, Schembechler, who died in 2006, was the Ohio-born protégé of the great Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes. Schembechler’s most successful successors — Gary Moeller, Carr and now Harbaugh — either coached under him or played for him. So did Michigan’s last three interim and permanent athletic directors.

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Schembechler, right, yelled at Harbaugh as the Wolverines fell to Arizona State, 22-15, in the Rose Bowl in January 1987.

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Reed Saxon/Associated Press

“You put someone like Jim Harbaugh,” said Glenn Schembechler III, Bo’s son, who is known as Shemy, “who absolutely comes from that legacy — not only from Michigan, but also my dad — with his success he’s had already, and what you’ve done is created a nuclear phenomenon that brings all those sources together.”

This abstract connection is made concrete in something called the Har-Bug. Wozniak, 40, has an old Volkswagen Beetle that her family long ago painted in Michigan maize and blue, with Wolverines knickknacks and slogans adorning its bulbous body. Its name changes to honor each Michigan head coach: from the Bo-Mobile to the Mo-Mobile, to Lloyd’s Carr and the Hokes-Wagen, for Brady Hoke, a former Carr assistant who ascended to the top job in 2011.

The meaning of the Har-Bug name is clear: Harbaugh is the latest model of a storied ideal. It is a point Harbaugh himself made at that first news conference, when he said, “I’m standing on a foundation that has been built for over 100 years by some great men.”

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Annette Wozniak showed off the “Har-Bug,” a Volkswagen Beetle sporting Michigan’s Maize and Blue. The car’s name changes to honor each Wolverines head football coach.

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Sean Proctor for The New York Times

Harbaugh has passed up few opportunities to pay homage to his old coach, whose widow attended his introductory news conference. His blue baseball cap does not have the contemporary block M that has become the Michigan standard but the skinny-M version that Schembechler preferred. Harbaugh brought back Jon Falk, a retired equipment manager whom Schembechler had hired. Harbaugh has made Schembechler’s most famous phrase a central part of his message: “Those who stay will be champions.”

“People truly still consider him a disciple of Bo, even if he’s kind of a weird dude,” said Tom Sheppard, 29, a Michigander who has rooted for the Wolverines his whole life.

Many fans and close observers attributed the differences between Schembechler and Harbaugh less to the men themselves and more to the times in which they operated.

“There’s a new millennium,” said Rich Eisen, the NFL Network host, who reported on Schembechler’s final season for The Michigan Daily, a student newspaper. When he was an honorary captain for one home game, he said, he saw only two photographs in Michigan’s locker room: one of Schembechler, the patriarch of the current line; and one of Tom Brady, a Wolverine who has fulfilled every recruit’s dream of making it in the N.F.L.

“It’s smart,” Eisen said. “There’s a new millennium, and you’ve got to reach the kids in a certain way in the 21st century. He gets it.”

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Harbaugh, who has been known to draw extra attention to himself when recruiting players, held the down marker during a game between El Cerrito High School and St. Mary’s College High School in Albany, Calif., in October.

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Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group, via Associated Press

Decades ago, great football coaches like Schembechler, Hayes and Alabama’s Bear Bryant were expected to be distant men of vague but great authority. Today, they are more likely to be (slightly) more vulnerable, detail-oriented workaholics like Harbaugh, Urban Meyer of Ohio State and Nick Saban of Alabama.

“The difference between him and Jim,” Carr said, referring to Schembechler’s famed distaste for talking to reporters, “was, in those days, the media, in relation to what it is today, is night and day.”

“The difference,” Arbeznik added of Harbaugh, “is he’s got Facebook and Twitter.”

What could be the most consequential difference between Schembechler and Harbaugh has yet to be determined. Michigan was Schembechler’s final stop as a coach, and he stayed more than two decades. Harbaugh’s conspicuously peripatetic career — three seasons at the University of San Diego, four at Stanford, four in San Francisco and now two at Michigan — has bred fears that despite a $9 million salary, the highest in college football and comparable to N.F.L. pay, he will soon leave Ann Arbor again.

Those who stay may be champions. But will champions stay?

“People think he’ll stay around,” Sheppard said. “Or at least hope so.”

He added, “If Harbaugh came in and traded one national championship for three years of service, I think people would take it.”

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