Jim Harbaugh has already failed miserably at one of his stated objectives.
“Not striving to be creating any buzz. Just striving to coach the football team,” Harbaugh said at last month’s Big Ten Media Days. “Not trying to be popular or anything. Anyone who is popular is bound to be disliked. So just coaching football.”
Not striving to create any buzz? Consider that mission unaccomplished, as Harbaugh has done nothing but create buzz since taking the Michigan head coaching job this past winter. He's played the piccolo. He's played football shirtless. He's thrown out the first pitch at a Tigers game. He's visited a French McDonald's.
Returning to his alma mater has put all eyes on him, a coach who turned Stanford into a perennial contender and took the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl. Throw in his unique personality that’s produced a must-follow Twitter account, and Harbaugh is making headlines seemingly every time he blinks his eyes this offseason.
Harbaugh’s return to college football has made him the sport’s biggest celebrity.
"When he first took the job and was here in January, I didn't know how much of a celebrity he really was, as far as like he was on 'Saved by the Bell' and things like that,” linebacker James Ross III said. “Once I got used to it, I knew that he does that but he's not a guy who thrives on it, he doesn't have to have that. But he's a funny guy, so people want to talk to him, and I understand that.”
Yeah, if you weren’t aware of that fact, Jim Harbaugh was on “Saved by the Bell.” Now you know why he’s creating so much buzz.
But that buzz is just as much based in football as it is in all of Harbaugh’s off-the-field shenanigans. Michigan is in dire need of a savior after seven mostly mediocre seasons under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. Last year’s stumble to a 5-7 finish was excruciating to watch from afar, with a new public relations screw up or serious student-athlete health concern cropping up each and every week. Fans were so fed up with athletics director Dave Brandon that they picketed the university president’s house. Both Hoke and Brandon were gone by season’s end.
Just once in the past seven seasons have the Wolverines won more than eight games. Three of the past seven seasons have ended without bowl appearances. That’s not the kind of thing people are used to at Michigan.
Enter Harbaugh, who has the task of turning things around. And the reason there’s so much buzz is because many are convinced he’ll have little trouble doing it. He’s been mighty successful at past coaching stops, and he has the brand power of Michigan to attract top recruits.
The question, though, is how fast Harbaugh can make this fix.
Handed a roster full of players who were around for a combined 20-18 record in the past three seasons, is Harbaugh’s presence alone enough to turn mediocre Michigan back into conference-power Michigan?
There are position battles at quarterback and running back, meaning we don’t know what to expect. And even though last season’s defense was among the best in the country, it was pretty easy to see that that alone was not enough to win football games.
Even if Michigan avoids the public relations snafus and packs the Big House each and every Saturday, will the end result be much different than last season?
That remains to be seen. But what is clear is that Michigan’s players don’t want 2014 to happen again. And they appear to be very serious — just as serious as Harbaugh — about turning things around in a hurry.
“We have a great team … and this chip that we’ve got on our shoulder, this attitude because people forget, man: This is Michigan. And it’s always going to be Michigan. You can’t dwell in the past, whether you win or you lose. The past is the past. What you do going forward is what says a lot about you and your team,” cornerback Jabrill Peppers said last week at the team’s media day.
“Just doing what we’ve got to do to ensure that we don’t let another season go by where we say, ‘Oh, we could’ve done that better or we should’ve worked harder on this or I should’ve blocked a little longer on this play.’ Making sure all doubts are eliminated and giving max effort each and every play.”