On the day Jim Harbaugh returned to Michigan Stadium, the former quarterback and current coach of the Michigan football team gave 109,651 fans something they had been missing for at least the last four years and maybe much, much longer: a boring win and an unfettered temper tantrum.
Sure, Wolverine fans have had tantrums themselves. They’ve lost their minds over confusing play calls and bizarre clock management and the occasional lapse that leaves just 10 men on the field. But this was their coach, and this was a different type of meltdown. A good meltdown.
With a few minutes left in the second quarter and Michigan leading Oregon State 10-7, redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Clark leveled Beavers punter Nick Porebski near the sideline. The referee threw a flag. And Harbaugh went into a conniption.
You want fire? Jim Harbaugh’s got fire. He’s a mouthful of jalapeños washed down with a bottle of Sriracha. Gesturing wildly with his arms to indicate that Porebski was out of the pocket — and thus not afforded the traditional protection afforded a punter — Harbaugh lit into the officials. When his cries for explanation went unanswered, or simply didn’t satisfy him, he followed one up the sideline. He threw his folder behind him in frustration. And then he called a timeout so he could keep going.
“The way I understand the rule is, when he establishes himself a runner, he’s afforded the same protection the quarterback is when the quarterback’s running and outside the pocket,” Harbaugh said. “If a guy takes two steps, launches into him after the quarterback throws the ball, then that would be a penalty. That was: punt, hit. I just need an explanation as to why that was a penalty. Maybe I stand to be corrected.”
Porebski was out of the tackle box and had bobbled the ball, but forget for a minute the fact that Harbaugh was probably right about the call. That’s not what’s important. Instead, think about Jeremy Clark.
Michigan was up by just three points, and Clark’s penalty extended the Beavers’ possession and put them inside Wolverine territory. Think about what it means to be 21, to make a mistake that could have been disastrous and then to turn around to see your coach going berserk defending you.
“I know my coach is gonna fight for us, win, lose or draw,” said senior safety Jarrod Wilson. “Even if we were wrong about the call, he’s still gonna back us up.”
After that play, and two more punting debacles that caused the entire makeup of the game to change in the course of one minute, the Wolverines held the Beavers to eight yards the rest of the way. In the second half, Oregon State totaled just four.
“Players feed off coaches’ energy,” Wilson said.
But on Saturday, they weren’t distracted by it. On the field, Michigan was cool and collected. While their coach was explosive, the Wolverines were far from it. They just put their heads down and let their coach make the noise. They ran the ball 48 times for 225 yards and won the possession battle, 38:01 to 21:29. They just went out and won.
With 12 minutes left in the game, and Michigan up 21, junior running back Derrick Green burst for a reasonable gain up the middle. But the play was called back for illegal substitution.
Over on the sideline, Harbaugh was in the referee’s ear right away, jumping up and down, pointing at the field. Michigan had the game well in hand, but its coach was still fighting. “Enthusiasm unknown to mankind” has been his personal mantra since he was just a kid, and he damn sure still lives it.
Asked after the game whether the players notice Harbaugh’s encounters with the officials, junior safety Delano Hill broke into a smile.
“It’s funny to see coach Harbaugh’s faces against the refs,” he said.
Harbaugh’s players know exactly what it’s like to get Harbaugh’s full tilt. Hill said Harbaugh is the same way in practice, getting “hot” when players make a mistake, which keeps the players on their toes.
But when that heat is coming to defend you, not berate you, you bet it’s funny to watch. It’s also motivating.
Whether it’s pumping up the crowd or throwing a folder or jumping up and down, he will argue for his players with a brand of ferocity that’s hard not to rally behind.
As for that other kind of meltdown — the brand induced by sloppy coaching — there were none of those on Saturday. A couple of turnovers, yes, but for the most part, Michigan was an efficient machine. If Harbaugh was a jalapeno on the sideline, the on-field product was vanilla.
Michigan pounded the ball, and it owned the possession. It was a well-executed version of the boring, power football team Michigan fans have been longing for since Lloyd Carr retired.
Boring, that is, except for its coach.
Bultman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @m_bultman.