Why America loves to hate Jim Harbaugh
Everyone loves an exuberant and villainous madman
First, there is the simple fact that he is a winner. Yes, it's true that the Wolverines have not yet beaten their archrival Ohio State under Harbaugh. But his turnaround of a program sunk into mediocrity under their former coach Brady Hoke has been extraordinarily rapid. (Hoke went 7-6 and 5-7 in his final two seasons; Harbaugh's Wolverines are 10-3 in each of his first two campaigns with players Hoke recruited.)
Harbaugh likes winning and he is not always gracious about it. People hate that. This is not simply a matter of Wolverine arrogance (though I agree that Michigan fans — and I am one — are the worst: We pride ourselves on it). Harbaugh would be loathed by fans of other schools no matter where he was coaching because he would still be Jim Harbaugh.
You may believe that Jim Harbaugh is, in fact, a natural man born of flesh and blood. But this is a question about which educated persons are free to disagree. There are some of us who believe that he is a cyborg developed on the campus of Ann Arbor, or the hat-wearing product of a genetic engineering program devised by space witches to produce a wild-eyed football messiah who will lead a galaxy-wide maize-and-blue jihad revolt.
No wonder so many people hate him.
We are talking about a coach whose competitive instinct borders on the pathological. His obsession with preparation is so extreme and all-consuming that there is now a rule unofficially named for him banning off-campus practice sessions during college vacation. (He celebrated the introduction of the rule by taking his team to Rome, where the winner of an intra-squad essay competition was allowed to accompany him during an audience with Pope Francis.) He waited so long to release this year's official Michigan roster that Rutgers actually filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act hoping to receive it.
Harbaugh is a born showman who enjoys doing outrageous things simply because he can. Two years in a row he has gone for a needless two-point conversion against Rutgers with a four-touchdown lead. He has his players adopt his bizarre centipede quasi-formation and trolls his archrivals Ohio State by buying glasses similar to those worn by their legendary coach Woody Hayes. When Harbaugh was the coach of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, he lost a Super Bowl to his brother and then disappeared, only to be discovered in Guatemala on a mission trip — having given the scoop to LifeSiteNews.com, the pro-life equivalent of Breitbart, rather than to anyone in the sports press.
Harbaugh plays by his own rules, and he isn't sharing the book with anybody. He takes an obvious delight in controversy. When American Sniper was banned from campus in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh announced that he would hold a private screening at which attendance was mandatory for all players.
But he is not actually a jerk. In fact, he is capable of what is, by the standards of man-children paid millions of dollars to supervise weekly boys' games, astonishing humility. Consider his role in the controversy surrounding his former quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Initially Harbaugh told a reporter that he "didn't really like" Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the singing of the National Anthem in protest against racial injustice. But he changed his mind, not bowing to political correctness, to which he is utterly allergic, but in accordance with the dictates of his conscience, to which, as he pointed out in the brief essay he wrote about Kaepernick for Time's most recent 100 issue, the embattled quarterback must answer like the rest of us.
The most astonishing that about his occasional forays into politics is that they are not actually clumsy or random. Like Paul Newman, he is one of those rare celebrities who also goes to what Christopher Hitchens called "the boring meetings." Harbaugh's criticism of President Trump's proposed budget back in March was a case in point. Taking to Twitter, Harbaugh pointed out that the president's plan would have cut more than $300 million in funding for the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit that is responsible for providing 90 percent of all civic legal assistance in the United States. This was not uninspired liberal whining; it was pointed specific criticism that drew attention to some of the most important pro-bono law work being done in this country. Jim Harbaugh is a serious man and a careful thinker.
At some level, I think, Harbaugh's many detractors recognize all of this. But still, they love to hate him. And are we really surprised? Nobody older than 5 gets worked up over Luke Skywalker: the most interesting characters in Star Wars are Darth Vader and the Galactic Emperor. People love a good villain, a bad guy who is so consistent and skillful and relentless at beating the good guys and so in love with doing it that it's impossible not to enjoy his wickedness.
This is especially the case when the villain in question is kind of a hero.