ORLANDO, Fla. — In his 367th day as the head coach of the Michigan football team, Jim Harbaugh did something that he seldom did in his first 366 days in his current role.
Harbaugh, incessantly focused on living by his father’s creed of attacking each day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind, rarely looks ahead or behind. Comparisons, which inherently diminish one of the subjects being compared, are a waste of time in his mind.
But Thursday, at his press conference before his first bowl game as Michigan’s head coach, Harbaugh admitted that he has thought about where the current season stands among his years in football. He has played or coached the sport at the collegiate or professional level every year since 1983, and this season could very well be his favorite of all of them.
That ranking, however, comes with a stipulation: The Wolverines (6-2 Big Ten, 9-3 overall) will need to win the Citrus Bowl on Friday.
The opponent in Harbaugh’s way to achieving his best season in football is Florida (7-1 SEC, 10-3 overall), which also has a first-year coach in Jim McElwain. The two coaches arrived at their current jobs to different degrees of fanfare last offseason.
Harbaugh, fresh off a successful four-year run with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, was widely considered the hottest coach on the market in both the collegiate and professional levels last winter. McElwain, who arrived in Gainesville, Florida, after coaching at a lesser-known school in Colorado State, was given his first chance on the national stage.
The moves have worked out well for both coaches. Harbaugh turned a 5-7 squad that missed a bowl game into a team that looked dominant at times, and McElwain led the Gators, who finished 7-5 last season, to the SEC title game.
Harbaugh hasn’t approached the upcoming bowl game as a victory lap under the sun by any stretch of the imagination. He has said on multiple occasions during the season that he wants his team to win every trophy and award possible. The Wolverines will have a chance to win their first team trophy of the Harbaugh era Friday, and it sat on the table — filled with citrus fruits — next to Harbaugh on Thursday as he reflected on his team’s time in Orlando.
“Got some real good sweat, some real good work here,” Harbaugh said. “The football gods have provided us heat and sun to shape the body and carve the mind.”
The work ethic of his team has never been in question. Harbaugh has consistently praised the efforts of the group, and Thursday was the latest example.
His players, Harbaugh said, are one of the three main reasons he considers this to be among his best in football. The other two are a bit more personal: Jim Minick, Michigan’s director of operations, has been Harbaugh’s best friend since they were in third grade. Jay Harbaugh, Michigan’s tight end coach, is Jim’s son. Being able to work with them has made this season special for Harbaugh.
The results on the field have made things more enjoyable, too. Harbaugh, in typical fashion, credited the success of the program to a constant focus on improvement, starting the day he was hired.
“Every single day, we’d get up and work and see if we couldn’t make today better than yesterday and tomorrow better than it was today,” Harbaugh said. “That remains the expectation. But it has — it has been a joy to — when I look back over this year, it’s been a joy to coach this team.”
He will have one more chance to do so Friday. After a year of offseason adventures, sideline tirades and the return of winning football to Michigan, Harbaugh will try to solidify his first year back in Ann Arbor as his best in the sport he loves so dearly.
“To get this win, to get the 10th win and be Citrus Bowl champions,” Harbaugh said, “that would — that would make it the best year I’ve had in football, in my opinion.”