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Jim Harbaugh’s teams keep doing the most ruthless stuff late in blowout wins

The Michigan coach still doesn’t know how to stop competing. That’s a useful trait.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

At the height of Michigan’s blowout win against Illinois last month, Jim Harbaugh did something he’s demonstrably a fan of doing. He tried to pour it on.

It was the fourth quarter, and Michigan was facing a fourth-and-short near midfield. The score was 34-0. The Illini were dead and gone.

But Harbaugh’s team called for a fake punt to try to keep his offense on the field.

The play didn’t work, but that couldn’t have been less relevant. This also happened, right before the end of the game. Later in that blowout, Michigan also challenged a (bad) fourth-down spot, because Harbaugh cares about yardage under any circumstance. That’s how he rolls.

On Saturday against Maryland, Michigan had a 38-0 lead late in the third quarter. The Wolverines had scored points on each of their six previous possessions, and Harbaugh wanted more. So he went for a fourth-and-1 conversion from Maryland’s 14, with a 38-point lead. (Michigan failed, but that, again, is not the point.)

Earlier, Harbaugh was up 21-0 and still quite incensed by a bad call.

Again, he’s competitive.

It’s a Harbaugh policy to drop-kick the opponent as long and hard as possible.

Harbaugh’s thirst for blood isn’t a new thing.

This is a coach who has, in two consecutive seasons, had his players try two-point conversions with four-possession leads against Rutgers.

Big Ten Network

This is a coach who oversaw his players mauling Rutgers until the score was 78-0, and who, days later, gleefully drank milk at the steakhouse that was offering a discount based on Harbaugh’s margin of victory.

This is not a coach who thrives on moderation. This is an actual bodily expression he showed in the middle of a game in 2015, when he had a 31-0 lead on Northwestern:

During last year’s Michigan dunking of Rutgers, some Rutgers trash talk pushed Harbaugh into twisting the knife.

"He was actually livid in the (halftime) locker room," Michigan's Jabrill Peppers said. "He was angry."

"Put the foot on the gas, and finish these guys off," Jourdan Lewis said afterward. "I don't want to use (his exact words) out here. But it was something like that."

Even in practice, the reward for practicing well is getting to keep practicing:

During the first spring practice, the defense beat the offense in a team competition drill. And just before wrapping up for the day, Michigan's new head coach gathered the winners and put them on the line to start running sprints.

Normally, it's the other way around. But in Harbaugh's world, winners "have earned" the right to improve and get better.

While losers earn the right to stand, watch and wonder if they gave everything they had.

"It didn't feel good standing there watching," [WR Amara] Darboh recalls. "You sort of felt guilty almost. We just lost and we're just standing there watching."

It’s not a new thing, either.

At Stanford, he beat Pete Carroll’s USC to a nice pulp in 2009. The score finished 55-21, Harbaugh had gone for two late in that game, and Carroll didn’t like it.

What happened here, exactly? Harbaugh and Carroll had different versions of the event, asked about it years later. From seattlepi:

“He said, ‘What’s your deal?’ I said, ‘What’s your deal?’ And then from there, it’s about as well-documented a six-word sentence as there could be,” Harbaugh said.

Pretty politically correct, right? But then listen to Carroll, who, when asked the same question, insisted that there was no altercation to speak of.

“There was no frustration. The media said that,” Carroll said. “The guy on the other side of the sidelines gets to do whatever he wants in any situation. I have no problem with whatever. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m not one of those guys that reacts and is going to gripe about how a guy coached a game or played a game in the fourth quarter. I’ve been in so many of those situations where people think you’re running the score up, or they think you’re not playing your guys to run the score up so that you can get recognition in polls and all that. A guy can do whatever he wants. Nothing fazes me about that.”

Why does he do this?

It’s pretty simple. He’s obsessed with competition. From a Sports Illustrated profile:

“I make no apology for the love of competition,” he says, slapping his desk for emphasis. “The fair [slap!], honest [slap!], healthy [slap!] love of competition.”

This isn’t just how Harbaugh is when he’s got huge leads in football games.

From literally everything we know about him, it’s just how he is.

In 2014, Harbaugh won a round of laser tag by coolly hunting down a 10-year-old. A former assistant, Maryland coach DJ Durkin, says he fouls hard in pickup basketball. He’s reportedly smeared a player’s blood on his own face, to mimic war paint. He’s made over-the-top competitiveness a central theme of his coaching ethos.

He’s even relentless at Halloween:

"Yeah, The Hustle, that's how you get more candy," Harbaugh said. "You can get a lot of candy from going out there and walking from house to house. But you can get a lot more by jogging from house to house. And if you can sprint, you'll get the most candy."

"The strategy is to run, goes as long as we can, as fast as we can," Harbaugh told Le Batard. "Then the strategy is having a second costume ready. Once you've hit every house in the neighborhood, you want to come home and change into a secondary costume and go back and hit all the houses again.

The best part is when Le Batard asked Harbaugh if he could come up with an example of "something more ridiculous than that" in his family.

"I don't look at it as ridiculous at all, in any form or fashion" Harbaugh answered.

Everyone says they compete until the very end. Harbaugh actually does it, no matter the score.

You could call him classless. You could even call him a classless jerk, if you please. But Harbaugh doesn’t care if any of us don’t think he’s nice.

Harbaugh cares about what his family thinks. He definitely cares about what recruits think. It’s not that Harbaugh doesn’t care about his public perception, because he’s smart enough to know that perception matters a ton in college football.

But this is Harbaugh’s brand. He is a cold killer of other programs’ dreams. He doesn’t care about making other teams’ players feel good, or his own. He cares about winning for all 60 minutes. Isn’t that what he’s supposed to care about?