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The Jim Harbaugh Effect: More sizzle than steak?

Pope Francis is presented with a football helmet by Michigan football team coach Jim Harbaugh during the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
Pope Francis is presented with a football helmet by Michigan football team coach Jim Harbaugh during the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
Published Aug. 24, 2017

The Jim Harbaugh spectacle is so irresistible that the undisputed champion of college football's offseason can make a story out of something as routine as a roster reveal.

Harbaugh won't share Michigan's roster until Wednesday — three days before his No. 11 Wolverines open the season against No. 16 Florida. Big Ten Network analysts accessed a list of players during practice but promised not to share it. NJ.com tried (unsuccessfully) to get one through a public-record request.

"Really?" Gators coach Jim McElwain said.

Yes. Really.

There's always something with Harbaugh — usually because of what he did off the field rather than the three-loss seasons he keeps compiling on it.

The spring break trip to IMG Academy in 2016.

Presenting a winged helmet and Nikes to Pope Francis.

Sleeping over at a recruit's house.

Twitter feuds with Florida State and the SEC.

And now treating a list of names, numbers and inexact measurements like it's a state secret.

"Everything Jim does," Vanderbilt coach and former Harbaugh assistant Derek Mason said, "he does for a reason."

The underlying reason seems to be recruiting.

Eleven months after the trip to IMG, Harbaugh signed a pair of four-star prospects from the Bradenton football factory. Think 2018 prospects aren't intrigued by the possibility of going to France next year?

"I don't think you go to Michigan for that reason," Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said, "but in recruiting everything adds up."

Including the rest of the Harbaugh hoopla.

When Harbaugh arrived after the 2014 season, Michigan had only won 10 games once in the previous eight years. Today's recruits weren't born the last time the Wolverines won a national championship (1997), and they were in kindergarten the last time they went to the Rose Bowl.

Michigan needed to do something to remain nationally relevant — like hire a lightning-rod coach who could thrust college football's winningest program back into the spotlight.

It worked. Over the last three offseasons, Harbaugh has been searched on Google 43 percent more often than Alabama titan Nick Saban, according to Google Trends.

Since Harbaugh's hire, in-season Google searches for the Wolverines' football team have increased 138 percent compared to the previous 11 years. From August-December last year, Michigan was googled more frequently than eventual national champion Clemson.

Whether it's because of the spike in enthusiasm or the antics themselves, Harbaugh has boosted Michigan's recruiting. From 2006-15, Michigan signed only two classes ranked in the top eight; Harbaugh has done that in back-to-back years — which, of course, he celebrated with celebrity-studded Signing of the Stars extravaganzas.

And that leads to the problem with Harbaugh. He's been almost all sizzle and no steak, unless you count the viral image of him with a hunk of red meat and a glass of milk.

"At some point, it has to come out on the field," DiNardo said.

Through two seasons, it hasn't. Harbaugh looks a lot like McElwain in khakis.

Harbaugh is 20-6. McElwain is 19-8 and would have a 20th win, if UF didn't have to cancel the Presbyterian cupcake because of the Hurricane Matthew fallout. Although Harbaugh has the head-to-head victory (a 41-7 demolition in the Citrus Bowl), McElwain has two division titles; Harbaugh has only finished third in the top-heavy Big Ten East.

For all of the attention and recruits Harbaugh has attracted, he's 0-2 against Urban Meyer's rival Buckeyes and 3-5 against teams that finished ranked in the top 20.

"I don't think it's gone unnoticed that Urban won a national championship in his third year," said DiNardo, the former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "(Penn State's James Franklin), under much more difficult circumstances, won the Big Ten championship in his third year. And so the bar has been set in the East Division."

Maybe, DiNardo said, Harbaugh doesn't have to clear that bar in this third season. You don't need a roster to know that Michigan is talented but young, with only five returning starters. The Wolverines could be another year away from breaking through.

But Harbaugh was the highest paid coach in the game last year, according to USA Today. Third-place finishes with a $9 million salary will start to get stale at a blue-blood program.

"I don't think we're there yet," DiNardo said, "but I don't think that's far away."

Eventually, it won't be enough for Harbaugh to own the offseason. He'll have to start dominating the actual season, too.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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