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This Time, Jim Harbaugh Is Having Fun

With a roster full of “players who like football,” the Wolverines and their coach are putting a dismal 2020 behind them in their quest to write a legacy in Ann Arbor.
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Jim Harbaugh is yelling. Like, bellowing. He’s in his office, and Michigan football staffers within hearing range in Schembechler Hall are wondering what the hell is going on in there.

The coach of the Wolverines is answering my question: What were you and defensive end Aidan Hutchinson saying to each other right after time expired in a dramatic road win over Nebraska on Oct. 9?

The answer, as relayed by Harbaugh at top volume:

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

Welcome (Back) to Jim Harbaugh's Fun Factory

Turns out there were no words, just happy howls in each other’s faces. There was a lot articulated in those wordless screams between two guys overjoyed with the way this season is unfolding after their decisions to stick it out here for another year. Hutchinson could have gone pro but didn’t. Harbaugh could have turned in his khakis after his salary and buyout were cut but didn’t. Now Michigan is undefeated with a reshaped coaching staff led by a leaner and happier boss, and a locker room full of “players who like football,” as Harbaugh says, beaming.

The seventh-year coach of the Wolverines keeps coming back to that point during this animated conversation. This is vintage Who’s Got It Better Than Us Harbaugh—engaged, energetic, eccentric, occasionally loud for emphasis. Loud and proud of what his 7–0 team is doing.

The “grit” of this group, to use Harbaugh’s word, is all the more enjoyable after a 2020 undercut by what the coach saw as a lack of commitment from some members of his team. Four players opted out of the COVID-19-plagued season—some of them stars—six more transferred before the first game had been played, and Harbaugh alluded generally to others who might not have been all in as the season spiraled into a 2–4 mess.

“Without comparing, but last year was kind of an anomaly,” Harbaugh says. “You find yourself [with players who say], ‘I don’t want to play.’ What? You don’t want to play football? O.K., now we’re playing all these guys who really aren’t quite ready to play. Guys who should be getting 10 reps a game or 15 were getting 60 or 70. Now they’re playing all the time.

“It was very painful to go through, having guys who opted out or were—I don’t know, sore, or something. I just can’t go this week. This [in 2021] is just a group of guys who have become gritty, hard, tough. You have to pull them back. No, you can’t practice today instead of talking them into it. Maybe [they] saw some of that with guys who were bowing out. Where’s the fun in that?”

For Harbaugh, the fun is in surrounding himself with people who are as enthusiastically obsessed about winning football games as he has been his entire life. The 2021 mix of those people seems to be better suited—it’s certainly younger—than the ’20 mix.

“I like the guys that like football,” he says. “And the guys that like football, they all like me back. And the ones that don’t like me? They’re the ones that know that I know that they don’t like football. They tend to avoid me. You want to get better at football? This is a fun factory.”

Factory work really isn’t all fun and games, but when the finished product rolls out looking good, it becomes fun in retrospect. Jim Harbaugh and Michigan are seeing those results this fall after an offseason of change, self-examination and unstinting effort.

QB Cada McNamara and Jim Harbaugh slap hands

McNamara, left, appeared in four games last season before taking over starting QB duties for Harbaugh in 2021.

The first step was figuring out who still wanted to be at Michigan. It wasn’t a pleasant place in the wake of a losing season, and several more players hit the transfer portal leaving Ann Arbor. There was a bad 2020 aftertaste that needed to be rinsed out of the program. “We were actually quite embarrassed to lose that many games in a winged helmet,” says quarterback Cade McNamara.

The initial big answer came from Hutchinson. After he went down with a fractured ankle against Indiana Nov. 7, his father, former Wolverine great Chris, informed Harbaugh that his son would bypass the NFL to stay in school and chase what he didn’t have after three years. “I’m sitting there with no rings, not even a bowl win,” Aidan says. “I really don’t have my own legacy.”

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Other answers followed: defensive back Brad Hawkins, linebacker Josh Ross, running back Hassan Haskins, multiple offensive linemen. A leadership nucleus formed. “That sets an example that’s pretty damn big,” Harbaugh says.

The overarching question was whether the head coach would be back. Harbaugh recoiled at the premise of leaving this job, at his alma mater, with a résumé that includes zero Big Ten championships and zero victories over hated rival Ohio State. He arrived as a celebrated savior, and he sure didn’t want to leave as a lamented underachiever. He wanted to stay, but it would be on athletic director Warde Manuel’s reconfigured terms and with a revamped staff.

Six new assistant coaches were imported, most prominently Mike Macdonald as defensive coordinator in place of Don Brown—once a celebrated tactician but whose effectiveness had faded (especially against the Buckeyes). Other staffers had their responsibilities shuffled. It was a radical makeover. “They’ve been really good,” Harbaugh says. “It’s been a real infusion of energy. Guys that are hungry, on their way up.”

There was an older addition to the staff as well—a return, actually. Harbaugh asked 61-year-old Biff Poggi to come back to Ann Arbor, where he’d worked in 2016. Poggi left his St. Francis High School powerhouse in Baltimore to once again be Harbaugh’s “wingman,” as he put it, serving as a sounding board and confidant on everything from scheme to mentoring the young staff. “I could not stand to see what I saw last year,” Poggi says. “I knew that was not indicative of what he is as a coach.”

A four-year extension was drawn up that cut Harbaugh’s base pay significantly, tying a lot of additional compensation to incentives. Humbling, sure, but a man who buys his work pants at Walmart wasn’t worried about the money. He just needed the chance to make this right, and now he had it. The sign over his office door says, “No Whining,” and you weren’t going to get any from Harbaugh as he embarked upon this uncertain next chapter of his career.

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Thus began a winter of work. Upon returning to campus in January, Hutchinson made this request of strength coach Ben Herbert: “Every day I come in here, wring me out. Squeeze every ounce of talent out of me.” That set the tone, and others followed.

But it wasn’t just the players. Harbaugh’s coaching staff began working out in the mornings with the strength and conditioning staff, and the hypercompetitive former quarterback jumped in alongside them.

Truth is, the 57-year-old had gotten a little out of shape, and he enthusiastically scrolls through his phone for the evidence. Harbaugh has a series of pictures over the years with Michigan freshman receiver Andrel Anthony, who had attended camps at the school since Harbaugh arrived in 2015. As Anthony ages in the photos, the coach with his arm slung over the kid’s shoulder softens. “Oh, my God, what was the matter with me?” Harbaugh exclaims. “Look at that gut!”

So Harbaugh jumped in alongside his staff, toiling through the same grueling drills the players were doing—pushing sleds, squats, bear crawls up an incline. Brutal but effective. He says he’s at his NFL playing weight of 215 pounds. The gut is gone. The black belt around his blue trousers is folded over, too long for his current torso.

“It’s like anything in life,” Harbaugh says. “Starts out painful, then it becomes tolerable, then it becomes enjoyable. I’m in between tolerable and enjoyable. Working toward enjoyable. I’m on the precipice of enjoyable. Can you get to the point of, Man, I can’t wait for this workout; it’s going to be good? Not quite there yet. Almost.”

That also describes the current Michigan football team in its quest to play to the program’s historical standard. Not quite there yet. Almost. The season still goes through undefeated Michigan State, plus Penn State and nemesis Ohio State. But the Wolverines are on that precipice, with a chance to reach their aspirations.

Michigan football players celebrate after a 2021 win

Hutchinson (No. 97), German Green (No. 33) and other Wolverines players celebrate the season-opening win over Western Michigan.

Expectations were lower for the Wolverines entering the 2021 season than they had been since Harbaugh arrived to salvage the place in ’15. Before this year, that was the last time they were unranked in the preseason AP poll. Forget Ohio State and Penn State; some prognosticators—a lot of them, actually—were picking Indi-freaking-ana ahead of Michigan in the Big Ten East.

The offseason confidence and chemistry carried through preseason camp, but let’s be honest: That’s the case for almost every team in the U.S. Very few programs embark upon a season feeling pessimistic about their chances. It’s all about backing up that optimism with actual performance.

The Wolverines wasted little time doing that, with McNamara, Haskins and Blake Corum leading a ground-and-pound offense reminiscent of Harbaugh’s better teams here and at Stanford. While unlikely to be maintained through the end of the season, their current 252.9 rushing yards per game are more than they’ve averaged since 1992. In Macdonald’s defensive scheme, Michigan is limiting the big plays it gave up routinely last season while getting disruptive performances from Hutchinson and redshirt freshman outside linebacker David Ojabo, who worked out with Hutchinson through the offseason.

After rolling through four home games to start the season, the Wolverines have checked two important boxes in October: winning at Wisconsin, which clobbered them each of the previous two seasons; and coming from behind for the first time this season at Nebraska. Now 7–0, the Wolverines are scoring their most points per game (37.7) and allowing their fewest (14.3) since the 2016 team came up an agonizing and disputed inch short of potential greatness at Ohio State—the point at which the program’s trajectory under Harbaugh flattened and ultimately declined.

It’s taken five years for some of the vibrancy of those days to return. The coach has some juice to him again. Harbaugh is back to going on colorful-if-not-confusing tangents in press conferences: He cited both George Patton and Neil Armstrong in discussing the September victory over Washington; he said the Wolverines tried to “make their music our music” regarding the road atmosphere at Wisconsin; he labeled the game at Nebraska a “Clint Eastwood” victory.

And then there is Harbaugh talking about his 8-year-old son, Jack, playing his first season of tackle football for the Ann Arbor Saints. He insists the stories are “all facts.” They are mostly hilarious and slightly cringeworthy.

Academically gifted, Jack moved up a grade to fourth and is the youngest of the young on a fourth- to sixth-grade team. (“The first Harbaugh to move up a grade,” Jim jokes. “There have been a few move down.”) In his first game, the line in front of Jack collapsed, and he took a hard hit. He came limping off the field, mom Sarah went down to check on him, and he didn’t return to the game.

The games are Saturdays, which means Jim cannot attend. But his 82-year-old dad, a former coach also named Jack, has been there. After little Jack limped off during that first game, big Jack watched him romping around the sidelines afterward with his friends, then come limping over to the family.

“He’s walking to the gate, and my dad says, ‘Turn your uniform in. You don’t want to play football. You’re not a football player,’ ” Jim says, laughing. “Just beautiful, right? So beautiful.

“I said, ‘Dad, I’ve got to give you a compliment. The grandparents are supposed to treat the grandkids all nice. Nice to see you actually treat the grandkids like your own kids.’ He hasn’t gone soft.”

Rest of the story: Little Jack has finished the season, because to do otherwise is unconscionable. Harbaughs don’t quit football teams. And the sport is growing on him.

“He’s gotten better,” Jim says. “The lights have come on; he’s tackling people now. They said he had a hit the other day that you could actually hear.” (If you have attended youth football games at the elementary level, there is precious little in the way of audible pad popping.)

Another young player in Jim Harbaugh’s orbit who likes football—his favorite kind of players.

Jim Harbaugh on the Michigan sideline

Harbaugh's Wolverines will play Michigan State in a top-10 rivalry clash this weekend.

Poggi has observed the season from his Yoda perch as Harbaugh’s right hand. When Michigan reached its open date in mid-October, he offered his assessment of the head coach’s work. “Your energy is different,” he told Harbaugh. “Your engagement with the players is wonderful. I watch the room when you talk, and the kids are hanging on every word.”

Poggi says he sensed a belief on the sideline in Lincoln, even when the Wolverines fell behind twice in the second half. Down 29–26 in the fourth quarter, they drove 69 yards for a tying field goal but left enough time for the Cornhuskers to go for the victory. That scenario shifted abruptly when Hawkins forced a fumble from Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez and returned it into the red zone, where Michigan kicked the go-ahead field goal and then stopped a final drive.

That led to the Hutchinson–Harbaugh face-to-face scream-off.

Hutchinson’s translation of howls into words: “It was one of those moments you’ll never forget. We’re very alike in how we attack things, and we both want it so bad. He knows what I wanted this offseason, and I know how badly he wants to get us back to our winning ways.”

Harbaugh’s translation: “So much respect. I respect you. You’re a real football player. Look at a Justin Smith or a Frank Gore, Hassan Haskins, Andrew Luck—the ones where you just say, ‘football player.’ Nothing else you need to say, no higher compliment than ‘football player.’ ”

When Michigan got back to Ann Arbor after that game in the middle of the night, somewhere between 3 and 4 a.m., Harbaugh got another “football player” moment from his team. Four freshmen offensive players immediately went into the indoor facility and practiced—quarterback J.J. McCarthy threw passes to running back Donovan Edwards and receivers Andrel Anthony and Cristian Dixon.

They’d done the same thing the previous week, after returning home from Wisconsin, but that was a noon kickoff and they were in the facility in the early evening. This was vampire hours.

“Kind of warms the cockles of your heart,” Harbaugh says, relating the story. “Pretty sweet.”

He paused, eyes shining, smile spreading.

“They like football.”

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