When Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh arrived at Michigan Stadium Saturday morning, he became slightly confused when he started running into people on the premises.
“Everyone kept saying, ‘Welcome back, welcome back,’ ” Harbaugh said. “I never really left, but I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.”
Harbaugh isn’t used to any sort of ‘welcome backs’ around his program. He’s used to always being there — at least ever since returning to his alma mater to be its head coach in 2015. He also wasn’t fully gone during his suspension, only separated from the team on game days over the first three weeks.
Harbaugh felt there, but not there — giving his homecoming an odd ring.
After watching others from afar as they guided his team on game days, it’s safe to say Harbaugh was more than excited to be back in action as the Wolverines opened their Big Ten schedule with a 31-7 win over Rutgers. So were his players.
“He just brings the juice,” senior running back Blake Corum said. “I wish you could’ve seen him in the locker room, it was great. And just hearing his speech before we hit the field today, it was great as well. We love Coach Harbaugh, and it was great just having him back on the sideline with us.”
Emerging from the tunnel after that speech, Harbaugh stood with his team captains and ran out with them onto the field for his big debut. He spoke with the officiating crew and paced his sideline, hyping up his players as minutes before kickoff ticked down to seconds. Harbaugh possessed his typical energy, and a newfound appreciation for being with his team.
His appreciation showed as Harbaugh reflected on being back at the Big House following the game. And as Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel stood in the press conference room listening along as Harbaugh shared his thoughts, the scene served as a reminder that Harbaugh’s delayed debut wasn’t by accident. His own athletics department believed he made mistakes, and decided to take action to address them.
But make no mistake, if Harbaugh’s on the sideline, he’s bringing it; whether it’s week one, week four — or for him — the feeling of week one and four altogether.
“He brings a lot of energy, he brings a lot of juice to the team,” junior linebacker Junior Colson said. “Having him out there (gives us) that little extra drive. He’s always out there, whether good play or bad play, he’s dapping you up, he’s making sure you’re all good.”
Even with his engagement on the sideline, Harbaugh didn’t let the excitement get in the way of his role. He’s the head coach — he can’t micromanage or get his toes too deep anywhere. He entrusted four separate people to lead the team in his absence, and he let his fellow coaches continue in their active roles upon his return.
When Michigan had a critical third down late in the first half, Harbaugh wasn’t the first coach strolling on the field when the Wolverines called timeout. Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore was as he executed his typical duties of orchestrating the offense. The players all huddled around him near the sideline as he coached them up, with Harbaugh casually dropping in after the address had begun to listen in and offer any insight needed.
Harbaugh was back, but that didn’t mean other coaches were off the hook. He brings the juice, the leadership and the final decision making, but it was up to the whole coaching staff to put the Wolverines in a position to beat the Scarlet Knights.
Everything worked out for the coaching staff, so it worked out for Harbaugh too. That left him feeling giddy after the game.
“Cool Jim, that’s what most people refer to me as. Cool Jim,” Harbaugh said. “And then as we get closer to the game … I turn into Dead Serious Jim. But there’s just no better place to be than in the locker room after you win a game.”
As the Wolverines lined up at the 5-yard line in the fourth quarter for a play that ended up giving them their 31-7 lead, a scene at Michigan Stadium was becoming familiar again. Jim Harbaugh in his crouched stance on the sideline; hand on his knees, bending down while looking up.
As he believed Corum was breaking the plane, he jumped up into a touchdown signal before looking for confirmation. He eventually saw it from a referee in the back of the endzone, pointing at the ref before an elated fist pump and high-five frenzy with his players.
After the extra point, he and graduate offensive lineman Trevor Keegan stood side-by-side before sharing a fist bump. Who knows what Keegan told Harbaugh there, if anything.
Maybe he just said ‘welcome back.’