INDIANAPOLIS — The momentum stopped for a day. Maybe two. It was Feb. 2, the day Jim Harbaugh told his Michigan players he’d interview the next day to be the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Just over a month after the best Michigan football season since the Wolverines’ last national title in 1997 had ended, Harbaugh was exploring the idea of leaving.
“There was the one day where I was doing the interview,” Harbaugh said Tuesday at Big Ten media days when I asked about the effect his brief NFL dalliance had on his program. “And we talked to the players. I said, ‘Here’s what’s happening,’ and they don’t have any control over that. Just we’ll know by tomorrow. And a lot of them told me, ‘I knew you wouldn’t go Coach, I knew you’d stay here.’ So that was the only day one day out of the entire offseason where there’s little uncertainty.
“I signed a seven-year contract with Michigan and that seven years was up. I wanted to see, ‘Yeah, maybe do I want to (leave), I came very close to winning a Super Bowl Championship, maybe this is the time to finish that job. But in the end, I just really couldn’t leave our team. The players on the team right now, it’d be like losing a body part to not be able to coach them. It really would. And we’ll chase the national championship. See if we can win that.
“But we’ve been grinding, we’ve been working. That was so long ago. It’s not even like it’s not even relevant anymore. Everybody knows where everybody’s at, and whatever his intentions are.
“We love Coach Harbaugh, and we fully support him and we couldn’t be happier that he’s back,” quarterback Cade McNamara said.
In the seven years before Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines were 46-42 under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. In the seven years of Harbaugh, they are 61-24. Michigan is at a program peak. What happens this season, especially in Columbus, should tell whether last year’s win over the Buckeyes, Big Ten title and playoff appearance was a high Michigan can’t sustain or a new level of modern Michigan success.
What Harbaugh promised for Nov. 26 in Ohio Stadium was a Michigan team that won’t fear the moment, which I don’t think was always the case while the Buckeyes won eight straight in The Game from 2012 to 2019.
“They’re not gonna flinch,” Harbaugh said. “I know our team really well by now. They don’t blink, they don’t flinch at stuff. Just just keep attacking and building and that’s definitely our goal to win the championship again, and fight like hell for Michigan to get that done.”
Harbaugh specifically outlined four goals, two of which the Wolverines hit last season. That was beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten. But he also pointed to beating Michigan State and winning a national title.
The proof of beating Ohio State is now there, even if a lot of those who led that win are gone. Eight defensive starters, including three first-team All-Big Ten picks in Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and Daxton Hill, must be replaced.
“People are asking, how are you going to replace those stars?” Harbaugh said. “I’ve been a part of many a team where the no-star defense was the better defense. Because there’s more competition within the position groups, there’s more hungry guys. Hunger to be great. That’s why I feel as I watch it, I just have a sneaky suspicion that it could even be better on defense.”
That may be wishful thinking. But Harbaugh used his offense of last year as a comparison, a unit that lacked the defensive stars yet ranked about as high as the defense in advanced statistical rankings, with both sides basically a top-10 unit. Now the 2021 backups ready to become 2022 starters know how it’s done.
“All those great players (that are gone), there’s a lot of these players that did the exact same thing that those players did,” Harbaugh said. “And our guys got to see that, got to be a part of that, and got to see how well it paid off, both for the team and for each of those players individually. Why wouldn’t you want to do it exactly the same way? It’s a great template.”
A lost COVID season in 2020, when the Wolverines went 2-4 and saw the Ohio State game canceled by positive tests in the Michigan program, looked like a bottoming out but functioned more as a reset. A year ago, the Wolverines leaned harder into year-round preparation for Ohio State, and focused on football. Harbaugh in his early years at Michigan made offseason headlines with sometimes unusual actions and words. But the 2021 Wolverines were about business.
This year, things have loosened back up a bit. The team is taking a tour of Michigan, and Harbaugh recently voiced his opinion on abortion, a topic about which he was asked about several times in Indianapolis. It’s not a frivolous offseason by any means, but maybe the Wolverines aren’t quite as hunkered down as a year ago. Harbaugh doesn’t buy the distinction, though. He said the pandemic kept the Wolverines from getting out in the world as much.
He loves exactly where Michigan is. He said players were back in the weight room in January days after the end of the season. He said this is the most well-mannered, respectful team he’s ever coached. He said he schedules fewer things for the team, because he knows when his players are in the building, they’ll be working, so he doesn’t have to ensure they’re getting after it.
“They’ve attacked everything that’s been put in front of them, and they’ve done it with zero entitlement,” Harbaugh said. “And there’s none in the foreseeable future. (That’s) so much better than being satisfied or full of yourself.”
Recruiting momentum hasn’t carried over as anticipated yet, as the Wolverines’ 12-player class for 2023 currently ranks 37th in the country and ninth in the Big Ten. There’s time to change that, but five-stars didn’t immediately flock to the new playoff team. (Among the incoming freshman class, though, Harbaugh did call one player a gift from the football gods.)
Last season broke an eight-game losing streak for the Wolverines in The Game. In 1994, Ohio State beat Michigan after going 0-5-1 in the previous six games, and then the Buckeyes under John Cooper went on to lose five of the next six. Blip. Then in 2001, Ohio State ended that Michigan run with a win in Jim Tressel’s first season, starting a 17-2 stretch against Michigan. Trend.
Michigan’s victory last year is unlikely to herald the Wolverines’ version of a Tressel-Urban Meyer domination. But Michigan can’t let it be a Cooper blip. In his postgame news conference last season, Harbaugh said that win felt like a beginning. This offseason was the continuation of that beginning. Harbaugh and his players now know what worked.
“I think they learned, with the right approach, with the right work ethic, with the right team-first mentality and teamwork, that you can make anything happen, you can bring anything to life,” Harbaugh said. “I would even say we’re in a better place right now than we were a year ago at this time, and possibly, where we left off last season.”
Harbaugh almost left that. Instead, he stayed to try to do it again.
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