Harbaugh's here! Michigan's most interesting man debuts

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.

It was almost time to coach a game.

It has been 247 days since Michigan hired Harbaugh to restore pride to one of college football's proudest programs. The Harbaugh era at Michigan began Thursday night against Utah.

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.

He 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.''

Filled with Harbaugh-inspired hope, 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. ''We're still just riding the momentum of enthusiasm. Love to win today. 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 has 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, and the crowd may challenge the stadium record of 47,619 set last year when Southern California played here for the first time.

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.

Abel handed out 90 press credentials, the most she can remember issuing in her 26 years of the primary football media contact, and turned down at least a dozen more.

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 calls it, will be all Jim Harbaugh all the time.

Sarah said her husband slept peacefully Wednesday night. She knows because she was up, tossing and turning. But she could tell he has feeling it.

''I know he's got the nerves going today, but I definitley think that's what fires him up and gets him to do his best,'' she said. ''He gets a dead stare. It feels like he's looking right through your head.''

About 30 minutes before kickoff, Jim Harbaugh watched his quarterbacks fire passes and the old quarterback chucked a few, too.

Game on.


Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP