Take it from a reporter Jim Harbaugh once described as “Master of the Obvious,” there is an art to structuring questions for the Michigan coach.
Sometimes Harbaugh is in a talking mood. Other times, not so much.
But as we all discovered during his four seasons with the 49ers, even when Jim Harbaugh is dull, he is incredibly entertaining.
His radio “interview” this morning with ESPN’s Colin Cowherd was short on information, to be sure. Cowherd described it as a “clunker,” and he ended it abruptly as it became obvious things were going nowhere.
It’s so cringe-worthy, it’s worth experiencing here.
Harbaugh and the San Francisco-area media developed a strong professional relationship by the time of the infamous “mutual parting.” A lot of that probably had to do with both sides getting to know how to best communicate with the other.
Harbaugh was fairly rigid. He never discussed game plans, of course. And he quickly shot down any mention of strategy instead of giving a basic non-answer answer.
Initially, he did not talk about injuries. But over the years, he softened that stance and, at times, would divulge useful information about his players’ physical conditions.
But here are four elements of a Harbaugh interview that were constants:
1. Never start your question with a premise you believe is fact or you’ll end up with an exchange like this:
Interviewer: “Coach, your passing game has struggled the past three weeks, what do you need to do get it going?”
Harbaugh: “Our passing game is struggling? Who said that? I didn’t say that.”
Interviewer: “But, coach, you’ve averaged 125 yards per game over that period.”
Harbaugh: “That’s low-hanging fruit. I think our passing game has been very good.”
2. Never directly ask to compare one player to another. There are other ways to ask this kind of question without using “compare,” “contrast,” or “differences” in your question.
Interviewer: “Coach, what are the similarities and differences of your two quarterbacks who are competing for the starting job?”
Harbaugh: “I don’t like to compare players. It seems somebody always gets diminished when you start comparing.”
3. If you ask about his goals or expectations for the team, he will answer the same way every time. This is Harbaugh’s stand-by response that will be produced repeatedly for all different kinds of questions.
Interviewer: “Coach, how long do you believe it will take before Michigan is able to seriously challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten championship?”
Harbaugh: “We’re trying to get better every day. Trying to be better today than we were yesterday. Better tomorrow than we were today. It’s so simple that it might just work.”
4. And, finally, be sure to pause at least three seconds after you think Harbaugh has finished before asking your next question. Harbaugh has a penchant for continuing his answer from the previous question – after long pauses -- while the next question is being asked.
The more awkward the environment, the more Harbaugh is in his element. And nothing is more awkward than an interviewer jumping the gun and asking a question while Harbaugh is supplying his postscript answer to the previous inquiry.
Of course, there are a lot more than four guidelines to maximize a Harbaugh interview -– such as, don’t ever attempt a light-hearted question before having an opportunity to fully gauge his mood -- but that’s for a later graduate course on the subject.