Last year was a year to forget for Jim Harbaugh. He was often seen trying, and failing, to wear two masks as Michigan suffered loss after loss in a Covid-riddled season. It became a lasting image for that team. It was an image to tear up. Shred. Burn to the ground.
But that image was the last thing on anyone’s mind Thursday, as a smiling Harbaugh took the podium at Big Ten Media Day.
“I'm as enthusiastic, excited as I ever am,” Harbaugh said. “To win the championship, to beat Ohio...Michigan State, everyone. That's what we want to do. And we're going to do it or die trying.”
One reason for optimism around Harbaugh is the new assistants he’s brought onto his staff. There was a focus on making the coaching staff younger and more diverse to help improve areas the team struggled with last season. To fix his defense, Harbaugh turned to his brother John, who introduced him to Mike Macdonald.
“My brother John was like, 'This is the guy I would hire and probably would be our next defensive coordinator here in Baltimore,'” Harbaugh said. “This came from John and I even asked him, I said ‘John, I mean that’s pretty awesome that you would recommend somebody you think so highly of that’s on your staff.’ He said, ‘Well, I really love Michigan football and I really love you, so I want to see you both be successful.’”
Macdonald has his hands full trying to restore this Michigan defense to what it was a few years ago. Last season, the Wolverines allowed 34.5 points per game, the third worst mark in the Big Ten.
While Harbaugh heaped praise for other new coaches, such as running backs coach Mike Hart and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, he also showed confidence in a returning coach: offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Michigan’s offense was expected to take a leap in year two under Gattis but they came up well short of those goals. The Wolverines put up pedestrian numbers, averaging 28.3 points per game. With more cohesion amongst the coaching staff under Gattis, it could solve their offensive woes.
“The trust that (Gattis) has in the other coaches on the offensive side of the ball, that’s trust we all have in Josh,” Harbaugh said. “The same kind of free-flowing dialogue...looking at the tape, you're scheming, you're putting in ideas, that same kind of energy, that same kind of trust is there.”
Harbaugh appears to be reinvigorated by the coaching changes and it's having a positive effect on his players as well. The team is pumped up for a chance at a more normal season with more than 100,000 fans back in Michigan Stadium. The focus on beating Ohio State has become a war cry for the team.
The struggles from last season can’t be overlooked but the desire to win is at an all time high. Harbaugh wants to put his alma mater back in the national conversation and he’s taking inspiration from the simpler things, like a hike with his daughter.
“We’re going up this mountain, it was like a mountain climb. I don't know how high it was, but it was pretty high, we probably did 15,000 steps to get up there,” Harbaugh explained. “We were getting up close to the top and I remember (my daughter) said, ‘We've got to get to the apex, Dad, we've got to get to the top.’ You're darn right we do. We've got to get there. That's what we've got to do. We’ve got to get to the top.”
Harbaugh knows, entering his 7th season at Michigan, that the time for talking is over. That’s why on Thursday, there wasn't as much coach speak. There was no rambling. He got on stage and got down to business:
“No speech. We go right to questions.”