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Michigan Football’s ‘do it or die trying’ approach and quest to the apex

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Jim Harbaugh is refreshed and has a mentality that’s resonating with veteran leaders for Michigan Football.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

There’s a sense of urgency for Michigan Football, but they’re working and not worrying.

Veterans such as defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, linebacker Josh Ross, and running back Hassan Haskins will be headed to the NFL in 2022 — time is running out for them to be part of a Big Ten Championship berth, a victory against Ohio State.

For head coach Jim Harbaugh, speculation was at a fever pitch after a 2-4 season, ‘hot seat’ talk was endless. In the end Harbaugh and Michigan ironed out an extension, his demise was greatly exaggerated, and Harbaugh made major changes on the coaching staff — injecting new blood, new personalities, new ideas into the locker room.

Harbaugh stood behind the podium at Big Ten Media Days on Thursday, declaring that he’s as excited as he’s ever been — to have at it and win the championship, beat Ohio State, beat Michigan State, and beat everybody.

“That’s what we want to do. And we’re going to do it or die trying,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh’s ‘do it or die trying’ statement resonated with Ross and Hutchinson.

“That’s motivating. We’re gonna get there, or we’re going to die trying,” Ross said. “That’s our motive. We’re about to grind. We’re about to scrape and claw and scratch, and everything we need to do. I love it. For him to say that, I just love it.”

“That’s the mentality right there,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve invested so much of my energy — mental energy, physical energy into giving this all that I’ve got. I’m willing to die for this, I swear. I want it more than anyone, I promise you that.”

Hutchinson went on to explain why there’s a new energy in the building and on the practice field.

“It’s a culmination of getting these new coaches, new blood, new energy, coach Hart who has played in the rivalry, who hates these guys as much as we do. And then you’ve got coach Harbaugh putting more of an emphasis on it,” Hutchinson explained. “We adjust things every single offseason, and that’s one thing we did — put more emphasis on Ohio State, and that’s because of coach Harbaugh.”

Outside noise and the perception it emits creates a narrative that Michigan doesn’t take the rivalry as serious as Ohio State, which is something Michigan isn’t giving much thought or any credence to. “We know what’s going on inside our building. We know how we’ve changed. We know how we’ve gotten better. We know how we’ve grown,” Ross said. “And everybody is going to see that when the season comes.”

Harbaugh compared some of the outside noise to wartime scare tactics. “People are trying to discourage you. It’s almost like propaganda; ‘let’s discourage him.’ Almost like World War II propaganda machines — ‘quit, no need to try, you’ve got no chance, don’t even try any further.’ We don’t subscribe to that at all,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll try to get to the top. We’re either going to get there, or die trying.”

Harbaugh told a story of a 15,000 step hike he had with his wife and daughter in Carmel, California — water was running short, the thought of heading back down the mountain lingered momentarily, only to be overridden by daughter Addie’s persistence. ‘We got to apex, dad, we got to get to the top.’ You’re darn right we do. We got to get there. That’s what we got to do. We got to apex this, we got to get to the top.

“She’s got that gene in her and I was darn glad to see it. And I tell you I got that gene in me, and some of the guys we talked about here already, Aidan Hutchinson, Hassan, Josh Ross and a lot others, we got that gene in us, we got to get to the top.”

Getting to the top, getting to the apex — knowing they aren’t there yet, knowing the trials and tribulations they’ve been through on their ascent up the mountain — these are the things that drive Hutchinson and Michigan alike.

“When you’re working out and you’re grinding out that last rep, when you think you can’t go anymore, all I think of is 2019 sitting on that bench, being down two touchdowns and not being able to do a damn thing about it. That allows me to do two or three more reps, something that I think I wasn’t even capable of,” Hutchinson said. “So having Ohio State there in the back of my mind every day is something that drives me.”

Each and every time Ohio State was brought up at Big Ten Media Days, Harbaugh faced the reality of Michigan’s past losses head on and pivoted to a sense of enthusiasm about how to solve the equation and create a winning formula. “They’re at the top. We’ve got to knock them off their perch. That’s on our mind every day. Also, what you’re doing that day to get better today than you were yesterday, to be better tomorrow than you were today,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh is a believer in the team, the staff, their ability and determination to turn things around.

“For better or worse, whether it’s a blessing or a curse, you just have that gene in you,” Harbaugh said. “You’ve got to do your best ... give your best at all times, and eventually you’ve got to be the best. We’re capable of that.”