Letter from the Editor: Hubris and humility – championship changes at University

Sports provides instant thrills – a crazy buzzer-beater, an odd bounce determining a game’s outcome, an unheralded player rising up in a key moment.

Less dramatic and rarer are stories of redemption, of seeing how someone uses the humbling moments that sports serves up as an impetus for self-reflection, change and ultimately success.

One such story is playing out in front of us, and it involves an unlikely subject: Jim Harbaugh, head football coach at the University of Michigan. Granted, this is no rags-to-riches story. Harbaugh is a football blue blood, having played quarterback at Michigan and taking an NFL team to the Super Bowl as a head coach.

And he arrived in Ann Arbor eight years ago amid a blizzard of hype and the highest expectations imaginable – the Michigan Man who would return the Maize and Blue to Big Ten and national glory. He fanned his celebrity buzz with outrageous quotes and recruiting stunts.

“I think part of (his public persona) was to get attention on him and the program,” said Aaron McMann, lead UM football writer for MLive. “And for a while it worked – they were bringing in top level talent.”

Harbaugh came out of the gate fast – two 10-win seasons and getting the Wolverines to No. 2 nationally at one point in his second season. But it could be that fate doesn’t like to be taunted. Or that Harbaugh’s coaching tactics didn’t match his swagger and hubris.

“The assumption was that he was going to get Michigan to the national championship right away,” McMann said. “He got close but wasn’t able to get there and then things took a dip.”

A bit of an understatement once you factored in high expectations. Through six years, he’d never beaten Ohio State and he’d never won a Big Ten championship. After a disastrous 2-4 campaign during the COVID-twisted 2020 season, the Harbaugh mystique was gone and UM was at a crossroads.

McMann has covered the entire arc of the Harbaugh story, and calls what happened next the “turning point” that brought us to the present, which has Michigan poised to win a second successive Big Ten championship and return to the College Football Playoff for the second straight year.

“It was the end of the rope – Jim Harbaugh was under pressure,” he said. With fans, alumni and the national media circling, both Athletic Director Warde Manuel and Harbaugh had tough decisions to make.

Manuel decided to keep Harbaugh, but to cut his pay and tie compensation to results. Not only a hard pill to swallow for Harbaugh and his celebrity coach ego, but a situation that forced him to take a hard look at himself and his entire program.

“Michigan was clearly not in a hurry to re-sign him,” McMann said. “(Harbaugh) may not admit it, but everything he did afterwards – cleaning house with his coaching staff, changing philosophy on offense – turned out to be right.”

The changes range from the locker room, where McMann notes the players are as cohesive and bought-in as any team he’s covered, to the field, where a team with no likely 2023 NFL draft first rounders has executed a focused, physical style of play to forge a 12-0 record.

But the most meaningful change occurred within Jim Harbaugh, who has cut the antics and put himself second to the team, the team, the team.

There was never a doubt that Harbaugh knew football or that he could fan the excitement the game provides. But after his first six seasons at his alma mater, standing at a precipice that he in large part created, he had to make some hard changes.

“It took some time,” McMann concludes, “but he eventually figured it out.”

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John Hiner is the vice president of content for MLive Media Group. If you have questions you’d like him to answer, or topics to explore, share your thoughts at editor@mlive.com.

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