Jim Harbaugh strode to the podium Monday afternoon. He tapped his fingers on the wood. He leaned forward, antsy.
These press conferences, none more so than before a big game, serve as exercises in obligation. Above all, Harbaugh wants to leave. To go back to coaching — to doing what he cares about — in the week he cares about it most. Usually, there’s barely time to project anything but dismissiveness.
And yet on Monday, there was an undercurrent of confidence beneath all of that. Harbaugh dismissed questions about his understanding of the rivalry and about Woody Hayes. He acknowledged the game is big, but not bigger than a “state championship between two states.” He has never, and will never, go into schematics in front of a camera — and said as much on Monday. Then, after an answer tailed off, he added this:
“Everything’s possible. Everything’s possible for this one. Everything we’ve done, everything could be done, anything could be changed, anything that could be added. Don’t mind your opponents knowing that. All things are possible.”
He didn’t need to say why.
With Saturday comes his fifth chance to beat Ohio State. He’s failed the first four times, twice costing the Wolverines a potential College Football Playoff berth, the weight of it growing with each disappointment. Those four games have formed an anvil bringing down an otherwise strong four years. And until he beats the Buckeyes, that won’t change.
Michigan comes into this game playing its best football of the season, behind the best version of senior quarterback Shea Patterson it’s had in the two years he’s been here; with two NFL-caliber receivers hitting their strides; with a defense ranked fifth in SP+, that hasn’t given up more than 14 points in a game in over a month. “I think right now we’re at our peak in terms of making a (runway) for a plane to take off,” senior tight end Nick Eubanks said.
That still might not be enough against an undefeated juggernaut in Ohio State. But the underlying fact that a very good football team can lose to a great one without it being the end of the world means little to the Wolverines, to media, to fans, to anyone who has any kind of relationship with Michigan football. “Absolutely,” said senior guard Ben Bredeson, when asked if it was fair to define the season by this game. And if anyone knows that best, it’s the man at the top of the program.
“We’re very aware of the rivalry, having played in it, having coached in it,” Harbaugh said. “I grew up here. My dad was the coach. As I liken the Michigan State game to a state championship, this is even bigger.”
Harbaugh has always tried to define himself to his players as a man who will do anything for them. He keeps an open-door policy and pulls strings for those who ask. That image is not ironclad or without exception — Harbaugh also demands a loyalty and competitive buy-in that not everybody has. But he happily keeps his end of the bargain.
In the locker room before his first game against Ohio State back in 2015, Harbaugh told his team that regardless of what happened in the game or how chippy it got, he’d have their backs. “That right there was a moment for me where I was like, this is definitely the type of guy that I’m gonna go to battle for,” Allen Gant, a senior on that team, recalled this summer.
As Harbaugh stood at the podium Monday, exuding a confidence that seemed impossible after losses at Wisconsin and Penn State, it seemed like he couldn’t wait for Saturday. This year, as much as any other, has brought with it the pressure cooker of coaching a program like Michigan.
After that Wisconsin game, when the Wolverines were embarrassed, 35-14, leading Harbaugh to say he was outcoached, students painted the rock demanding his firing. Two weeks later, he was roundly ridiculed for saying the offense was hitting its stride after a 10-3 win over Iowa. Two weeks after that, when Ronnie Bell dropped a potential game-tying touchdown in the dying seconds at Penn State, all he could do was run up to Patterson and say there was still a chance at getting the ball back, and when the chances of that were ended, he faced the same slew of questions about his shortcomings that have accompanied every loss for the last five years.
On Monday, it was all forgotten. On Monday, he was only looking forward. And with a win Saturday, he would end all the angst, all the lingering questions about what he cannot do and why he cannot do it.
“We’re excited to play,” Harbaugh said. “We’re confident. And looking forward to today’s preparation and looking forward to the game, looking forward to playing it at home.
“Looking forward to every possible thing about it.”