One of the sweetest moments of the college football season came on its first weekend. Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock had just thrown his third interception against Utah, which was returned for a touchdown to salt away the game in Salt Lake City.
Pan to the field, where a TV camera snags Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh with his arm around Rudock’s shoulder. He offers comfort.
Since that Sept. 3 evening in Rice-Eccles Stadium, Michigan has not lost a game, winning five in a row by a combined score of 160-14 – the past three by shutout. The Wolverines, unranked before the season, have risen to No. 12 in The Associated Press poll and will climb higher Saturday if they beat No. 7 Michigan State.
The takeaway, of course, is that Harbaugh is again showing America how to fix a lost football program.
Northern California fans know the story. At Stanford, he took a 1-11 team from 2006 down to Los Angeles in 2007 and beat No. 2-ranked USC. Within three years, he built Stanford into a national power. In a second challenge on the Peninsula, Harbaugh was placed in charge of a 49ers franchise that won an average of about six games a season over eight years. In the first three seasons under Harbaugh, San Francisco averaged 12 wins, reaching three conference title games and one Super Bowl.
At his alma mater, Harbaugh took over a Michigan program that has won more games than any school in college football history, but one that had experienced some slippage. It won only five games in 2014 and had three losing seasons since 2008. If the early returns are to be believed, it looks as if Michigan might have itself another coaching legend, in a long line going back to Fielding Yost.
Harbaugh was asked during the Big Ten Conference coaches’ teleconference Tuesday to discuss the formula for his successes at Stanford, San Francisco and Michigan.
“The way you phrased that question made it sound like it was some kind of personal accomplishment, which it was far from,” Harbaugh told his inquisitor. “All the places I’ve been a part of, those were team efforts, as it is here. We win as a team. Everybody does a little and it adds up to a lot.”
It was an admirable response, Harbaugh’s attempt to depersonalize the winners he created from Palo Alto to Ann Arbor. Admirable, but not satisfying. Isn’t there anything intrinsic to his approach, something that people might be able to steal from Harbaugh and employ in their own lives, whether they are football coaches or bus drivers?
For insight into Harbaugh, a call was put out to Matt Millen, the former linebacker for Penn State, the L.A./Oakland Raiders and 49ers who has had occasion to observe Harbaugh as an analyst for the Big Ten Network. For Millen, the beauty of the Harbaugh approach is in its simplicity.
“I see what he’s doing and I laugh, because people think it’s so complicated,” Millen said. “All he’s doing is playing good, fundamental football. That’s it. Nothing more. It’s execution – low man wins. Are your feet right? Is your hand placement proper? Are you striking on the rise? All the little detail things. That’s all he’s doing.”
Millen in his first year as general manager of the Detroit Lions in 2001, had to cut Harbaugh, who was trying to extend his NFL career as a quarterback. But in their moments together 14 years ago and in their relationship since, Millen said the two men share an “understanding” about each other – an intensity of purpose, a sense of the maniacal.
If there is a trick to Harbaugh, it is in his transference of that same passion into his players. In the Millen view, it gets them to believe in the simple. The belief is gained through experience. Players get the feel for doing things right. They repeat it. They become even more intense. They improve. Everybody around them improves. Everybody cares about getting better.
Harbaugh confirmed elements of the simplicity at his Monday news conference with Michigan reporters. From the beginning, Harbaugh said, the only schedule that he and his staff and the team have sought is, “See if we can’t get better today than we were yesterday, and see if we can’t be better tomorrow than we were today.” At the Tuesday Big Ten teleconference, he said the team appears to be grasping one of his key concepts: “They’re having at it and embracing the competition. It’s a great feeling as a coach.”
As for the moment with his young quarterback at Utah, Harbaugh, in his postgame news conference, said he told Rudock he did the right thing by trying to complete a tough pass on third-and-five late in a game the Wolverines trailed. Utah defensive back Justin Thomas simply made a great play, Harbaugh said.
The arm around the shoulder communicated empathy, the consolation of one quarterback to another. They’ve all been there.
“I would say the fourth iteration of Jim Harbaugh is a pretty polished piece,” Millen said of the 51-year-old coach, who first turned around the football program at the University of San Diego before Stanford got him. “He’s not the same guy he was at San Diego. He’s not the same guy who went to Stanford. He’s not the same guy who learned all that stuff in San Francisco. This iteration is pretty darn good. It’s a little more mature. He knows who he is. He knows what he has to do. He knows what works for him.”