Hayes: Ascendant Michigan has put pep in Harbaugh's step
He slid in and out of the event he dreaded for so long, moving freely under the cloak of a commissioner backstabbing his friends and a rival preaching $13 million to field a competitive team.
This feels a whole lot like the late 2000s, when a fun and flippantly free — and still plenty quirky — Jim Harbaugh built Stanford into the real deal. And had a blast doing it.
The old days when winning with “cruelty and character” was refreshing and revealing, and reintroduced to the football world the odd cat of a former player who could flat-out coach football.
And a long, long way from last year at this point during Big Ten Media Days, when a clearly distressed Harbaugh proclaimed Michigan would reach the mountaintop (see: finally beat Ohio Sate) — or die trying.
“People tell me, ‘You look great, you look happy,’” Harbaugh said. “I am happy.”
That’s what beating Ohio State for the first time since 2011 does. Or winning an outright Big Ten championship for the first time since 2003.
Or for the first time since he walked into that packed press conference in late December of 2014 and was officially introduced as coach of his alma mater, Harbaugh delivered on the promise of excellence.
And now the next step: beat rivals Ohio State and Michigan State in the same season, win the Big Ten and win the national title.
“Those are our 4 goals,” Harbaugh said.
A year ago, that statement would’ve been met with unmitigated blowback and utter laughter. And not necessarily in that order.
But what seemed ridiculous last year now at least looks feasible this fall. Harbaugh has a strong team, a fresh outlook and — I can’t believe I’m writing this — some pep in his step again.
All it took was getting that giant scarlet and gray monkey off his back.
“There’s been zero entitlement the entire offseason and now, and none really in the foreseeable future,” Harbaugh said during Big Ten Media Days. “So life is good.”
Winning the Big Ten was a huge step, as was getting to the Playoff — even with the lopsided loss to Georgia in the Orange Bowl semifinal. But that transcendent season is more impactful with the greatest tangible of all: belief.
Players win games, but young players — 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old young men — have to see it to believe it. They have to feel it and soak in it and understand it to embrace it.
Emotion and motivation are critical in college sports at all levels, but more so at the elite level. Many coaches have strung together top-10 recruiting classes.
The trick — for coaches and players — is transforming that into Power 5 championship seasons and a trip to the Playoff. And winning the whole damn thing.
This isn’t to say that Michigan’s run last season means it is set up for bigger and better in 2022. It just means that an offense loaded with 2 quarterbacks (Cade McNamara, J.J. McCarthy) who could start for many Power 5 teams, and a deep set of skill players, and physical lines of scrimmage and elite special teams, will more than likely make another run.
Will it reach those 4 team goals that conclude with Michigan winning its first national title since 1997? Probably not.
But the fact that Michigan is zeroed in on such a lofty goal, with an experienced team that now knows what it’s like to win at an elite level — and a coach who’s feeling it at the collegiate level like he hasn’t in more than a decade — should at least make everyone sit up straight and take a long look at what’s going on in Ann Arbor.
The last time everyone laughed at Harbaugh making outlandish statements of winning with character and cruelty, he and Stanford went into the Coliseum in Los Angeles in 2007 as a 40-point underdog.
He started a walk-on at quarterback that day against college football king USC. Then Tavita Pritchard went out and completed just 11 of 30 passes, and Stanford had 257 total yards. And won 24-23.
Three years later, Stanford was playing as well as or better than anyone in the nation — including eventual national champion Auburn — and won 12 of 13 games before Harbaugh left for the NFL.
That was the ceiling for Stanford under Harbaugh. The big question now: is this the ceiling for Michigan?
Or is there more on the way?
“We’re just going to continue to attack,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what I love about this team. They really literally attack everything that’s put in front of them.”