When Mike Macdonald left the Baltimore Ravens to become Michigan’s next defensive coordinator in January of 2020 it was far from a given that he’d have the kind of success that could turn a struggling defense into a juggernaut.
Macdonald, who was the Ravens linebackers coach before heading to Ann Arbor, left Baltimore and head coach John Harbaugh because Harbaugh told his brother Jim that he had an ideal guy to be his next defensive coordinator. Macdonald left a talented team in the NFL for his first shot to be a DC at Michigan — a team hungry to wipe the memories of a 2-4 2020 season away. It took a lot of sweat, a lot of late nights and early mornings for Macdonald to turn a 95th ranked defense into one ranked 8th.
While Macdonald implemented new schematics that kept the opposition guessing, what he did that was just as important is bring a new culture to that side of the football. His voice, his ability to lead mattered greatly. “I was kind of enlightened,” edge-rusher Aidan Hutchinson said of Macdonald back in July. “He came in and we kind of discussed this, talking about culture and the importance of it. And he kind of opened my eyes to how you can have the greatest Xs and Os, or the greatest plays — but if your team is not fully bought in and 1,000 percent invested in what you’re doing, it’s going to fail.”
While Michigan players are quick to praise Macdonald, their coach was just as swift in deflecting compliments and giving credit to the leaders on the defense.
“People say you take the personality of your coach, I’m more subscribed to the theory that you take the personalities of your leaders. When everybody decides that they want to do it a certain way, that’s a powerful thing. And then we have the right guys to kind of spearhead that charge,” Macdonald said in December. “How I’d describe it, we want to be 11 guys playing for one another. That’s a powerful thing when you play for the guy next to you. We want to have shocking effort when you watch the tape. We want teams to watch tapes on Sunday mornings and know they’re in for a 60-minute battle.”
The Michigan defense had plenty of 60-minute battles. It was the ability not to flinch, the fact they made key plays in big moments, it’s what won them close games on the road against Nebraska and Penn State, what led to a dominating effort versus Wisconsin at Camp Randall. Scheme. Preparation. Energy. Enthusiasm. Traits the defense and Macdonald exhibited in 2021.
Michigan’s biggest test of the 2021 regular season was the last game on the schedule, The Game, a battle vs. Ohio State — a team that finished the season ranked first in total offense. The Michigan defense was relentless, they slowed down an opponent that was perceived as unstoppable. When the final whistle sounded Michigan scored 42 points, and the Michigan D allowed just 27 points against the Buckeyes.
The following week Michigan won the Big Ten Championship against Iowa 42-3. The Hawkeyes offense didn’t have a prayer against Michigan. Iowa averaged just 3.9 yards per play. The victory sent Michigan to the College Football Playoff vs. Georgia. While that game didn’t end the way Michigan would have liked, it still was a remarkable, and yes, at times magical season.
Mike Macdonald was with the Ravens seven years before he joined Michigan, and now he’s headed back to a place where he’s already well liked.
“During his initial seven seasons with us, it was evident that his leadership, intelligence and passion would earn him the opportunity to be a defensive coordinator in the NFL,” John Harbaugh said in a statement. “Mike has continuously proven himself, including when he led one of the country’s best defenses at Michigan last year. He is a proven play-caller who knows our system well. He also fully understands the standard of playing defense in Baltimore.”
Macdonald took that standard with him to Michigan, he set his own standards at Michigan, and now he heads back to Baltimore more evolved as a coach, person, and play-caller.
Although Macdonald’s time at Michigan was relatively short, his one year at Michigan will be remembered for years to come. Macdonald helped Michigan get their first 12-win season since 1997, helped ‘em beat Ohio State, hoist up a Big Ten Championship trophy. What a year it was.
This locker room celebration after beating Penn State says everything about how the players and staff loved Macdonald. Football is life. pic.twitter.com/UwZFM6IDHv— Trevor Woods (@WoodsFootball) January 28, 2022