Heading into second year under Harbaugh, Wolverines embracing higher standard
CHICAGO — For the second straight year, Jim Harbaugh walked into the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place as the center of attention.
Still sporting his signature skinny block ‘M’ hat despite wearing a full suit, the second-year Michigan football coach was the main attraction of the first day of Big Ten Media Days, with a throng of cameras and microphones swarming his podium in a hotel ballroom.
Such attention is probably to be expected given the social media buzz that surrounded Harbaugh since his hiring back in Dec. 2014, but this year’s circus came with one major difference. After a 10-3 inaugural campaign featuring a 41-7 throttling of Florida in the Citrus Bowl and the narrowest of losses to eventual playoff-bound rival Michigan State, expectations are through the roof.
“We raised the bar when we played Florida,” said senior tight end Jake Butt. “That’s now ground zero. ... I don’t think we’re chasing anybody.”
The Wolverines are ranked in the top 10 in most preseason polls released to date, with USA Today placing them as high as third — trailing only the final two teams standing last season, Clemson and Alabama. Among Big Ten foes, most of the polls have only Ohio State ranked ahead of Michigan, with Michigan State and Iowa a few steps below.
As expected, neither Harbaugh nor the players joining him in Chicago on Monday would say they pay attention to the hype, but none were too shy to admit they had equally high hopes.
“The message is simple: We want our dreams to be big,” Harbaugh said. “We want our goals to be lofty — so much that people will laugh at us. If they’re not laughing at us, we didn’t set high enough goals. (We also have to) understand that they can be achieved, but they have to be worked for. Such a simple message, but it just might work.”
With a pair of first-team All-Americans in Butt and senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, a wealth of experience on both sides of the ball and do-it-all players like redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers, it’s not hard to see why the bar is being raised.
“We can contend for (a championship), of course,” Lewis said. “We have the talent, we have the young guys to come in and help us out, we have the coaching staff. We have everything in place to be one of those programs to say we can contend for a Big Ten or (national) championship.”
Media days are typically brimming with optimism for every team, but the Wolverines have drawn theirs not only from their 10 wins last season, but the way they rebounded from tough losses. Michigan won the next game following each of its three losses in 2015 — the first time since 2011 the Wolverines had completed a season without losing back-to-back games.
Part of the Wolverines’ resiliency came from their new coach’s attitude, which the players noticed right away.
“In past years, when we lost, one loss would turn into two or three losses, and everyone would be down on themselves,” Butt said. “You could kind of feel we were leaning towards that when we got in the locker room (after last season’s opening loss to Utah), but Coach Harbaugh looked at all of us and crushed that right then and there.
“He told us he was proud of us, he was proud of the way we played, and that we’re gonna be just fine going down the stretch. And we all believed him, we all bought into him at that point. It was such a different feeling.”
After the triumph in the Citrus Bowl, the feeling has carried over into 2016. Though Harbaugh is 0-2 against Michigan State and Ohio State and the Wolverines haven’t won a Big Ten title since 2004, the team is starting to think that their coach — with all of his eccentricities and his media circus — might be the person that can bring them back to the top.
“It’s madness, it’s genius,” Lewis said. “It’s a fine line between crazy and genius. You can see it — he has a method to his madness. Everything is calculated, everything he does is for a reason.”