SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Jim Harbaugh was first to greet Jake Rudock on the Michigan sideline after he threw the pick-6 that pretty much ended any hope the Wolverines had of winning the much-hyped debut of their much-hyped coach.
The coach put an arm around his player, told him that the Utah defensive back made a great play and gave the forlorn quarterback a pat on the helmet.
Michigan fans will need to have the same type of patience with their team. Harbaugh has restored hope to the proud program, but as the 24-17 loss to the Utes on Thursday night showed, a return to glory is going to take some time.
“A lot of positives,” Harbaugh said. “Some things to build on.”
After an offseason filled with Harbaugh-mania, it was time to play some football, but in many ways Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines looked a lot like the ones coached last season by Brady Hoke, who was fired after going 5-7.
Too many turnovers by the quarterback (Rudock threw three picks). Little production from the running game (76 yards on 29 carries). A defense that played OK, but got little support.
“I thought we had a great game plan,” said tight end Jake Butt, who had eight catches for 93 yards and a touchdown. “We just didn’t execute.”
Linebacker Joe Bolden echoed that. “I sound like a broken recorder, but we didn’t execute,” he said.
Harbaugh gave a little laugh when he was told how the players harped on lack of execution.’
“I think they are being too hard on themselves,” he said.
Since that January day in Ann Arbor when Harbaugh was introduced as coach of his alma mater, he has been the most interesting man in college football. An internet sensation to rival the Kardashians. He has inspired Michigan fans to put Gatorade on their cereal, proclaimed his profound admiration for Judge Judy and pulled off the interstate to help two women who had been in a car wreck.
He has made wearing khakis cool in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh appeared at ease before the game, roaming the field to chat with assistants and watch his team warm up. It was 90 degrees in Salt Lake City, but that didn’t change the Harbaugh uniform: Dark blue, long-sleeve shirt, tucked into his khakis. Blue baseball cap with a big maize block M.
Business as usual.
Or maybe not.
“I feel a little bit more, personally, nervous about this beginning than any other,” said Harbaugh’s wife, Sarah, before the game. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on him right now.”
Michigan’s recent past belies its status as the winningest program in college football history. Three years under Rich Rodriguez and four under Hoke produced one season of double-digit victories.
Harbaugh has brought success everywhere he has been, and at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers, he took over much worse situations and built championship-level teams. He was the only coach Michigan fans really wanted.
“It was definitely a national holiday in our house when we heard that Jim Harbaugh was going to be the next coach,” said David Spitzley, who made the 8-hour drive from Denver to Salt Lake City with his wife and three young daughters. “… Really want to see signs that things are going in the other direction now. The win total’s probably less important than the product on the field and what does it look like. It was almost unwatchable recently.”
Sarah Harbaugh understands the hope her husband has inspired in Michigan, but she would be happy to hear about those modest expectations.
“Hopefully, they don’t have to be too patient,” she said.
Harbaugh’s debut turned into one of the biggest home games in Utah history, drawing a record crowd of 47,825 to Rice-Eccles Stadium and more media members than could fit into the press box.
FS1 was televising the game and treated it like a bowl, bringing its studio to Rice-Eccles and providing five separate feeds for viewers to follow the game.
“Someone told me there’s going to be a camera that’s just on his face the whole game. Who does that?” Sarah Harbaugh said.
Yes, khaki cam, as Fox called it, was all Jim Harbaugh all the time.
Michigan hung around against a good Pac-12 opponent until Justin Thomas stepped in front of Rudock’s sideline pass and returned it 55 yards for a score to make it 24-10.
Rudock led a late scoring drive to keep the score respectable, but Harbaugh saw more than a garbage-time touchdown.
“He shook off that play and came fighting back. As did all of our team,” Harbaugh said.
Next week will be another milestone of sorts for Harbaugh: His first game coaching in the Big House, where he played quarterback for Bo Schembechler. Oregon State is the opponent, but there will be no easy games for the Wolverines.
Hoke often tried to spin the positive side of the losses, but it fell flat with fans.
Harbaugh comes with more credibility. So when he says he was impressed, Michigan fans may have reason to believe him.
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org .