CHICAGO -- Jim Harbaugh has never been more excited for the start of a football season. This isn't news: He admits to saying the same thing every year, because he is a lot more enthusiastic about the start of football than the questions that come before it.
"The start of fall camp to me is the start of the season, the birth of a new season, like coming out of the womb, coming out to chaos, bright lights, activity," Harbaugh said. "And it's a wonderful feeling, it's a wonderful feeling of a new experience and a new season."
For all the attention Harbaugh has received for off-the-field oddities and bravado this offseason, there is one constant: He's unwilling to take any bait verbally and criticize others, and he really only cares about actual football, which hasn't started yet. He spent over an hour and a half meeting with reporters at Big Ten media days on Friday, and in that time Harbaugh offered few specifics and continued with his trend of avoiding answers to philosophical questions -- not in a malicious way, it's just how he is. He has no interest in verbal games. His performance served as a deconstruction of the entire preseason media days experience.
Take, for example, a typical preseason question about what qualities he'll look for when picking a starting quarterback.
"I'm not going to go through and list every quality," Harbaugh said, looking around at dozens of cameras and reporters surrounding him. "I know it's a slow time for everybody. I see everybody gathered around here, but there's just not that much to talk about. We haven't started practicing yet, we haven't started playing games. But it's coming. Be patient. It's coming very soon."
The last seven months must be killing Harbaugh. While he's diving head first into taking over as head coach of his alma mater, into meeting his team and making waves on the recruiting trail, the offseason has not offered much in the way of tangible answers to questions or actual football, beyond 15 spring practices. He's spent the offseason making headlines, whether it's through satellite camps or bizarre Twitter interactions or awkward radio interviews, but he claims to not be trying to make headlines at all, even if he is fully aware of exactly how everything he does will play in the media.
"Not striving to be creating any buzz," Harbaugh said. "Just striving to coach the football team. Not trying to be popular or anything. Anyone who is popular is bound to be disliked. So, just coaching football."
Of course, Harbaugh is already one of the most popular coaches in the country, because few coaches have drawn such a strong reaction upon being hired, given the Wolverines' recent downturn under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. Harbaugh refuses to talk about the past, though. Hoke is a friend, and any question about culture change or problems he encountered upon taking the job are dismissed.
For a guy perceived as coming to Michigan with guns blazing, trying to upset the balance of power in college football, he refuses to say anything that will ruffle any feathers whatsoever, whether it's his old friend or his archrivals. Endless prodding about Urban Meyer and the Ohio State rivalry are met with tepid acknowledgements of Ohio State's existence and little else. To start his media session on Friday morning at Big Ten media days, Harbaugh was asked if he had any specific name he'd call his main rival. Meyer, like Woody Hayes, refers to Michigan as "that team up north." Bo Schembechler and Brady Hoke called Ohio State simply "Ohio."
Harbaugh shot it down: "No. Ohio State in particular? Just Ohio State. But great to see everybody this morning. Glad everybody could be here. Wonderful turnout."
Other questions about the meaning of the Ohio State rivalry were met with quick dismissals and diversions to thoughts about practice opening next week or the opening game at Utah. When asked for his thoughts on Meyer, Harbaugh quickly said, "Very impressed. Great coach and a gentleman," and then moved on.
Most coaches will play along with the sports reporter game, even if they say nothing of substance. Harbaugh doesn't pretend to be saying anything unless he actually has interest in the question. He'll speak about his admiration for Bo Schembechler -- he says he lives a down the street from where Bo lived, and he wonders about the routes Bo took to work in the morning -- and he'll praise the coaching style of Woody Hayes, and he'll pull out a Mike Ditka jersey from underneath the podium after spending the previous evening having dinner with the old Bears coach.
But all Harbaugh -- the man who signed an open letter to coaches, "Sincerely yours in football" -- is really interested in is coaching football, and there are few straight answers to give about that at the moment. So he doesn't give them, and he unravels the whole process.
People want to know who Michigan's starting quarterback will be, but the race remains wide-open between Iowa transfer Jake Rudock, last year's backup Shane Morris and a handful others. People want to know who will take the lead at running back, but a handful of players are in the mix. People want to know how effective USC transfer Ty Isaac will be at running back, but an injury sidelined him for most of the spring.
No Michigan players made Big Ten Network's preseason all-conference team, and only tight end Jake Butt made the cut in our offseason position rankings series at Sports on Earth. Harbaugh, one of the most high-profile coaches in all of football, has taken over one of the most anonymous Michigan teams ever -- the team's assumed best player might be defensive back Jabrill Peppers, a redshirt freshman -- with nobody quite sure what to expect from the Wolverines when they finally take the field this fall.
His players, at least, are embracing the challenge, and the change from Hoke to the honest, direct and intense Harbaugh.
"Coach Harbaugh is awesome," receiver Jehu Chesson said. "You can see by his personality when he's here and also you come to one of our practices and how enthused he is about the team and how into the players he is. A lot of guys ask me what kind of guy is he, and what I answer with is, if you go up to him for the truth and where you stand in the program, he's going to give it to you. He's not going to shy back because at Michigan there's an expectation, and you need to know where you stand day in and day out. If you don't know, how can you get better?"
There is no passive aggressiveness, no mind games. So when Harbaugh says for the millionth time that he's never been more excited for football to begin, it's hard not to believe that he really means it this time, even if he's always excited for football, be it a satellite camp, a conversation with an old coaching friend or the actual season.
New Nebraska coach Mike Riley was Harbaugh's coach with the San Diego Chargers in 1999-00, after they had drafted Ryan Leaf. Harbaugh was in his late 30s at the time. Riley can readily confirm Harbaugh's enthusiasm for the game itself.
"I remember leading up to the season, Jim was out there, we had like rookie workouts, and he was out there with the rookies and they were carrying these big logs running across the field with them," Riley said. "And there's this veteran quarterback with the young guys, and he's just working his tail off like crazy. He's a very, very hard worker and great example and very intense."
It holds true in most circumstances: Harbaugh has no time for things he considers frivolous, which involves most anything asked of him at Big Ten media days. It's not done in a malicious way; it's just how he is, not particularly interested in playing the game with sports reporters that most coaches play. In many ways, it's refreshing. There's nothing fake about Harbaugh, and instead of the canned platitudes that often dominate the conversation at these events, one goes into a Harbaugh interview having no idea what to expect from question to question. Every Harbaugh interview is a new experience.
Nobody really knows what answers the 2015 season holds for Michigan, but Wolverines fans have the right to be more excited than ever for the start of a season, just like their new coach. Harbaugh's quirks aren't a negative. In fact, they're a breath of fresh air for both the Wolverines and the Big Ten as a whole. He's not going to talk about beating Ohio State or tangible expectations for the season. All he cares about is proving it via actual football.