It’s easy to get distracted by the noise surrounding Jim Harbaugh — the rap video, the recruiting slumber parties, the endless satellite camp controversy — and overlook the actual football turnaround at Michigan.
The Wolverines lost seven games two years ago under Brady Hoke, including a 16-point drubbing by the Gophers at Michigan Stadium. Last year, Harbaugh’s squad finished 10-3 and pounded Florida in the Citrus Bowl.
With a star-laden roster, and sure answers for most questions except starting quarterback, Michigan is a trendy pick for the College Football Playoff.
Harbaugh’s timing is perfect. The Big Ten East’s two other powers — Michigan State and Ohio State — lost staggering amounts of talent. The Spartans must replace six first-team All-Big Ten selections, and the Buckeyes had 12 players picked in the NFL draft.
“The message is simple: We want our dreams to be big. We want our goals to be lofty. We want to dream those dreams so much that people would laugh at us,” Harbaugh said. “If they’re not laughing at us, then we haven’t set high enough goals.”
Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004, and claimed its last national championship in 1997. Nobody’s laughing at those goals, but it’s hard not to chuckle at Harbaugh, sometimes.
How could a 52-year-old man who’s so obsessed with focus suddenly show up in a Michigan-themed rap video, by Bailey. Harbaugh — in his trademark khakis, long-sleeved shirt and blue hat — bobs his head to the beat in a yellow sports car, and repeatedly shouts the chorus: “Who’s got it better than us?”
He even helped write the lyrics, including this line: “Roughest team in the B-I-G.”
“Why not?” he said. “My default answer is yes. The feedback has been great. We did not embarrass ourselves. It’s a respectable song and video. All the cool people like it. Some uptight people don’t, but they’re very few.”
He paused before adding, “It’s only uptight white people that don’t like it, man.”
Behind closed doors, it’s not all fun and games in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh set the tone last spring with four-hour practices. If last year’s training camp was easier, players have reported a ratcheted level of intensity this year.
“Being out there four hours — I mean, that’s like the ‘Titanic’ movie,” All-America cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “He kind of forced us to buy in. I knew there was a method to his madness. After we saw those 10 wins, we knew we could be something special.”
The defense already is special. Michigan allowed the sixth-fewest points per game in the country last season (16.4), and several key pieces return. Lewis, a lockdown cornerback, passed up a chance to enter the NFL draft. Fellow All-America Jabrill Peppers, now listed at linebacker, is among the most dynamic multi-position players in college football.
Other returning standouts include defensive end Chris Wormley, tight end Jake Butt and wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson.
Last year’s defensive coordinator, D.J. Durkin, left to become the head coach at Maryland. Harbaugh replaced him with Don Brown, the 61-year-old wizard who turned Boston College into last year’s national leader in total defense.
Michigan faces a daunting second half, with games at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. But the schedule opens with five consecutive home games, which should help break in a new quarterback.
Last year, Harbaugh worked wonders with Iowa transfer Jake Rudock. It was a more gradual process than people probably remember. As Mlive.com noted, it took six weeks before Harbaugh’s team completed a non-screen pass for more than 30 yards.
The choices for Harbaugh now are sophomore Wilton Speight and Houston transfer John O’Korn.
If Harbaugh gets that position solved, the Wolverines might go all the way. It’s hard to believe that’s possible in Year 2, but it happened for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma in 2000 and Urban Meyer at Florida in 2006.
Critics figure Harbaugh won’t last long at Michigan. Sure, he’s back at his alma mater, living on the same Ann Arbor street where Bo Schembechler once lived, but Harbaugh never has lasted longer than four years in the same coaching job.
Could he see himself coaching Michigan for 20-25 years?
“Yeah, I think that way,” he told SiriusXM radio. “I think God willing and the creek don’t rise, that’ll happen. I love coaching, I love football, I love the University of Michigan. You hope to go as long as you can where you’re still doing it by example, not just by anecdote.”