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On Jim Harbaugh and Midwesternism

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Is there a uniquely regional revulsion for Harbaugh's antics?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This localism, this pride in family, town, and state, leaves little room for interest in a coherent regional identity. In general, Midwesterners want to be left alone in worlds of their own making. More often than not, interacting with other people means finding the lowest common denominator of common ground in superficial conversation that is anything but controversial. The point is to avoid calling attention to one's own peculiarities even as you eagerly point out the eccentricities of others as a means of proclaiming the general inappropriateness of idiosyncratic behavior.

The cultural diversity of the Midwest, ironically, has tended to encourage a public pleasantness, an unspoken agreement not to probe too deeply into someone else's business or to talk about things that might cause conflict.

-Andrew R. L. Cayton, "The Anti-Region: Place and Identity in the History of the American Midwest," in The American Midwest: Essays on Regional History, Andrew R. L. Cayton and Susan E. Gray, eds, p. 150.

I disagree with the late Andrew Cayton--to me a god of Midwestern history, in the pantheon of regional historians up there with Frederick Jackson Turner himself--€”on a number of his characterizations of Midwestern culture, especially as it applies to the 20th century.

Yet when I look at the landscape of Big Ten football in 2016--and I mean Midwestern Big Ten football, not whatever those three schools on the East Coast are--I can't help but nod when I think of the coaches which have long embodied the Big Ten. Milquetoast defines the Big Ten coaching ranks: it's hard to imagine Kirk Ferentz, Tracy Claeys, Mike Riley, or Paul Chryst rocking the boat. Kevin Wilson, fiery as he can be, does little to inspire the imagination through his actions, just his offense. Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer embody the smug superiority of the region: just outspoken enough to let you know that they're better than you and they know it, but not brash enough to rock the boat or really disturb the social order. When activism arrives, like a union on the doorstep of a prominent program, coaches like Pat Fitzgerald would as soon see it disappear and work to internally placate the disaffected.

Consensus reigns in the Old Northwest. We see it in the leaders we support; our teams' coaches reflect that.

And that's where Jim Harbaugh comes in. I don't personally dislike the man, as polarizing a figure as he is. But I am profoundly uncomfortable with him coaching in the Big Ten, and until I read that passage from Cayton the other day I could not really verbalize why. It may be especially prominent in the Big Ten West, where milquetoast reigns supreme, especially with the departure of Bo Pelini, but there seems to be a unique revulsion for Harbaugh's personification of what Cayton defines as "the general inappropriateness of idiosyncratic behavior." Surely coaches like Pat Fitzgerald agree with Harbaugh that these camps across the South should be allowable tools for recruiting. But they don't say the same things, they don't act the same way, they don't aggressively pursue their chosen policies with the vigor or the vitriol of Harbaugh. He stands out in a way that a Big Ten coach has not in some time.

The reaction to Harbaugh's actions among Midwestern Big Ten fans reflects an expectation that many of us have of our conference's coaches, and many of those in the national media have of our region: Say little, keep your head down, and let your excellence on the field (hopefully) be the ultimate arbiter of success and signifier of merit. Harbaugh challenges that standard. His success elsewhere and reputation as a coach, to him--to say nothing of his divisive record in San Francisco and Stanford--means he will go to camps in the South, challenge those around him, and break a few eggs.

And maybe that's good for the attitude of the Big Ten: It's not only Meyer telling other coaches to recruit better, it's Harbaugh actually trying to show them how to recruit better. But with Harbaugh the coach, it's that transition from words to actions that makes me uneasy. Where Midwesterners have pointed out the eccentricities, irregularities, and outright inequities of more...Southern recruiting styles in the past, they have simultaneously avoided calling attention to their own actions. Jim Harbuagh says "Screw that, look at what I'm doing."

I'm sorry to have written yet another thinkpiece, if this comes across as such, on Harbaugh, but as I do my own research into Midwestern history, I couldn't help but note that passage and apply it to Big Ten football. And I think it fits. Jim Harbaugh does exactly what Cayton describes as taboo in Midwestern society, and he does it in a way that challenges both our regional preferences and national perceptions of our region.

That's different, especially to those of us physically in the Midwest, and that difference breaks those socially-accepted norms. Perhaps it's my Midwestern and Minnesotan predilection to passive aggression. But it's a break with "public pleasantness," and whether it burns out or redefines coaching in the Midwestern Big Ten remains to be seen. I'll be over here cringing in the meantime.