SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A little less than two hours before kickoff, Jim Harbaugh stepped out of the locker room at Rice-Eccles Stadium, chatted with his wife and a couple friends behind the end zone and then ducked back under the bleachers.
After an offseason filled Harbaugh-mania, it was time to play some football. The Harbaugh era at Michigan began Thursday night against Utah with a not-so-unexpected dose of reality for the Wolverines: Utah 24, Michigan 17.
Harbaugh has already brought hope to Michigan fans, who have seen the proud program fall from the ranks of college football’s elite. But this fix will take some time.
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 ironic in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh appeared at ease 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. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on him right now.”
Harbaugh has coached at the University of San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers. In each case, he took a program that was dead or close to it and quickly built championship-level teams.
“Expectations weren’t that high and then good things happened,” Sarah Harbaugh said. “Here expectations are really high. Not too diminish any other place. There’s such a rich tradition in Michigan.”
One of Harbaugh’s first big decisions was choosing a quarterback from Iowa transfer Jake Rudock and Shane Morris, last season’s backup on a 5-7 team. Rudock got the start and threw interceptions. The last came in the fourth quarter and was returned 55 yards for a touchdown that made it 24-10.
It was telegraphed sideline throw that never had a chance. When Rudock got to the sideline, he was greeted by Harbaugh, who put on arm around the quarterback, said a few words and patted him on the head.
Michigan fans will need as much patience with their new coach as he showed with his player.
Michigan fans descended on Salt Lake City this week as if it was their Mecca. In a town mostly painted crimson for the hometown team, the blue and maize of Michigan stood out, roaming around downtown and filling up the hotels.
Michigan fans David and Sherri Spitzley made the trip from Denver with their three young daughters.
“It was definitely a national holiday in our house when we heard that Jim Harbaugh was going to be the next coach,” David Spitzley said. “… 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.”
“We stopped watching,” Sherri Spitzley said.
Sarah Harbaugh understands the hope her husband has inspired in Michigan, but she would be happy to hear about those modest expectations.
“I feel like there’s going to be some patience because they have such faith,” Sarah Harbaugh said. “You know being that he’s quote-unquote a Michigan man makes a big difference for the fans.
“Hopefully they don’t have to be patient.”
Harbaugh’s debut turned into one of the biggest home games in Utah history. School officials were expecting a more than capacity crowd of 45,807 at Rice-Eccles.
Utah sports information director Liz Abel said the university provided an extra 500 tickets on top of the 2,000 it gave Michigan. But it looked as if the Wolverines fans were also heavily active on the secondary market.
FS1 was televising the game and treated it like a bowl, bringing its studio to Rice-Eccles, providing five separate feeds for viewers to follow the game.
“Someone told 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.
In the end, maybe that would have been the best way for Michigan fans to watch Thursday night. For now, the coach is a better show than the team.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.