SAN JOSE, Calif. – Like most kids raised in the Mitten, there was never a question of Jim Harbaugh’s loyalties when it came to sports teams.
Growing up in Michigan meant you cheered for the hometown teams, and certainly, the Red Wings were no different.
Asked if he was a Wings’ fan growing up, Michigan’s football coach cracked a wide smile, then answered rhetorically, “Who wasn’t?”
All kidding aside, Harbaugh, who attended the Red Wings’ 2-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on Thursday, has adored the Original Six franchise for as far back as his memory permits.
“Absolutely loved the Wings, loved the uniform,” said Harbaugh, whose favorite all-time Wing remains Gordie Howe. “It’s been neat. I’ve had the chance to meet Steve Yzerman (in the past) and some of the guys, and (Dylan) Larkin tonight that was a neat experience. I mean, who wasn’t a Michigan kid that didn’t pull for the Red Wings?”
Less than a week removed from Michigan’s 41-7 drudging of Florida in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, Harbaugh returned to his Northern California stomping grounds.
Originally, the 52-year-old football coach wasn’t planning on going to a hockey game. He and his wife, Sarah, were taking advantage of a dead period in college football recruiting, visiting family and friends in Silicon Valley. However, an unexpected encounter at his favorite Bay area restaurant on Wednesday led to an invitation from Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.
Harbaugh, who once coached in the area at Stanford before taking the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl three years ago, figured he may see some familiar faces at the Los Gatos eatery. After all, Aldo’s is a known destination for many in the Sharks’ organization.
Instead, Harbaugh saw Holland who was dining with Wings head coach Jeff Blashill and his assistant coaches, trainers and equipment staff.
“Aldo’s is one of my favorite restaurants because my great friend, John Arrillaga, that’s his favorite restaurant, and we had a chance to be there,” Harbaugh said. “Then to see the Wings there, I had to go over and say hello.”
Following Thursday’s game, Harbaugh visited with some of the Red Wings, and visited with the coaches again.
Occasionally feeling the need to hike up his trademark khaki trousers, Harbaugh was genuinely enthusiastic to talk a little shop with Holland, Blashill, Tony Granato and Pat Ferschweiler.
Harbaugh truly enjoyed himself at the game. He even wanted to meet the guy who scored the game winner, Justin Abdelkader.
“It was great watching the Michigan fellas out there playing and the Michigan State Spartan scored the winning goal,” said Harbaugh, who never did get the chance to meet Thursday’s hero.
“That was one heck of a shot,” the Wolverines’ coach said about the Spartans’ goal. “I was right behind the net when he shot it. … The game had a little bit of everything tonight. Had some rough-and-tumble play, had some fights, it was one heck of a hockey game.”
For as delighted as Harbaugh was to spend some time with the Red Wings, Holland seemed equally captivated in the presence of the college football coach. Later, the Wings’ GM said that after hearing the former quarterback speak so passionately about coaching he understands why young men would commit to playing for Harbaugh at Michigan.
“Just listening to him I wanted to run through a wall and block,” Holland said, laughing.
Harbaugh was also delighted to meet Larkin and Luke Glendening, former Wolverines, who played for legendary coach Red Berenson, in Ann Arbor
The 19-year-old Larkin also factored in the scoring, picking up a first-period assist when another Michigan native, defenseman Danny DeKeyser, scored, giving the Red Wings a 1-0 lead.
The UM coach said he even put the former Wolverines to work.
“Yeah, had a picture with them and a nice talk and conversation,” Harbaugh said. “They actually did a little recruiting video for the Michigan Wolverine football team.”
Speaking of recruiting, National Signing Day is less than four weeks away, and by all accounts, the Wolverines will finish among the top five-ranked classes, nationally.
“January is the most important month of recruiting,” Harbaugh said. “It’s make-or-break time for recruiting.”
The final push for landing some of the most desirable football talent in the country will take place later this month. That’s when college head coaches can visits recruits and their families in hopes of locking up commitments.
“It’s a team effort,” Harbaugh said. “But yeah, there are the famous home visits and things like that, which I enjoy the heck out of because you get to go all over the country and meet wonderful families that are good, genuine people and they have one very important thing in common: they want the very best for their son.”