Jim Harbaugh is different. Even the most ardent supporters and detractors of college football's biggest firebrand in recent history can agree on that.
In the two seasons Harbaugh has spent at Michigan he has caused an almost constant stir with satellite camps, funky formations, sleepovers with recruits and a long list of other breaks from the norm. There appear to be very few things he won't try at least once, and there is certainly no limit on where he's willing to look for inspiration.
Harbaugh visited the White House during his first spring with the Wolverines and left with a spiral-bound notebook full of ideas. His policy of having the winners of practice competitions run extra sprints? That came when a friend told him about the Navy captain who uses the same system to train SEALs at Coronado Island "because they've earned the right to get better." And then, of course, there's the famous story of Harbaugh showing up late to work at Stanford because he took 30 minutes to admire a police officer who was efficiently directing cars through an intersection while she stood beneath a malfunctioning traffic light.
"I think it's a rare bird that can see people in different venues and extract from them what's working," says Michigan athletic counselor Greg Harden, who arrived on campus during Harbaugh's senior year and has since become a trusted confidant for the likes of Desmond Howard, Tom Brady and Michael Phelps.
"That's a rare bird."
The cadre of famous, uber-successful people who have met with Michigan's head coach is as long as it is eclectic. Pro wrestlers, politicians, rap artists, titans of industry and athletics have all rubbed shoulders with Harbaugh in the past couple of years, and he manages to draw some pearl of wisdom out of almost all of them. Whether he's in a high-stakes Las Vegas poker room with Johnny Chan or building a bamboo home in rural South America (yes, he has done both), Harbaugh's relentless quest to find an edge never ends.
Don't believe us? Just ask his friends ...
Judge Judith Sheindlin
Former judge and Emmy-award winning host of 'Judge Judy' for the past 21 years
Saved among the treasures in Judith Sheindlin's cellphone is a video of herself and two grown men exuberantly wishing her grandchild good luck in a law school final exam. The men, standing on a sidewalk in Los Angeles, implored the soon-to-be lawyer to approach the legal system with "an enthusiasm unknown to mankind."
Sheindlin sent a note to Jim and Jack Harbaugh back in 2013 letting them know she'd like to buy them lunch the next time they can make it down the coast to Southern California. Months earlier the younger Harbaugh was at the NFL combine when he fielded a question about players who lied in their team interviews. He told the bemused and amused reporters that if he had learned anything from watching countless episodes of "Judge Judy," it was that in her courtroom, no one comes back from a lie. The same applied for Harbaugh's 49ers.
Someone -- it might have been another of her 12 grandchildren -- caught wind of the fact that the Harbaugh men were big fans, and for whatever reason, this made the grandma's two-decade run as a daytime television staple seem much more impressive.
Their day together -- the Harbaughs sat through a taping of the show before joining Sheindlin for lunch and some afternoon conversation -- sparked one of the more well-documented additions to Harbaugh's roster of unexpected and devoted friends.
"I'm a fan of people who have great spirit," Sheindlin says. "I'm not a huge football fan. I don't understand the game, but I understand spirit. I was so impressed with the spirit of these two men, father and son. They had a joie de vivre and excitement about them that was infectious. It really is."
After lunch, the trio returned to Sheindlin's studio to chat over a game of cards. They talked about the cases she heard that day and the rest of the Harbaugh family. She chose the game, gin rummy, without realizing that she was about to get a view of what fuels some of that spirit for Harbaugh. She wouldn't say who had more sets in front of them at the end of the game, but she probably plays a little bit more gin than the Harbaugh gentlemen. Harbaugh says he'd like a rematch.
"It's probably best not to mention that," she says, laughing. "I think he's competitive."
Fourteen-time World Series of Poker winner (career tournament earnings: $20.9 million)
Harbaugh learned to play cards -- poker, not gin -- from the owner of a famous sports café on Stanford's campus. Since then he has turned to the pros several times to further his education. He has talked through more than a few hands with Phil Hellmuth, who left school after three years at Wisconsin to try to make a career of playing cards.
By the time Harbaugh met Hellmuth courtside at a Stanford basketball game, the 6-foot-7 millionaire had taken down enough huge pots to be a recognizable celebrity. Harbaugh was in the throes of picking fights with Pete Carroll and Pac-12 front-runner USC, where Hollywood stars regularly stopped by practice and games. Harbaugh asked Hellmuth if he'd like to hang out on the Cardinal sideline during home games.
"Oh, Snoop Dogg doesn't make it up this way so you're going to have to settle for me," Hellmuth said. They hit it off immediately.
Hellmuth became a regular visitor to Harbaugh's locker rooms in Palo Alto and San Francisco. He flew with the Cardinal team to a game at Wake Forest in 2009 and sat next to Jim and his wife for most of the flight. They dissected a few poker hands and talked about the incredibly subtle details of body language that Hellmuth studies to try to read his opponents. Harbaugh would later tell his offensive linemen to focus on a defender's knuckles before the snap. When they turned white, the player was tense. Expect a blitz.
The two men stay in touch periodically via text message and an occasional visit. Hellmuth, for example, attended Harbaugh's national signing day extravaganza this past February and then flew with him and Desmond Howard to the Super Bowl a couple of days later.
Hellmuth's texts -- like many of the messages Harbaugh gets from his friends -- will sometimes find their way into a news conference. During a 9-2 start to his first year with the 49ers, Hellmuth told Harbaugh to keep his focus on the future with a poker analogy. Later that week, Harbaugh told reporters that San Francisco "may be ahead in the chip count, but we don't have a seat at the final table."
"He [freaking] loved it," Hellmuth said. "The next week there were all these poker analogies in his press conference. I said, 'This is awesome.' "
Rev. Joe Uhen
Priest at Santisimo Sacramento Parish in Piura, Peru
Harbaugh sat in a church pew a few years ago in a modest agricultural city in the northwest corner of Peru listening to what would become one of his favorite Bible passages. Padre Joe, who moved from Milwaukee to Peru 23 years ago, was celebrating Mass with his local congregation along with a group from California in town for their annual service trip to help the poor and the sick at this parish. He was reading from the Book of Kings.
In it, the prophet Elijah challenges a group of priests who worship a god named Baal to a "my god is better than your god" fire-starting contest atop Mount Carmel. While the priests struggle to light their fire, Elijah calls out to them, asking if perhaps they're not praying loud enough or suggesting their god might be on vacation. Then he douses his wood in water, says a prayer and watches it burst into flames.
"He really liked the way Elijah, kind of, well, I think the right word is trash-talked these priests that could not get it done," Joe says. "Jim really appreciated that one."
Days later, the volunteers visited a prison. Harbaugh met with the men inside, played a little bit of football with them and -- as he does at many of the places he visits in Piura -- left one of them with the shoes he wore. They stopped for lunch on the way home where the coach had a moment of introspection in stocking feet.
"Why am I the kid that always liked to throw rocks at the beehive?" he asked his friends. Blank stares. Sideways glances around the table. Finally, big smiles and laughs. Padre Joe assured Harbaugh that while his self-assessment was right, at times the Lord needs men who are willing to provoke one another.
Harbaugh nodded and finished his lunch.
Two-time NASCAR champion, three-time Nationwide Series most popular driver
The Keselowski family has been racing cars from a home base on the north side of Detroit's suburbs since the end of the Second World War. When Bob Keselowski took off to a track down south for his races in 1980s and early '90s he left his son, Brad, with cousins across the street for the weekend. Saturdays there were spent watching the Wolverines.
The younger Keselowski befriended several Michigan staffers before Harbaugh arrived and got word to the new coach that he was a big fan. Harbaugh, who previously held an ownership stake in an IndyCar racing team and once drove the pace car at the Indy 500, told Keselowski he'd love to have him come down to his national signing day event this past February.
So a week before his 32nd birthday, Keselowski met Harbaugh in Ann Arbor and was quickly whisked into a hotel suite to be introduced to fellow guests of honor such as Phil Hellmuth, Texas Rangers pitcher Derek Holland and Dr. Allan Mishra, who pioneered Platelet-Rich Plasma treatments to fix tennis elbow. On a night crowded with star power, Keselowski says Harbaugh stood out.
"My impression of him was that he was a rock star," Keselowski says. "And maybe a little bit less comfortable with it than he lets on, which I can relate to very much."
They stayed in touch, connecting each another with contacts within their personal networks that might prove to be mutually beneficial. Keselowski declined to give specifics, but he did say Harbaugh is "a great ally to have."
The two send text messages to each other, discussing how celebrity in the racing world can bring about better sponsorships and better resources to improve a team. Harbaugh's brushes with celebrity, Keselowski saw, give him an edge in collecting resources, too. Boosters and recruits looked on in awe at the show Harbaugh orchestrated that week in February.
"I think coach Harbaugh understands there is a certain celebrity aspect that helps you perform," he says. "He's a team guy by choice and desire. He's a celebrity because it helps."
President/CEO of Activision Blizzard, the video game company responsible for 'Call of Duty,' 'Guitar Hero,' 'World of Warcraft' and more popular titles
What does a man worth more than $4 billion serve to a man with a multimillion dollar annual salary when his family comes to visit for dinner? Hot dogs, and he's running the grill.
Bobby Kotick's final autumn as a Michigan student was Jim Harbaugh's first as the Wolverines' starting quarterback. Kotick stuck around in Ann Arbor for a few more years afterward to cheer for the maize and blue while developing software for computer games. Thirty years, a couple of company purchases and a video game empire later, he and Harbaugh have become friends and mutual sounding boards.
The Harbaughs visited the Koticks in California this summer shortly before the season began. The two families visited Disneyland then grilled dinner for the kids. Eventually, the conversation turned toward one of their favorite subjects -- leadership. The two powerful men sat across a table that had been filled with kids and ketchup stains not long before and discussed the impact of clear communication and the definition of integrity.
"When we have conversations what comes up is those kinds of ideals," Kotick says. "He's not bashful about soliciting advice and looking for support. Part of being a great leader is that recognition of how to find capable people who have perspectives and insights that will improve your ability to remain committed to excellence."
Kotick asked a university regent to introduce him to the new football coach last summer, and Harbaugh eagerly opened his doors. He visited practice in the fall and again in the spring as part football fan/part organizational observer.
The CEO's new favorite hobby in his old hometown is visiting Harbaugh's office and committing to memory the messages scribbled on his whiteboard -- a Mark Twain quote here, a message about being the unpopular "agent of change" there. Often times the little nuggets of wisdom make it back to the Kotick house or to the Activision office.
"Any time I'm there now," Kotick says. "I write down every single thing he writes on the board."
Justice Elena Kagan
Fourth woman in history appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court
With its thick oriental rugs tapering off in front of high, wood-paneled walls framing stately portraits, the chambers of a Supreme Court justice are decidedly not easy to confuse for a space inside any football facilities. Harbaugh seemed at ease, though, on his D.C. trip when he sat for more than an hour across the desk from Elena Kagan, who studied at Harvard, Princeton and Oxford, and was the country's first female solicitor general before earning a seat on the Supreme Court. She let the coach know she was a sports fan, too.
Harbaugh snapped photos with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and talked about the Nebraska tailgating scene with Clarence Thomas. With Kagan, he wanted to know about her job. What did she like about it? What didn't she like about it? What had she learned?
The legal system in America has piqued Harbaugh's interest since his days of playing quarterback for the Chicago Bears. While in Chicago, a friend introduced Harbaugh to John Levi, then a respected young lawyer and now the chairman of the Legal Services Corporation, a post appointed for which he was nominated by President Barack Obama. He was by Harbaugh's side in Kagan's chambers.
Levi sent Harbaugh a gift toward the end of his stint coaching the San Francisco 49ers. It was a book of speeches delivered by his father -- former U.S. Attorney General Edward H. Levi -- about restoring faith in a broken justice system in the wake of President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal. Harbaugh was enthralled. Several weeks later, Levi's phone rang late at night and the coach was on the other end of the line.
"Levi, I just want you to know I read every one of your dad's talks," Harbaugh said. "They really help me keep my perspective. There are things in life that are more important and I recognize what your dad was talking about. I just wanted to tell you it's given me so many ideas in my own work."
Levi was impressed enough not to doubt Harbaugh's interest in law again. When the coach asked if he could come to one of the Legal Services Corporation's meetings at the White House in spring 2015, Levi made sure to save him a spot. Afterward, they visited the Supreme Court building where Harbaugh brought along a different book to deliver as a gift.
As he wrapped up his conversation with Justice Kagan, he asked if she would give him a moment and then returned with his marked-up copy of Alabama coach Bear Bryant's biography. He opened the front cover, and as Levi remembers it, inscribed something to the effect of: "If our government operated the way Coach Bryant ran his teams we'd all be in better shape. Best wishes, Jim Harbaugh." Then he and Levi shook her hand and headed down the hall to say hello to another member of the country's highest court.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for photography and World Press Photo Picture of the Year
A small group of Harbaugh's most trusted confidants sat in his office early this summer each with an identical stack of printed pages in his lap. The men took turns reading from the pages, at times pausing to make a comment or suggest a grammar fix. It was a table read for the longest writing project the coach has attempted.
David Turnley was the most recently acquainted member of the group. Less than a year before he delivered one of his prints to Harbaugh's office and asked the coach what he would think about having a photographer embedded with the program. Harbaugh, who is rarely forthcoming on anyone's terms but his own, was skeptical at first.
Turnley presented a "60 Minutes" special about his work as a sales pitch of sorts. He told the coach about eating dinner with Nelson Mandela the night the South African leader was released from prison. He could've talked about his trip to Cuba with Muhammad Ali and the week he spent with the Dalai Lama. He might have mentioned the scenes of dust and soot gathering on the lens of his Leica camera while he captured the wreckage in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. The documentary mentioned his award-winning war photos.
Harbaugh wanted to know about the sensation of bullets whipping by your head. Turnley suggested it couldn't have been much more stressful than the defensive linemen that Harbaugh evaded for 15 years as an NFL quarterback. He told the coach about how he learned the value of preparation when working in a dangerous, hectic and unpredictable battle.
Turnley has followed the team and Harbaugh nearly every day since last summer. This August, they co-authored a book with the best of his pictures. Turnley told Harbaugh his contribution to the publication should be a treatise on his coaching style. Harbaugh, after looking up what a treatise was, decided he wanted to take it seriously. After several drafts, developmental editing sessions and an early summer table read, the result was a 16-page manifesto on coaching and leadership. The work, Harbaugh said, gave him a new appreciation for writing and a renewed clarity for what he values most.
Turnley said the quality that stands out the most after more than a year behind Harbaugh's curtain is what he likes to call "the stars in the eyes." He offered some incredibly lofty comparisons to help explain what that means.
"Not an easy one to describe," he says. "I've seen it with Ali. I've seen it with Mandela. They always look you in the eye, very direct. Everything about Jim Harbaugh's presence is compelling. When he walks into the room he inspires with his presence. People talk about that with [military] generals, I think he more than anyone I've ever met has that quality. When he walks in a room he assumes the position of leadership. You can literally see the highlight in the eye. It's twinkling out of the eyeballs, there's so much energy."
Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, basketball player
The team meeting room at Schembechler Hall was quiet, maybe as quiet as it has even been, and yet filled with an inaudible buzz on the eve of Michigan's first home game this August. Players knew who would be addressing them in just a few minutes -- a man that could make even Harbaugh giddy with disbelief when sharing his company: Michael Jordan.
The first time Jordan called Harbaugh to discuss the Wolverines wearing a Jumpman logo on their uniforms this fall, the coach couldn't believe it. "Come on," he said. "Who is this really? ... The real Michael Jordan?"
Michigan's players watched a tape of Jordan's highlights before he addressed the team and opened the floor for 45 minutes of questions. Jordan has been asked a million things about his playing career a million different times. It's hard, according to some in the room that night, to get him to turn off his autopilot answers and crack into a deeper layer of insight. After almost every player question, Harbaugh responded with a follow-up, prodding and poking to find a way to make Jordan say a bit more.
The NBA legend talked to the team about playing through pain for his teammates and what he called on during high-pressure moments. He told them to trust their training and that if they wanted to get better they would have to continue to challenge one another. Harbaugh sat nodding his head in agreement.
A month earlier, Harbaugh was in the Detroit warehouse where Henry Ford rolled the first Model T's off of his assembly line. He and a few other Michigan dignitaries came to unveil the new Jumpman jerseys. He told reporters that the few discussions he had with Jordan since the initial surprising phone call had transitioned from the jerseys to the program to general conversations about achieving great things.
"As Jack Harbaugh said, 'You are with whom you associate,' " Jim said. "And to take that a step further, let's associate ourselves with the most evolved human beings in the world."
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