It’s hard to believe, but, in just 17 days, Michigan football’s 2015 season will be underway. We at Maize n Brew have spent weeks previewing what you should expect from the other teams in the Big Ten and how the position battles will shake out at Michigan. Now, we are going to tell you what you should expect from this Michigan team. Each weekday for the next two weeks, in a free-flowing, back-and-forth conversation, Anthony Broome and Drew Hallett will address one of what they believe are the 10 biggest questions and storylines surrounding Michigan football and whether the Wolverines will find success in 2015. So sit back, relax, and know football is so close.
The first storyline is the biggest: the impact of Jim Harbaugh’s return to Michigan.
Drew: Anthony, I don’t know about you -- and this may seem hard to believe given that he’s dominated the headlines all spring and summer -- but, almost eight months after Michigan announced the hire of Jim Harbaugh, it still hasn’t settled in that he’s here. HE is here. At Michigan. THE Jim Harbaugh. The former Michigan quarterback who took Stanford to a BCS Bowl four years after they had a 1-11 season and the San Francisco 49ers to three straight NFC Championship Games, including one Super Bowl, in his first three seasons. I need to be pinched.
Anthony: It still does seem extremely surreal. But in a lot of ways it also feels like it was meant to happen. Michigan and Jim Harbaugh have flirted in the past, but it finally came to fruition this off-season. And it's a much needed marriage for the Wolverines as well. Harbaugh is a personality that fits what was lacking in recent years perfectly. He's not Bo, but that's exactly the type of man that's needed to lead the program. No more country club atmosphere. It's here, Drew. It's here and it's real.
Drew: I’m glad you raised the topic of Harbaugh’s personality and that any traces of a country club atmosphere at Michigan will be washed away. You’re right that Harbaugh is not Bo because, as much as Michigan fans want to have another Bo, there will never be another Bo. But, this past Friday, I was reading a Sports Illustrated feature on Bo from 1981 (!), and I could not help but notice certain similarities between Bo and Harbaugh’s respective behavior. The feature focused on Bo’s fiery passion and intensity and, most importantly, his demand for perfection in all areas of the program -- even those off the field. Then-Michigan athletic director Don Canham even discussed how one of the techniques he used to handle Bo was to "give him everything he wants."
Is that not what Michigan has with Harbaugh now? After enduring an era in which former Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon seemed more concerned with the #brand than the product on the field and former head coach Brady Hoke was willing to delegate too much responsibility (headset, anyone?), interim athletic director Jim Hackett has allowed Harbaugh to have free reign and total control over the program. Hackett is giving Harbaugh everything he wants. Harbaugh doesn’t want to have a home night game? No home night game. Harbaugh wants Nike to be Michigan’s new apparel supplier? Nike, it is. Harbaugh requests that he wants the 1974 road uniform to be Michigan’s road uniform for 2015? Done. This is Harbaugh’s program now. If you can’t match his passion or enthusiasm unknown to mankind, Michigan isn’t for you.
Anthony: It definitely does come across that Harbaugh is the judge, jury and executioner in Ann Arbor, which seems like it may have a negative connotation to it, but it really doesn’t. If that was the price of getting him as the head coach of your program, then so be it. I think some get uncomfortable with coaches having unchecked power (hello, Chip Kelly in Philadelphia), but that’s an apples and oranges comparison. The football coach at almost any school is the de facto face of the university.
Harbaugh may rub people the wrong way, there is absolutely no debate about that. But nobody is going to care unless he wins, which he will. His methods are unconventional, but we are talking about a guy who has squeezed every single drop of potential out of the teams he has. An exception to that may be San Francisco last season, but we are all aware of how toxic a situation can be when there are egos and stubbornness at the top of your organization.
Harbaugh is a bit of a strange guy, but he is also an incredibly smart guy. If everything that happens has to go through him, that is okay. There could be far worse people making football decisions on and off the field.
Drew: I do tend to get uncomfortable when a coach has unchecked power -- you mentioned Chip Kelly, but the one example that always will come to mind is Joe Paterno, sadly -- but, after the experiment Michigan just tried where the athletic director had all the power, I will give this a shot.
And you’re right that there could be far worse people making decisions on and off the field. Let’s just look at some of Harbaugh’s off-the-field decisions again. Notwithstanding that Michigan is fresh off a 5-7 season and 20-18 three-year stretch, no college football team was given more attention this spring and summer than the Wolverines. Why? Harbaugh Mania. Whether he was taking not-so-subtle shots at Urban Meyer on Twitter, pissing off the SEC with his extensive satellite camp tour, or running around and playing Peru Ball shirtless, people wanted to talk about Harbaugh. Heck, Fox Sports has dressed a bus like Harbaugh and plans to drive it around the nation to promote Michigan’s season opener at Utah that FS1 will televise. It’s out of control.
But here is the biggest off-the-field impact Harbaugh has made on Michigan: there is unbridled excitement about Michigan football again. It was painful this past season to watch Wolverine supporters become apathetic about the results on the field. They did not care if Michigan won or lost. They just wanted the season to be over. I mean, Michigan was handing out an exorbitant amount of free tickets just to keep the 100,000-plus attendance streak alive because people did not want to show up. That won’t be a problem in 2015 and beyond. People care again. They can’t wait to watch Michigan football. As of a few weeks ago, tickets for Michigan’s 2015 home games nearly had sold out, and there was a waiting list again to purchase season tickets. As it should be.
OK, enough about the off-the-field impact. What will be Harbaugh’s on-the-field impact in 2015?
Anthony: The biggest misconception about the Hoke regime was that his teams were not talented, but as a recruiting guy by trade, I think that could not be farther from the truth. Michigan struggled under Hoke because they weren't coached up and prepared well enough. Whatever the opposite of "enthusiasm unknown to mankind is" was what the Wolverines became.
They didn't do the little things well and turned over the ball way too much. This is where I think Harbaugh makes the biggest difference. He is a perfectionist and how the team prepares for Saturdays will reflect that. There may be better teams, more talented teams, in the Big Ten, but there may not be a team that is more ready after the work they put in during the week than the Wolverines. Will that result in more wins? That remains to be seen. Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio are great at having their teams ready too, plus they have elite talent. The combination of that probably stops Michigan from being quite on that level this season, but when it's time to kickoff against those teams, I don't expect them to play like a deer in the headlights.
Drew: I think you’re spot on when you mention that Michigan will do the little things well under Harbaugh. No longer will Michigan be sending only 10 men on punt coverage, using traditional punt coverage formations, or calling timeouts at the end of halves to allow the opponent to chuck a Hail Mary. The turnovers issue is interesting to me because Michigan has been so bad in turnover margin for so long. In the seven seasons under Rich Rodriguez and Hoke, Michigan has been minus-45 in turnover margin. The main reason for this mess is that Michigan cannot take care of the football. In those seven seasons, the Wolverines turned over the football 183 times, which is the most by any school that was in the Big Ten that entire time. If Harbaugh can help curb that problem and limit turnovers, particularly interceptions, I think it will go a long way to his success.
I mention interceptions because I look forward to seeing how Harbaugh impacts Michigan’s quarterback play in 2015. As much as I love Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner, they threw quite a bit of interceptions during their time on the field, and it’s an issue that Michigan can ill-afford this season because the offense will not have the play-making ability or explosiveness that it had with Robinson or Gardner. Michigan needs a quarterback that can take care of the football, limit interceptions, and move the chains. Michigan may have that quarterback in grad transfer Jake Rudock, or maybe everything will finally click for Shane Morris, though I’m not getting my hopes up. Either way, Harbaugh is a former NFL quarterback that knows the ins and outs of the position and is the coach that released the weapon that is Colin Kaepernick onto the NFL. If Harbaugh can get Rudock or Morris to perform as needed, Michigan may be in business.
Anthony: I think we are both in agreement that Harbaugh’s impact on the football program will be huge and it’s more likely than not that he will return things back to national prominence. With all of that being said, is he a lifer at Michigan or is the NFL and chase for a Super Bowl alluring enough to him for a possible return?
I say that if he does what he needs to do at Michigan, he’ll be there for life. He made mention during his opening presser that he wants to "build a house he can finally live in" and I think Ann Arbor is the perfect spot for that. It is also out there now that he has always wanted to raise his young children in a college town. Is there a better college town than Ann Arbor? That answer depends on who you talk to, but living in the area my whole life, there is not a lot of better places to be than where the Harbaughs are at now.
So with that, and the fact that we talked about earlier with the "absolute power" stuff, Harbaugh finally may have a home for life in Tree City.
Drew: I think Harbaugh and Michigan will be happy together for a long time.
Unless Oakland is still interested ... nah.
Tomorrow, Anthony and Drew will address whether there is talent on this roster that has yet to be developed -- and whether Jim Harbaugh can develop that talent in just one offseason -- or whether it was Brady Hoke's recruiting that led Michigan to where it is now.