After the Michigan Wolverines hit rock bottom with a 2-4 record for the 2020 COVID-impacted season, Jim Harbaugh made several fundamental changes to his program after signing a new contract for lesser money (and a modest buyout if he were to leave for the NFL). Much has been said about his turning to his brother, John, for help with coaching talent on the defensive side of the football. And the offense abandoned Run-Pass Options for more of a power-rushing attack that relies on a zone-blocking scheme from the offenisive line like with the Baltimore Ravens (although last year's starting quarterback, Cade McNamara, did not offer much rushing skill). But a subtle change that Harbaugh made became very evident to many observers after the Wolverines defeated Ohio State by a 45-23 score in Columbus on Saturday: he goes out of his way to de-emphasize his presence so his players can be highlighted and featured in post-game on the field interviews.
When Harbaugh first arrived at his alma mater after taking the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl, he was the rock star returning home to re-establish glory for his alma mater. He made a big splash on the recruiting trail with exploits like waiting outside recruit's houses before the midnight window opening when recruiting could begin or conducting glamorous signing day celebrations. Harbaugh was the face and identity of the team which would often backfire when he would blow his gasket on the sidelines arguing a call with the officials. But after no appearances in the College Football Playoff after the 2020 season, Harbaugh's sixth year with the program, and an 0-5 record against Ohio State, the approach was not working.
Since last year after signing the renegotiated contract, Harbaugh has made a concerted effort to get as much attention off him as possible. In their first two games of the season against Western Michigan and Washington, Harbaugh made a point of ending his post-game on-the-field interviews as quickly as possible while pressing for one or more of his players to take over fielding questions. This tactic bordered on pure comedy after the victory in Columbus on Saturday with Harbaugh declining to even field an initial question while telling Tom Rinaldi to speak with quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Harbaugh then put on his Sports Information Direction hat on by going to find running Donovan Edwards and drag him to join that post-game interview with Rinaldi.
This Michigan team has also been coached to be overly positive on the sideline. It would be fair to suggest that the Wolverines often played tight in close games early in Harbaugh's tenure. Michigan might have made the college football playoff in the 2016-17 season (even with a close loss to Ohio State) if not for an October loss to Michigan State when the Spartans blocked a punt and returned for a touchdown to steal that game in the final moments. The Wolverines seemed to play as if they did not want to let down their head coach.
After Michigan scored on a 69-yard touchdown pass to Cornelius Johnson to tie the score at 10-10 despite the Buckeyes dominating the 1st quarter, the concerted emphasis on positivity became evident. The players were all smiles on the sidelines, jumping around and raising their hands to fuel to emotions. J.J. McCarthy literally had a happy face written in sharpie on his hand. Rinaldi later commented that Ohio State appeared tight on their sideline. It starts with the coach. It is interesting to contrast that Ryan Day does all the post-game on-the-field interviews for the Buckeyes. I have observed that he has been consistent in an attitude that suggests that the team is letting him down if his team is not up a few touchdowns. Brian Kelly had a similar persona in his first few first years as the Notre Dame head coach. Kelly eventually mellowed -- and the Fighting Irish saw improved results.
Positivity can only go so far. Michigan will have to rely on their talent if they want to win a National Championship this season. But a commitment to embrace positivity can play a role in handling adversity. And ensuring that is his players that get the spotlight after big wins for the national television audiences goes a long way to recruiting the next batch of players. It sure looks fun to play at the University of Michigan right now under Harbaugh. And that is a change in fortune -- by design.
Best of luck -- Frank.