Josh Gattis paced near the 30-yard line shortly before kickoff, embracing players scattered about. He walked up to midfield, then back again. Safeties coach Chris Partridge approached and offered an emphatic hug.
As Gattis walked toward the middle of the offensive huddle, ready to address his beleaguered unit before taking the field against Rutgers, one could only imagine the thoughts going through his head.
Since the moment he got the job, the spotlight of this Michigan football season has concentrated on him, and on his promise of change. Through three weeks, that promised growth has been noticeably absent.
For Saturday’s bout, Gattis decided to change course. Instead of sitting in the press box directing the offense, he decided to run the offense from the sideline. Spearheading a unit in search of an identity, Gattis felt his presence on the field could centralize that quest.
“I think this group really leans on leadership and they need it,” Gattis said on the pregame radio show. “To be on the field, to be able to provide that leadership, in good and bad times, it’s something I think that I want to encourage out of our guys. … Slept on it all week long, going through my mind, and it’s about what these kids need most. It’s not about what I need, it’s not about anything else.
“It’s about what the kids need. And they need it.”
It’s difficult to say what tangible impact his move had on Michigan’s 52-0 demolition over Rutgers — though it’s hard to imagine anything altering the outcome. But the importance of such a move was not lost on his players.
“All week, he emphasized believing in his players, and we just have to believe in him,” said junior running back Christian Turner. “I think him being on the sideline just emphasized that even more.”
For Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Gattis’ presence on the sideline also clarified some of the intricacies underlying many of the questions about this offense.
“For Josh to be there as the plays are being formulated, he can react to the kind of subs he wants in the game, who he wants running a particular route or play. It flowed much better today,” Harbaugh said. “It could still be better, the operation and mechanics of it. But I thought it took a big leap today.”
Between plays, he’d hold up a hand signal, frequently a number, which would then be mimicked by two offensive staffers by his side. Staffers would hold up two signs behind him with an image — anything from a military tank to bug spray, pairs of leggings to a Detroit Red Wings logo. From there, Gattis would often bark marching orders to certain players, specifically receivers who looked back at him for last-second instructions.
All the while Harbaugh stood nearby, though distant enough. When the offense necessitated a huddle, it was Gattis in the center, Harbaugh standing on the periphery. When confusion arose, it was up to Gattis to signal timeout. The two coaches sometimes conversed between plays, and regularly did so between drives. Sometimes, they’d turn to a whiteboard to demonstrate their ideas conceptually.
But there were no ambiguities. This was Gattis’ show, as it has been since the day he arrived.
“I thought (communication) was better,” Harbaugh said. “Everything was better face-to-face — me communicating with him, him communicating with players, players hearing it from him and not going through the box. It was good. It was a good move. Glad we did it.”
At times, Gattis’ demeanor — branded as fiery and emotional — neared a boiling point. After an illegal motion penalty on freshman receiver Giles Jackson in the first quarter, Gattis furiously marched onto the edge of the field to substitute him off. At the next intermission, the two calmly talked it out. Not a voice through a radio. Person-to-person.
At others, though, he opted for measured conversation. After Patterson’s interception on an under-thrown ball to junior Nico Collins, Gattis hardly appeared frustrated. He brought Patterson over, calmly pointed to the video screen, then made a hand gesture to suggest a tweak.
“I think coach Gattis is without a doubt kind of the leader of our offense,” Patterson said. “I think we all trust in him. Like I said, we see it every day in practice, so it was just a little bit more personal.”
Whether his presence on the field had any direct impact on play-calling or game management is only part and parcel to its intention. As Michigan’s new coach tries to forge a connection with his team, and with it something resemblant of an identity, his presence alone offers value.
Maybe it was little more than a symbolic gesture, but when building trust, symbols matter.
“It’s a familiar face on the sideline with us,” Turner said. “Seeing his emotion after plays, whether good or bad, I think that definitely helped.”
As the score continued to widen and the starting unit took a breather, Gattis’ demeanor grew more relaxed. It was just a win, and one against a team destined for Big Ten bottom-dwelling, but the sense of relief was palpable.
Slowly, time ticked away, and the loss at Wisconsin continued to fade from memory. The clock finally hit zero. Gattis unfolded his arms, embraced his team and, for the first time all year, took a confident stride forward.