Jim Harbaugh spent the day after The Game doing exactly what he did last year: Preparing for the Big Ten Championship Game.
“I’m very blessed to be having the time of my life right now,” Harbaugh said on a Zoom call Sunday, smiling.
Saturday, undefeated Michigan will return to Indianapolis looking to defend its crown as Big Ten champions against Purdue, a middling opponent from the woeful Big Ten West. With a loss still likely to secure their spot, the only barrier standing between the Wolverines and a second consecutive College Football Playoff appearance is time.
But before we look ahead, it’s worth looking back.
What transpired in the Horseshoe Saturday afternoon was stunning — not simply because Michigan beat Ohio State, but rather because of how thoroughly the Wolverines dominated the Buckeyes.
It was stunning to see graduate defensive back Mike Sainristil plant an oversized Michigan flag into the ‘Block O’ at midfield and as equally stunning to watch a pair of recruits commit to Michigan from the Horseshoe parking lot, having just concluded their official visits to Ohio State. It was just as remarkable to listen to Harbaugh postgame as he declared it felt “great to sing ‘The Victors’ in Columbus.” After 22 years of ineptitude in that stadium, of countless failures in the rivalry, the scene warranted a double take.
The domineering performance made one thing clear: Harbaugh has completed his Michigan renaissance. He has not only built a team, but a program.
Last season, the Wolverines relied on their game wreckers — Hassan Haskins, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo – to decimate the Buckeyes. Saturday morning, Harbaugh emerged from the locker room and walked down the tunnel alongside this year’s star player, junior running back Blake Corum.
But he couldn’t deploy that same formula, as Corum was limited to just three plays and two carries, battling a left leg injury.
Corum’s absence appeared to give Ohio State the upper hand; among pundits and fans, confidence in the Wolverines cratered.
Since January, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day geared his entire program toward stopping Michigan because he knew that the Wolverines would rely on the same bruising playstyle. Day overhauled his defensive staff, hiring Jim Knowles — the architect of a top-ten defense at Oklahoma State — to prevent any sort of repeat.
And on paper, Day looked prepared. But Harbaugh outcoached him from the opening kickoff to the final kneel down.
Harbaugh’s acronym for ‘dawg’ — disciplined athletes with grit — is met with jest, but it holds merit. Saturday, the Buckeyes incurred a pair of costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, each of which destroyed their respective drives. Michigan, meanwhile, controlled its emotions well.
“I was gonna start taunting, but I just stayed down,” senior receiver Cornelius Johnson said Saturday, reminiscing on his 75-yard touchdown pass.
That restraint — in a game traditionally rife with emotions — is a testament to Harbaugh. It’s hard to define “culture,” a buzzword in college football that is especially prevalent in discourse about program restorations. Yet it best manifests itself in those differences. When one team is controlled and poised amid a deficit, and another team looks rattled and frustrated, like when quarterback C.J. Stroud attempted to motion the punting unit off the field, that’s culture.
Harbaugh excelled in his game plan, too. He opened the entire playbook — after receiving criticism over the past two seasons for a style of play overly reliant on running the ball — by unleashing reverses, deep balls and jump passes.
“We had a full game plan ready for them,” McCarthy said.
That showed. One of the most questionable plays of the game — the decision to hand the ball to converted linebacker Kalel Mullings on a third and one — even became a positive. In the third quarter, Harbaugh deployed Mullings in another short yardage spot. Mullings connected for a 15-yard jump pass, surprising everyone. Inside Schembechler Hall, it’s been in the works for weeks.
“Save some things, emptied the playbook in a lot of ways,” Harbaugh admitted afterwards.
And in emptying the playbook, Harbaugh emptied memories, too.
Years of maddening frustration and disappointing seasons are officially relics of the past, Harbaugh’s renaissance in full swing. Gone is the sting from previous defeats. Gone is the lingering dread that used to accompany recent iterations of The Game. Gone is the old perception of Harbaugh.
Two years ago, everyone had Harbaugh figured out. He was the most overpaid and overrated coach in college football, a colossal disappointment who not only failed to revive his alma mater, but left it in a worse place than he found it.
But just when everyone wanted him out — and, frankly, he may have been if he hadn’t boasted such deep Michigan ties — he adjusted. He has authored this remarkable resurgence, a turnaround that cements a new standard, achieving what he first set out to do back in 2014.
Saturday evening, Harbaugh conducted his press conference in classic Harbaugh fashion, mixing religious quips with levity. Yet, much like his team, he showed some restraint, shutting down a question on the difference between Michigan and Ohio State.
“That seems like a lot of layers to the onion,” Harbaugh said, smiling. “Just happy with our team.”
Last year, Harbaugh may have engaged. Afterall, he offered a classic soundbyte unprompted, insinuating as he left the podium that Day was born on third base, gift-wrapped a thriving program that Urban Meyer created.
This year, Harbaugh didn’t have to say anything. There was nothing more to say, nothing left to prove.
His actions — his masterpiece — speak for itself.