Jim Harbaugh is not typically one to gush. The Michigan coach usually keeps his emotions close to his vest, invoking ‘coachspeak’ or wandering anecdotes without a clear endpoint.
But inside Schembechler Hall on Monday, 48 hours after one of the biggest wins of his career, Harbaugh struck a different tone. He only wanted to talk about one subject:
His unbridled love for his players and the selflessness they embrace.
“They’re never about being bitter, they get better,” Harbaugh said. “And that’s incredible. The difference between those two words, it’s one letter, the letter ‘I.’ And that letter signifies: make it about yourself, make it about just you. And our players — it’s about the team, it’s about really doing everything that they can for the team.”
Lost in the shuffle of the Wolverines’ avalanche of big plays — each a moment of individual brilliance — was how they truly embodied Michigan’s team-first mentality.
Take freshman tight end Colston Loveland, for example, who scored a go-ahead 45-yard touchdown to open the third quarter. It was a pivotal moment in the game, but he didn’t take much time to celebrate.
Instead, he was sprinting 50 yards back up the field to get in position for the subsequent kickoff.
“Guys like that,” Harbaugh said. “What do they mean to the team?
Loveland is just one of many players who exemplified this unselfish behavior, and Harbaugh wanted to take the time to acknowledge every one of them.
“Donovan Edwards, for example,” Harbaugh said. “He could have taken a knee in this game, instead he wore a cast. And now he’s a legend.”
He then praised his signal caller, sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy.
“J.J. McCarthy could have been a guy like, ‘Hey, I’m J.J. McCarthy. I’m a five-star quarterback. I’m not here to hand the ball off,’ ” Harbaugh said. “Never. I mean, he’ll do anything for the team — he’ll block, run down the field and block for a running back, 50 yards down the field, do anything for the team. Put his shoulder down and score a touchdown at the goal line. Now he’s a legend.”
Then there was senior cornerback Mike Sainristil, whose massive pass breakup in the fourth quarter kept Michigan squarely in control of the game.
“(Mike) easily could have been another guy (who said), ‘I’m a great receiver. I’d really rather get more targets, I’d rather have more than take on the challenge of changing positions,’ ” Harbaugh said. “But anything for the team. Changed positions, also voted captain. And now, he’s been phenomenal, phenomenal, and had a phenomenal game. He played his best game of the year, all over the field, as well.”
The list went on. Senior wide receiver Cornelius Johnson and his two touchdowns? A byproduct of never complaining about a lack of targets. Senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith and his dominant efforts in the trenches? Buoyed from a commitment to the weight room and overcoming asthma struggles.
One of the most remarkable parts of this year’s win over Ohio State was how no single player propelled the Wolverines to victory. There was no herculean effort equivalent to the performances of Hassan Haskins and Aidan Hutchinson last season. It was a total team effort, embodying the culture Michigan has been cultivating all season. It’s why rather than rewarding any one player, Harbaugh celebrated his whole team — including the walk-ons.
“I’m giving a game ball to every single player on our team that’s a walk-on, not here for the scholarship,” Harbaugh said. “And here because they’re really good in school and they’ve gotten really good at football and have contributed so much to our team. So yeah, there’s probably nothing more heartwarming than that.”
On paper, Michigan’s roster had less talent than the Buckeyes’. That’s not hyperbole — Ohio State has 14 five-star players compared to the Wolverines’ three.
But recruiting rankings don’t reflect selflessness.
“We’re looking for the guys who really like football, really want to get good at football,” Harbaugh said. “And no matter what their star rating is, it’s fairly irrelevant to us.”
Michigan faced major adversity going into Columbus but the Wolverines never flinched. When Blake Corum couldn’t go, Edwards stepped up. When Ohio State headbutted, they didn’t retaliate. When they scored a game-altering touchdown, they just sprinted back for the next kickoff.
With that selfless attitude on full display, they walked away as the better team.
Never bitter. Just better.