ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In the not-so-distant past, Michigan sought to regain power, prestige and authority. A few years ago, the Wolverines yearned for the familiar respect and recognition that had all but disappeared during 2008-2014, commonly referred to as the “dark years” by the UM faithful.
Spread offenses and 3-3-5 defenses with Rich Rodriguez.
Questionable management and use of talent with Brady Hoke.
Both coaches lost to rivals. Both of them were slammed on the biggest of stages — RichRod in the 2011 Gator Bowl vs. Mississippi State — another MSU he couldn’t beat — and Hoke at Jerry’s World in 2012 versus Alabama — which really likes to beat MSUs.
Bad memories. Deep scars.
Forgettable years for the program and its supporters.
Too big and far too proud to stay down for long, Michigan has all but rebounded during the past two years with coach Jim Harbaugh, who posted a 10-3 record during his debut in 2015. UM capped its success with a 41-7 dismantling of Florida during the Citrus Bowl, too.
Right now, Harbaugh has the Wolverines in the No. 3 position within the College Football Playoff poll. No. 1-ranked defense, pro-level talent, a sonic-boom in a winged helmet… what else does he need?!
According to all kinds of statisticians, UM has a roughly 60 percent chance of winning-out in 2016. If that were to happen, it’d be its first undefeated season since 1997 — the year it shared the national championship with Nebraska, formerly of the Big 8 but now settled into the Big Ten.
On Dec. 30, 2014, Harbaugh was introduced as the 19th head coach of Wolverines football. In fewer than two full seasons, he’s won 18 of 21 games (10-3 in 2015, 8-0 in 2016) and has his team — really has, mind you — in the thick of the national-championship conversation.
Put that into perspective: RichRod went 15-22 before being quickly cast aside in 2010 after three seasons. National titles were a mere dream during his tenure. So were anything better than eight-win seasons. Simply said, he just didn’t fit at Michigan.
Hoke, who went 31-20 in four years, talked about winnning Big Ten and national titles. He truly believed he was on the right path. He bled maize and blue. Coaching UM was his “dream job.” He would have walked from his previous post of San Diego State to accept the offer from former AD Dave Brandon (fired Halloween 2014).
However, a string of failure cut short Hoke’s time in Ann Arbor. He was likable and respected by players. But things just didn’t work out in his favor.
With that being said, Harbaugh would be the first to credit Hoke for at least setting a base. Some of Harbaugh’s best players were recruited by Hoke’s staff: Jabrill Peppers, Amara Darboh, Mason Cole, Jake Butt, Chris Wormley… so on and so forth (the upperclassmen, basically).
On top of that, part of Michigan’s monstrous success can be directly connected to Greg Mattison, who was Hoke’s defensive coordinator (2011-2014) before assuming defensive line duties for Harbaugh in 2015.
So yes, Hoke deserves credit for at least finding a path. However, on the other hand, Harbaugh made his own path and built his own car — and he’s been cruising in the fast lane for the better part of two years, only exiting for satellite camps, rap videos and national signing day events.
Harbaugh doesn’t mind talking about his team. In fact, he loves talking football.
Ask him “How’d Peppers do this or that?” Depending on the play, Harbaugh could describe a sonic-boom-like run and paint a picture of parachutes ejecting to slow down the blur of Peppers. Harbaugh will talk about quarterback Wilton Speight’s mechanics and strengths to no end. He enjoys discussing “ascending players.”
But Harbaugh won’t talk about his team being favorites. During this past week’s Big Ten coaches conference call, a reporter suggested that Michigan could “show up and win” versus the rest of its schedule.
And really, a lot of people agree with that idea.
The Wolverines average 46.4 points per game and barely give up 10 points. The statistics have said it all. Their play has said it all. They’re 8-0 and No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings for good reason.
They’re favorites to win. Vegas favorite.
But Harbaugh humbly disagreed with that notion. He knows he has a good team, but he’s refused to fuel the CFP fire. When asked if he would watch the ranking premier, he said that he’d maybe check it out for a moment — but he hadn’t planned on holding a watch party for the team.
Besides, it was on during practice. Nothing interrupts practice.
Harbaugh has four regular-season remaining, and he’d never cut short preparation to peak around the corner.
“Well we certainly don’t expect that (to “show up and win”),” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know what people you’re referring to — I don’t know any of those people, and certainly wouldn’t listen to them…”
Harbaugh’s players haven’t overstepped boundaries. Heisman candidates have graded themselves with C-minuses. Stars have shunned praise. Will-be NFL first-rounders downplay hype. It’s like they just know. And when you know, you walk with a quiet confidence… and then run opponents into the ground on Saturday.
It’s been a successful formula — one that’ll undoubtedly continue to work.
Culture change has been a popular topic. How has Harbaugh changed the ways of a program? Attitudes have been different. There has been a certain level of professionalism added to the mix since Harbaugh’s arrival — an almost NFL-like feel in some aspects.
Maybe it’s the coaching staff, some of which actually has NFL experience. Conversely, Harbaugh quarterbacked in the league for 14 seasons, so he knows the ins and outs as well as anyone.
This past summer, Harbaugh said that he considered Michigan to be the 33rd NFL team. Since 2010, the Wolverines haven’t had anything larger than a three-man draft class — and just two-first rounders: left tackle Taylor Lewan in 2014 and linebacker Brandon Graham in 2010.
One year ago, three Wolverines were drafted, equaling recent highs.
This year, Harbaugh could have three or more first-rounders and up to six, seven or even eight drafted players.
National title or not. Big Ten title or not. Doesn’t matter right now. He’s yet to coach two full seasons in Ann Arbor, but his influence has Michigan bigger than it’s been in 20 years.
Think about that for a moment.
And then again remember how long he’s been on the job.