Ethan Wolfe: With success, the discussion moves away from football
At the same Monday press conference a year ago, approaching the penultimate game of the regular season, Jim Harbaugh looked like he wanted to be anywhere besides the podium.
Despite an 8-2 record, the Michigan football team’s offense was a mess and the injury report read like its own roster — Harbaugh faced 10 questions about injuries alone. With a three-game win streak, he was asked if he believed in momentum. The common denominator of every rapid-fire question was football.
Flash forward to Monday, November 12, 2018. As the Wolverines await Indiana for their final home game of the season, their win streak stands at nine. Momentum has left, and status quo has taken its place.
This Monday, as everything is trending in the right direction for Michigan football, talking about Michigan football took a backseat.
“I kinda forgot your question,” Harbaugh told Nick Baumgardner of the Detroit Free Press, who was inquiring about the run game. “Do you have a dog? A big dog, right?”
Baumgardner does have a dog: Biff, a boxer.
“Biff. Sounds like a good, strong dog,” Harbaugh said with complete sincerity.
He eventually offered one sentence on why he loves a good run game. But his team’s efforts were not exactly top of mind for him in the moment.
“I would also like to congratulate (Miami Dolphins running back) Frank Gore,” Harbaugh continued. “The record he set this past Sunday, and Frank is my favorite player of all that I’ve ever coached. Fourteen years of each year rushing for over 500 yards, surpassing Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith, is incredible. Just incredible.”
As his team goes, so does the frequency of Harbaugh’s effusive praise and non-sequiturs. He said he loves player meetings with defensive coordinator Don Brown because the “paint peels off the walls” from his enthusiasm and censorable messages.
He went on to commend his wide receivers for playing through harsh winds against Rutgers.
“I dropped two in the pregame,” he said disappointedly. “I pride myself on catching them all.”
And for injury updates on sophomore defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon, who sat against the Scarlet Knights because of illness, Harbaugh offered sage advice: “It’s cold and flu season, get your flu shots.”
Sure, call it Harbaugh being Harbaugh and you might be right. But it seems different, almost intentional this time.
Like shooting a free throw in basketball, focusing on the mechanics can disrupt the psyche of an excellent shooter. Talk too much about football now, and you trip over the details.
And it’s not just Harbaugh — his players are doing the exact the same thing.
Junior running back Tru Wilson, who finished with eight carries for a career-high 58 yards on Saturday, faced the media. Wilson didn’t receive any questions about his previous game.
But he got plenty about his pet snake, Mako.
“He’s just getting done shedding, so I haven’t been able to play with him for the last week or so,” Wilson said. “I guess he’s blind when he sheds, so I guess it’s kinda dangerous — not dangerous, he’s not gonna kill me. The ball pythons are a very defensive creature.”
Wilson stepped away, and then it was senior receiver Grant Perry’s turn. He, like Wilson, donned a hat emblazoned with the now well-known “Revenge Tour” slogan. Perry said Santa is making all of the clothing extensions.
Shortly after, junior tight end Sean McKeon walks in. The Massachusetts native is asked about the Boston Red Sox’ recent World Series win, and later explained his sweatshirt featuring a picture of rapper Logic to a scrum of largely 30-year-old-plus media reporters.
In terms of football-savvy questions and answers, there wasn’t much to learn. The confluence of football and success ironically leads to discussing anything but.
A week from now, with the Wolverines presumably sitting at 10-1 after beating the Hoosiers next Saturday, they will be a victory over Ohio State away from reaching the first of their goals — a Big Ten East Division championship. And a week from now, the tone will assuredly be different than it was Monday. But as it stands, Michigan has reached the apex of comfortability this season, and it showed.
So you probably don’t have to absorb much of what Harbaugh or his players said. But don’t forget to get a flu shot.
Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanewolfe.