To those who have experienced it, there can be something truly magical about Michigan Stadium on a fall Saturday. The band, food, cheering and 110,000 football fans create an event experience few can match.
But just days before the Michigan football team’s home opener against Oregon State, the Wolverines’ coaching staff has something else on its mind: winning.
“There’s a time and a place for nostalgia,” said Michigan tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh. “When you’re in the thick of it week to week, and you have meetings, practice, you don’t think about that kind of stuff. I don’t know if that’s hard to believe, but it really is true. … You just really want to play well, and the other stuff takes care of itself.”
As much as fans want to build up and romanticize the idea of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh — who quarterbacked the team from 1984 to 1986 — making his way down the tunnel for his first game back at Michigan Stadium, the coach refused to let nostalgia take priority when discussing his thoughts on the moment.
“(It’s the) same as the thoughts were last week — to win our next game,” the elder Harbaugh said Monday.
Though plenty of coverage has surrounded the head coach’s return to Michigan Stadium (SportsCenter will even broacast live from Ann Arbor to cover the homecoming), the coach downplayed the emotions and excitement of his return again in a teleconference Tuesday.
“It will be the thrill of preparing for a ballgame and watching the players compete,” Harbaugh said. “I know exactly what (I want) the emotions to be — the thrill of competition.”
Michigan running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley — a star running back himself for the team from 1991 to 1994 — can empathize with Harbaugh’s sentiments about returning to the Big House. He hasn’t forgotten his time at Michigan Stadium, but knows his experience is different from those in the stands.
“You have to understand, when I was a player, I was running those stadium stairs,” Wheatley said in August. “So most of my memories (of Michigan Stadium) are of running those stairs thinking, ‘Oh god.’
“My focus (since I got here) has always been, ‘I’m here for a reason, let’s get to work.’ ”
Since the new coaching staff has arrived, much of that work has surrounded recruiting. Michigan has a top-10 recruiting class by most rankings, and will show at least a half-dozen recruits around Ann Arbor this weekend.
But as much fun as Michigan Stadium can be, the coaches know the best way to make a lasting impression.
“It’s exciting for the young guys to see 110,000 people fill the stadium, but I tell the guys that no matter how many fans are in the stadium, the dimensions of a football field never change,” said defensive backs coach Greg Jackson. “So when our guys go out on the field, we’re all excited to play, but we can’t get caught up in the fans in the stands. The dimensions of the football field stay the same, and when that whistle blows, we’ll be ready to play.”
Added Jim Harbaugh: “There’s a bad taste in our mouth when you lose a football game, and there’s only one mouthwash for that, and that is winning a football game, so that’s what we’re going to make darn sure on what we’re going to focus on.”