Everything about Jim Harbaugh conveyed a sense of normalcy Monday.
He entered his weekly press conference wearing his near-constant outfit of khakis, a block ‘M’ crew neck and a hat with the thin block ‘M.’ He answered questions no differently than he normally does, preferring to discuss fullback play than whether or not his team’s success is ahead of schedule.
His answers provided little indication of what looms ahead. Saturday’s matchup against No. 7 Michigan State will mark the biggest game of the No. 12 Michigan football team’s season to date. It will provide an opportunity for the Wolverines to make another statement about their resurgence, a chance to assert themselves as the preeminent program in the state.
Yet Harbaugh did not seem particularly concerned with the implications of the game or the rivalry.
He chose not to explain his decision to remove rivalry countdown clocks from Schembechler Hall, which had been a staple of the Brady Hoke regime. Instead, he said that it had been a while since the decision was made.
At least publicly, Harbaugh would not flinch in his stance of downplaying the rivalry. His reasoning for why the game was important mentioned nothing about restoring Michigan to prominence or if it’s important for his team to unseat the Spartans as the best team in the state.
His response would also have been fitting for the Wolverines’ next game against Minnesota, after which the winner is awarded a trophy.
“It’s a trophy game, we want to get the best grades, we want to win the most awards, we want to excel at sports,” Harbaugh said. “This is a game that has a trophy associated to it, so it’s an award.”
This summer, he called Michigan State the biggest guys on the block. So it was natural that before his team played the biggest guys on the block, he would discuss wanting to knock the Spartans off.
That was not the case. The former Michigan quarterback, who once guaranteed a victory over Ohio State, was not prepared to make any bold statements this time around.
“Winning the next game is the goal,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the most important thing, there’s nothing more important than that, where you stand in this week.”
He did not seem to care much about the history of the rivalry, at least not on Monday. Harbaugh did not seem interested in talking about the games he quarterbacked against Michigan State or what he thought of the way the Spartans have physically dominated Michigan in recent years.
Harbaugh twice referenced a scene from The Lion King to emphasize his point that the past does not dictate what happens in the present. In it, Simba, the main character, is contemplating his difficult past, which included the death of his father Mufasa, the lion king. To prove a point, the wise sage monkey Rafiki smacks him over the head with his staff.
Simba then complains to Rafiki that his head hurts. Harbaugh applied Rafiki’s response to his team’s rivalry game.
“Simba gets hit over the head and he tells him, ‘Yeah, the past can hurt. You can either run from it or embrace it and learn from it.’ I think that’s exactly what he said. Those seem like very wise words,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh’s players did not deviate from his message. Junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, junior tight end Jake Butt, fifth-year senior linebacker Desmond Morgan and fifth-year senior fullback Joe Kerridge each had the opportunity to provide bulletin-board material, to create the kind of buzz the in-state rivalry has been known for.
Each declined to do so. They have felt the pain of losing to Michigan State before. Each has watched the Spartans carry the Paul Bunyan Trophy off the field on multiple occasions.
They figure this new coaching staff might be on to something, their 5-1 record serving as proof.
“I think it’s been working so far,” Kerridge said. “Coach Harbaugh knows what he’s doing.”