Jim Harbaugh is happier than ever despite his looming suspension, which is dangerous for Ohio State

By Jimmy Watkins,
INDIANAPOLIS -- Not even the tattletales can erase the smirk across Jim Harbaugh’s face.
When the Michigan coach met with reporters Thursday, the recorders braced for fire breath. The NCAA was spoiling Harbaugh’s victory lap with an investigation into pandemic-era recruiting violations over which he feels no shame. And though the dragon showed his teeth several times during his second presser of the day, he never bit.
Not even close. Between no comments about alleged recruiting violations, Harbaugh looked jovial at the microphone for most of his media scrum. He told jokes, quoted former WWF champion Ric Flair and smiled often, proving that even when the narks are nagging, it still feels warm to wear the title belt.
“People call it attitude, people call it culture,” Harbaugh said. “Where the team is at, it’s in the best place it’s been in since I arrived in 2015.
“Many people have poured into that ... to the point of now, it’s a walk in the park as a coach. I go, ‘Just watch Blake (Corum) -- really study him and then emulate him, copy him, and then go see if you can make him proud of you. Watch Kris Jenkins -- really study him and then go see if you can make him proud of you.
“... That’s what we’re able to do because many of them studied Aiden Hutchinson (and) Jake Butt. It’s been a long line.”
The long line led to a short turnaround over the last two years, during which Michigan has won two conference titles, which makes it easy to forget how frustrated the program was before then.
Coming off the 2-4 pandemic-shortened season, Harbaugh sat in the same stadium under a different mood at Big Ten Media Days two years ago. He couldn’t beat Ohio State. His program had suffered its first losing season in six years. One reporter even asked Harbaugh how he managed life on the “hot seat.”
“People are trying to discourage you,” he said then. “It’s almost like propaganda like, ‘Let’s discourage him.’ Almost like World War II propaganda machines. Stop! Quit! No need to try, you have no chance. Don’t even try any further.
“We don’t subscribe to that. We’re gonna try to get to the top -- or die trying.”
The Wolverines refused to die the following season, during which they flipped the program’s culture (and its narrative) with changes that Harbaugh described Thursday as “the minutia,” “1,000 little things” and “compiled work.” Whatever he calls them, they work -- and are still working.
Players like Corum and Jenkins, who have mastered Harbaugh’s football curriculum, can teach it themselves now. Harbaugh recounted conversations he used to have with players about how “it doesn’t matter what we did last year.” The players say that to him now.
“It doesn’t matter what we did the last two years,” Harbaugh said, paraphrasing his players. “Now we’re doing it again.”
Such a goal challenges Michigan football’s history, which has never included three consecutive Big Ten championships. So does UM’s new “Beat Georgia” drill, which implies that Michigan has chosen a new carrot to chase. Both sound like sacrilege in Columbus, where the Buckeyes added a top-five recruiting class to a roster that ranked third in 247Sports’ talent composite rankings last season.
Why would that scare Harbaugh? He’s beaten OSU twice in a row despite facing a talent “deficit,” and his current team might be the best he’s had at Michigan. Harbaugh calls quarterback J.J. McCarthy a “once-in-a-generation-type-guy.” McCarthy’s offensive line features 10 starting-caliber players, in Harbaugh’s estimation. And the Michigan coaching staff is so tight that Harbaugh compared his relationship to the staff to the one he shares with his brother, Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
“I was asked the question today, who are your mentors in football? Who do you go to and talk football with?” Harbaugh said. “The answer is I just walk down the hall. The relationship is the same as it is with my brother, who’s also a football coach.
“... When I walk down that hall, every time, you hear engagement. There’s not people in their offices with the doors closed. They’re together talking football. Defensive coaches are talking to offensive coaches, special teams coaches talking to defensive and offensive coaches -- It’s back and forth. It’s tremendous dialogue. It’s a tremendous collaborative environment.”

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