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Harbaugh’s NFL lockout experience could be beneficial for Michigan during pandemic

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Harbaugh’s had a challenging off-season before that worked out just fine.

San Francisco 49ers v Washington Redskins Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has dealt with an irregular offseason before.

In 2011 Harbaugh was gearing up for his first season as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, but team activities were put on hold due to the NFL lockout. The lockout extended into late July and was perceived as detrimental for a first-year NFL head coach to implement his scheme. The Niners would end up going 13-3 and making it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

Now, almost a decade later, Harbaugh’s trying to prepare his players for the fall season without being with them in the flesh for a good chunk of the off-season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think there’s some real similarities to it with the facilities being closed, etc.,” Harbaugh said recently. “It was (about) daily going through alternate plans and not knowing but planning for every contingency day by day, week by week. It was into months. And then flexibility when you finally got the word that we’re getting back to starting training camp. Being ready.”

There was a brief court-ordered halt to the lockout in April of ‘11 and during that pause Harbaugh was able to communicate with quarterback Alex Smith (a free-agent at the time who re-signed with the 49ers once the lockout ended) and give him the playbook. Smith was able to get players together for practices, which were nicknamed “Camp Alex”. Smith ran video sessions, directed the practices, and drew plays up on a whiteboard.

“And then the other biggest thing was the players. It was Alex Smith, it was Justin Smith, it was Patrick Willis and those guys, they were also organizing team activities and workouts and being prepared. Just really comes back to that,” Harbaugh said. “Being prepared, being productive, being creative, being flexible and being ready. Because I know we’re in strange times, but time is not going to change. You’ve got to prepare for the season that’s coming up. It will start when it starts.”

There’s still a lot of uncertainty ahead in 2020. We don’t know when the season will start, whether fans will be allowed to attend, but many contingency plans are being made to plan for a variety of scenarios.

“You didn’t really know anything for sure (in ‘11), but contingencies and thinking through all the different possibilities. The one that eventually did happen was one that we had prepared for. You do the best you can and Vic Fangio likes to say, be ready to ‘I-and-A it,’ improvise and adjust.”

Improvisation and adjustments will be required in the days to come, and Harbaugh’s already been there and done that.