INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Harbaugh brushed away concerns about him being on the hot seat as he heads into his seventh season at Michigan, by using historical data of the most unexpected kind.
Does Harbaugh, who continues to chase that elusive coaching victory over Ohio State and Michigan’s first Big Ten championship since 2004, hear the noise?
“It’s almost like World War II propaganda machines,” Harbaugh said Thursday at Big Ten Media Days before lowering his voice to a whisper. “‘Stop! Quit! No need to try! You have no chance. Don’t go any further!'”
Then he offered a 50 Cent piece of motivation.
“We don’t subscribe to that at all,” he said. “We’re trying to get to the top or die trying.”
In 2021, Harbaugh is banking on a new defense under first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald and a revamped staff that includes four new defensive assistants to silence the critics.
The defense was the glaring weakness in a 2020 season in which the Wolverines finished 2-4 and allowed 34.5 points per game. Michigan parted ways with coordinator Don Brown, whose blitz-heavy scheme never truly recovered after Michigan’s 62-39 loss to Ohio State on Nov. 24, 2018.
The numbers back that up. The Wolverines averaged 15.6 points allowed in 37 games under Brown before that loss to the Buckeyes. They have allowed 27.6 points per game since. The knock on Brown was simple: Michigan allowed 16.3 points per game to teams outside the top 10 and 33.8 per game against top-10 teams.
The Wolverines are 2-10 in the games against top-10 competition. That mark, and the 0-5 record against the Buckeyes, are the evergreen criticisms of Harbaugh.
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To win those games, Michigan needs to have an elite defense. The 1997 national championship team with Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson remains the standard. The 2006 and 2016 teams had good defenses, too, but they couldn’t stop Ohio State.
The bottom dropped out last year during a season impacted by COVID-19. The Wolverines struggled so much that linebacker Josh Ross decided to return before the season ended.
“I made the decision I was coming back way before coach Brown was gone,” Ross, a fifth-year senior, said. “I had to. It was a no-brainer to me because that wasn’t Michigan.”
Macdonald was an assistant with the Ravens from 2014-20, so a connection with Harbaugh’s brother John is easy to make. The Ravens have ranked in the top three in scoring defense in the NFL the last three seasons. John told Jim that Macdonald was being groomed to be the Ravens’ next defensive coordinator
“(John Harbaugh) said (Macdonald) is really smart and was on the ground floor with the Ravens when they changed their defense, invented their defense and their scheme,” Jim Harbaugh said. “Very detailed and very good teacher.”
Why would John Harbaugh let his brother have Macdonald? The reason was contained in a personal message.
“‘Well, I really love Michigan football and I really love you, so I want to see you both be successful,’” Jim Harbaugh said.
Jim Harbaugh has enjoyed the early results of the changes heading into fall camp. He repeatedly talked about the open-house ideas in defensive meetings. Shaun Nua (defensive line) returns, but George Helow (linebackers), Steve Clinkscale (defensive backs) and Ron Bellamy (safeties) now work in the room.
The players have bought in. Senior Aidan Hutchinson, a second-team SN Preseason All-American, returned after suffering a season-ending leg injury in 2020. He said the NFL-style terminology and principles have helped and the Wolverines should have a more diversified scheme as a result. Hutchinson spent the summer watching Ravens film but he said there are new wrinkles that work.
“We are so multiple,” Hutchinson said. “We can bring out a 4-3 or 3-4, over or under. Whatever we want to do, we can do. That’s what is so great about it. It’s the variety. It gives guys a chance to show off their athleticism.”
Hutchinson and Ross also said Macdonald is personable. Hutchinson mentioned an hour-and-a-half-meeting in Macdonald’s office last week. Ross recounted a similar phone call with the new coordinator. Football was only part of the conversation, and Ross said the ability to “comfortably talk” has made a difference.
“We’re working as a unit really well,” Ross said. “It’s not just Mike Macdonald. It’s not just one person. It’s everybody. We’re whole. They’ve been working really well together. I’m looking forward to getting into camp.”
Of course, this is all talk in July. The Wolverines have allowed 42.2 points per game to the Buckeyes in five meetings under Harbaugh, and that run is part of a eight-game losing streak to the four-time defending Big Ten champions. Last year’s installment of The Game was canceled because of COVID-19, and Michigan has not been given much of a chance to contend for the Big Ten East in 2021.
Perhaps that’s why Harbaugh was looser than usual at Big Ten Media Days. He was more excited and less combative when taking questions, and the Michigan players spent more time confronting the Ohio State questions than ducking them. The inability to beat the Buckeyes is a reality, but that propaganda can work two ways in the preseason.
“You can’t find a good thing about Michigan football on social media right now,” Hutchinson said. “I love it.”
In this case, Michigan and Harbaugh’s best self-defense will be the defense itself.
“You can tell that there’s trust in the room,” Harbaugh said. “Guys can speak their mind and be heard and then they bat it around and they get to a good result. So that’s been tremendous.”