ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It looked like Jourdan Lewis jumped too early. He knew better. The Michigan cornerback reached up for Wisconsin’s last, desperate pass and pulled down a spectacular one-handed interception. It was an artistic end to an inartistic game. No. 4 Michigan beat the No. 8 Badgers, 14–7, in a brutal, methodical beatdown, which meant Jim Harbaugh loved it. Really. So what if casual fans found it ugly? Harbaugh embraces the ugly. He builds teams that can and do win ugly.
People have started to forget this about Harbaugh. They see him wearing basketball uniforms at satellite camps, and they read his subtweets, and they see a shtick. The truth is that Harbaugh spends very little time trying to dominate the news cycle. He dominates it anyway because it’s so easy for him; he just has to say or do something quirky, which comes naturally to him, and, every other coach seems like a loaf of stale bread. But he really doesn’t do that many interviews. He doesn’t allow many people in the media to have access to his program. Believe it or not, it really doesn’t take that much time to tweet about Judge Judy.
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All the attention has only helped Michigan, especially in recruiting. But the Harbaugh era is not about the show. It has never been about the show. A show can help bring in talent, but it cannot build a team. And when it comes to getting players to play hard and play together for an entire game every week, Harbaugh is as good as any football coach in the country, at any level.
That is why Michigan won a game it easily could have lost. In the fourth quarter, the Wolverines should have been up by at least two scores but were instead tied 7–7. That would mess with a lot of players’ heads. Michigan just kept getting after the Badgers, the way Harbaugh’s teams at Stanford and San Francisco always did.
“All the coaches on this staff expect a lot out of us, but I think it’s the way that we work,” said running back Ty Isaac, who played for Lane Kiffin at USC and sat for a year under Brady Hoke at Michigan before Harbaugh arrived. “They can have all the expectations and do everything they want, but we’ve developed a culture of working hard. That’s what we do. You can see it in games like this. When it gets tough, nobody batted an eye. Nobody on that sideline for one second felt like the game was slipping out of our hands or was nervous. Nobody flinched.”
If you want to build a team like that, it goes beyond X’s and O’s. Harbaugh was an NFL quarterback and he has an offensive background, but what makes him great is that he is a head coach. How many schools have hired some genius play-caller, only to find out he can’t actually run a program? Harbaugh leads. He pushes. He cajoles. He demands. And people respond because he knows what he is doing, and they know he is grinding right alongside them.
Harbaugh forges a team by pushing everybody to be better at everything, every day, without ever expecting them to be perfect.
His big off-season move was not taking a shot at the NCAA or a fellow coach. It was replacing his terrific defensive coordinator, D.J. Durkin, who left to take the head-coaching job at Maryland, Harbaugh did not hire a hot young coach to replace Durkin. He hired 60-year-old Don Brown away from Boston College for the simple reason that Brown was the best defensive coordinator that he could find.
Harbaugh has told me he values his relationships across generations—he revels in learning from a retired 80-year-old coach and from his own kids. Harbaugh jumped at the chance to add Brown to his staff.
Brown came in and immediately moved one of the nation’s best safeties, Jabrill Peppers, to linebacker. As Woody Hayes said, and Bo Schembechler repeated: You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. The easy move would have been leaving Peppers alone at safety. The Michigan coaches thought he could do better.
So there was Peppers playing linebacker and returning punts Saturday, and how often do you see a player pull that double? And Peppers is indeed more valuable than he would have been at safety. He was a big reason the Michigan defense dominated Wisconsin. The Badgers averaged 2.5 yards per run and 3.5 per pass. The game was only close because of Wisconsin’s impressive defensive front, Michigan’s penalties, and the Wolverines’ inept kicking game.
Kenny Allen missed field goals from 31 and 43 yards. Ryan Tice missed from 40. Harbaugh acknowledged this is not acceptable, but he did not express frustration. He said it has been unfair to ask Allen to handle kickoffs, punting and placekicking. Maybe finding another placekicker could make all three phases better, or maybe Harbaugh just said that to keep Allen’s confidence up. Either way, it was smart. For all the talk about how hard Harbaugh pushes players, he rarely criticizes them publicly.
“A lot of times I’ve played in games like this, and it’s gone the other way, and I kind of felt like, ‘Man, I don’t know,’” Isaac said. “Not once did I feel that way.”
Can Michigan win the national title? The record, the hype and the ranking say yes. We’ll see. That defense is championship-worthy; Peppers will be an NFL star, and cornerbacks Lewis and Channing Stribling are a devastating pair. Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook completed 10 passes Saturday—seven to his own team and three to Lewis and Stribling.
Michigan is not as deep and loaded as Ohio State, and quarterback Wilton Speight has not accomplished nearly as much in his career as the Buckeyes’ J.T. Barrett. But that’s a problem for late November. For now, the Wolverines head to Rutgers with a 5–0 record, a top-five ranking and the firm, simple belief that they can be better tomorrow than they were today. It’s not a headline, but it’s the mark of a great head coach.