Jim Harbaugh earned his first win over Ohio State on Saturday. Madeline Hinkley/Daily. Buy this photo.

Sitting behind the podium after the Michigan football team’s win over No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday, Jim Harbaugh took a moment to look around.

Usually, his press conferences strike the same somber, frustrated, dejected chords after games against the Buckeyes. But when Harbaugh’s well-documented 0-5 record against his arch rival changed during Saturday’s 42-27 victory, so did No. 5 Michigan’s season outlook.

And Harbaugh’s tone followed suit.

“The way it feels now, it feels like the beginning,” Harbaugh said.

Asked to elaborate, Harbaugh pointed to the formative days of the 2021 team. 

“Just everything about the team,” Harbaugh said. “Every day, every week, every month. Going back to the beginning of this year, it’s always felt like the beginning. Accomplish one goal then go to the next and the next and the next.”

He’s not wrong. But he’s certainly underselling the implications.

For the Wolverines, Saturday was more program-altering than season-altering. In a three-hour span, Michigan upended its national perception with its first win over Ohio State since 2011. No longer are the Wolverines a former powerhouse gone stagnant. No longer is Harbaugh the epitome of a coach that can’t get over the hump.

Long-lasting implications are sure to follow on the field and recruiting trail. More importantly, though, there’s a new generation of Michigan football players who have reached the summit. In that sense, it truly is the rebirth of a program — and a purpose that no longer seems hollow.

From an outsider’s perspective, it was hard to take claims of added emphasis on Ohio State seriously given the rivalry’s recent results. But within Schembechler Hall, a “What are you doing to beat Ohio State today?” sign already proudly hangs. Since January, players have asked the question of themselves every day.

Now, they know the answer.

“Long term, we’ve set the expectation now,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara said. “It’s been so long since we beat Ohio State, but we did that today. For the guys coming back, now we’ve got to do that every single year. We know what it took.”

Harbaugh spent the first six years of his tenure selling a plan to overtake the Buckeyes. But year after year, the Saturday after Thanksgiving repeatedly proved it was nothing more than an empty vision. He cycled through multiple coordinators on both sides of the ball and built teams rooted in almost a half-dozen different schemes.

That is, until he found himself this past winter.

In the days and weeks after the Wolverines’ 2020 season careened to an end, it looked like Harbaugh’s tenure might follow suit. But a school-friendly contract with a unique buyout structure and incentive-laden salary kept him at his alma mater. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel seemingly dared Harbaugh to break through, to bring the Wolverines to the upper echelon of college football.

So Harbaugh took a look in the mirror. He overhauled the program’s coaching staff and culture, delivering a much-needed youth infusion.

From an Xs and Os standpoint, Harbaugh has rediscovered himself. In an era of up-tempo, no-huddle spread offenses, he and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis have gone against the grain in 2021. They’ve relied on run-first football and 20th-century offensive line fundamentals.

On the other side of the ball, hiring 34-year-old Mike Macdonald — a first-time defensive coordinator — marked a clear departure from Harbaugh’s previous philosophy of relying on coaching experience. But on Saturday, Macdonald’s defense kept the Buckeyes’ offense off-balance with a mix of coverages and disguised pass rushes.

Harbaugh has always been a non-conformist, but the 2021 Wolverines take that to an extreme.

And on Saturday, all of it was validated.

“You guys should’ve seen him in the locker room after the game,” fifth-year offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said. “I’ve never seen him more happy, more excited. … He’s gone through some tough times, he’s faced a lot of adversity since he’s been the coach here. To see him finally beat Ohio State, as a team, as a unit, we knew what this team was capable of, and it all starts with him.”

Saturday’s win opens doors Michigan has yet to experience under Harbaugh. For the first time, the Wolverines will play for a Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff berth in Indianapolis.

However, that indication pales in comparison to the fact that this might be permanent. In its biggest game of the season, in a year full of tests, Michigan finally created its own narrative. Led by a quirky, unapologetically authentic coach, the Wolverines had their own coming out party on Saturday. 

“This is one (celebration) that’ll go long into the night,” Harbaugh said.

The program-shaping implications, on the other hand, will last a whole lot longer.