Mark Calcagno: The anatomy of Jim Harbaugh’s last shot at Mark Dantonio

Tuesday, October 23, 2018 - 8:47pm

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh commented on the pre-game antics between Michigan and Michigan State on Saturday.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh commented on the pre-game antics between Michigan and Michigan State on Saturday. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

Jim Harbaugh did not need to host a press conference on Monday. Only once, in fact, had the Michigan football coach done so during a bye week.   

That was a year ago when a spinal injury to former Wolverines quarterback Wilton Speight prompted Harbaugh to criticize Purdue’s football facilities. It was a calculated message intended to spark reform by the Big Ten Conference.

Harbaugh started his weekly meeting with reporters on Monday with his standard fare: a limited update on injuries, compliments for his players and goals for the bye week — stuff that fills the morning sports pages but nothing that makes you blink twice.

That was until 19 minutes in, when Harbaugh pulled a piece of paper out from his back pocket. He decided it was time to deliver the message he had come to give.

First was his bureaucratic assessment of the Wolverines and Spartans’ pregame fracas. Then came his latest cut at Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.

“It’s the opposite of B.S. Coach (Dantonio) said it was B.S. That’s not B.S., that’s fact. … I’ll go one step further and use Coach Dantonio’s words from a few years back,” Harbaugh said, dipping his head down to read, “ ‘It’s not a product of a team but their program.’ ”

“And that’s using his words.”

Those words mean that college football teams are indicative of their coaches. And if so, the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry has hit a new level of quarrelsomeness.

Harbaugh and Dantonio have a history of tempered ill-will that broadened Monday. Last December, after the Wolverines were picked ahead of the Spartans to participate in the Outback Bowl, Dantonio said he’d “just continue to concentrate on beating Michigan.”

Harbaugh, as he did Monday, made sure to counter.

“Saw Coach D comments on continuing to ‘focus’ on how ‘he’ can beat Michigan,” Harbaugh tweeted on Dec. 4. “Congrats on turning around a 3-9 team, plagued with off field issues.”

Dantonio then retorted with his infamous response to Mike Hart’s 2007 “little brother” comments.

“It’s not over, it’ll never be over, it’s just getting started,” Dantonio tweeted two hours later.

Michigan State used Hart’s words as locker room bulletin board material for years. It fueled the Spartans to eight wins in the series’ past 11 meetings.

The lasting images from Saturday’s game will only add fuel to the fire. Fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich repeated Hart’s quote verbatim in his FOX postgame interview. Devin Bush Jr., of course, tore up the Michigan State logo at midfield after his pregame exchange with the Spartan Walk.

“I don’t blame Devin,” Harbaugh said when asked about his message to the junior linebacker. “I like the way our guys handled it.”

Hear that? Jim Harbaugh doesn’t mind his players participating in the pettiness. He wants them to get into it. His note read that teams are a product of their programs — and he has certainly chosen to battle with Dantonio.

It’s no surprise, then, to see the two sides continue to go back and forth.  

“That’d be like going back and saying ‘Oh, look at Devin Bush! Look at him out there, he’s out at midfield scraping up the logo,’ ” Harbaugh continued, pointing and working his hands in a digging motion. “After what just took place, I mean, that’s right out of the Pistons’ playbook. Do something to them, say something to them, elbow them, and then when somebody else does something back, then flop.”

Harbaugh was referring to the Bad Boys Era Detroit Pistons, who were famous for doing anything necessary — trash talk, cheap shots and pure disrespect included — to get under their opponents’ skin.

Whether Dantonio “orchestrated” a “stormtrooper” march to provoke the Wolverines is up to who you ask. That is how Harbaugh saw it, but Michigan State released a statement Monday night saying it followed the planned protocol and the tradition had “never” caused issues before.

One way or another, Harbaugh came to Schembechler Hall with a mission: to provoke Dantonio, just as he thought the Spartan coach had done to him two days earlier.

Eventually, Harbaugh ended his spiel and press conference on a rosy note, quoting legendary radio announcer Bob Ufer before calling defensive coordinator Don Brown the best coach he’d been around.

Mission accomplished.

On Tuesday, however, Dantonio refused to answer questions about Harbaugh’s comments, seemingly ending things for the time being. But if the both the rivalry and coaches’ history is any indication, this won’t be the last spat between Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio.

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