INDIANAPOLIS — Last season, determining the best team in the Big Ten was a fool’s errand. You had the conference champion, Penn State, the West Division champion, Wisconsin, the team with the best overall record, Ohio State, and the team that looked best in games, Michigan.
That’s an excruciating bar argument waiting to happen, but for many, the two schools that passed the eye test were the Buckeyes and Wolverines. In the two years since Jim Harbaugh took over in Ann Arbor, college football’s most, uh, unique coach has narrowed the gap between his team and Ohio State, and last week in Indianapolis, he proved he’s inched another step closer to unseating Urban Meyer at the top of the Big Ten.
At the NFL’s annual scouting combine, Michigan sent the most players of any team in 2017, with 14 invitees. That tied the number Ohio State sent last year, in a spring when the Buckeyes saw three of their players picked in the top 10 of the NFL draft and five in the first round. Although Michigan won’t come close to matching those numbers at the top of the draft—only defensive end Taco Charlton and safety Jabrill Peppers are expected to be among the first 32 players picked this year—its attendance in Indianapolis is just another sign that the Harbaugh model is working.
“He definitely did a great job of preparing us,” Peppers said Saturday of his coach the past two seasons. “We couldn’t have asked for anyone better to fill the void when coach Hoke left. He was hard on us, he made it business-like and [made us experience] what we can expect at the next level. And I’m more than grateful for that.”
It’s easy to think Harbaugh’s NFL connections are instrumental in the number of invitations his players secured, but it goes beyond that. Certainly the Wolverines have an extra level of familiarity when meeting with the Ravens, and they seem to answer more questions from teams about their head coach than players from other schools, but that’s almost superficial. The 14 players Michigan sent to Indianapolis speak to the nature of the program Harbaugh has built in Ann Arbor. It’s grueling, reminiscent of an NFL team’s regimen—and he put it almost wholly in place in a matter of months.
Chris Wormley, a former Michigan defensive end, cited the Michigan staff’s collective years of NFL experience as a massive help. When Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, he and his coaching staff accounted for 43 years coaching in the NFL; now, that number is up to 52. “Coach Harbaugh came in and ran our program like an NFL program, like he had with the 49ers, so we were used to that,” Wormley said at the combine. “[It was a] more business-like atmosphere. [Our coaches had] tips with the agent process starting off after the bowl game, to what it’s going to be like here and the Senior Bowl, that gave us a leg up in the competition.”
Add in Michigan’s pro-style system and the excruciating nature of the team’s camps and workouts, and it’s hardly surprising Harbaugh is seeing results this fast. Former Michigan defensive end Ryan Glasgow, once a walk-on, says Harbaugh’s camps mimic NFL camps in their rigor, which better prepares players for the insanity of the combine. “I think the way he used all the guys here [in his system] really helped springboard them,” Glasgow said. “His coordinators, his position coaches all played a massive part in it for sure.”
In the NFL, Harbaugh’s intensity wore players down after a few years, but in college, he’s the ultimate motivator, promising that in the three or four years a player spends with Michigan, he’ll have the player ready for the demands of the next level. “Just like iron sharpens iron, so does man sharpen other men,” receiver Jehu Chesson said. “And when [Harbaugh] says that, it really gets you to think what competition really does for a team. From ranking the team, to treating it like a meritocracy, to rewarding the guys that are doing well, I think it really just breeds that sense of how you’ve got to go out and earn everything you get.”
Fellow receiver Amara Darboh said it even more simply: You have to do your job, or Harbaugh and his staff will find someone else. That’s the NFL way, which is why running back De’Veon Smith said he and his teammates had it easier than anyone in Indianapolis. “If you can do a four-hour practice, you can withstand anything,” he said. “It's like a walk in the park. Sometimes it gets annoying, but you've just got to think back to where coach Harbaugh took you, those situations. [The combine] is very, very easy compared to that.”
And as for the lack (compared to last year’s Buckeye’s, at least) of first-round talent, well, that isn’t the point. Superior coaching did not Myles Garrett make. Phenoms, No. 1 picks, aren’t the products of programs—although with the way Harbaugh recruits, Michigan should have a few of those, too, in the next few years. The volume of players, however, is a direct result of what Harbaugh has done. He’s taken another coach’s players, guys Brady Hoke recruited, and made them the No. 10 team in the country last season. He’s coached good players into the NFL, and that’s the best a school or a player can hope for.
“I don't think any other school has it easier than us right now,” Smith said, “because we've been through it all.”