Minnesota, Hour Four: An Endzone Excerpt Comment Count

Brian October 13th, 2016 at 11:44 AM




John U. Bacon has added a 60-page afterword to Brandon's Lasting Lessons Endzone detailing Harbaugh's first season in Ann Arbor. A paperback edition is coming out to accompany this afterword, and Bacon's generously offered to run an excerpt  from the afterword. This is it.


History is replete with the dangers facing anyone declared the messiah. As Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, “Pride comes before the fall.” But the praise is only dangerous if the recipient believes it. Harbaugh seems too busy to give the hype much attention.

“We’re here, in Schembechler Hall, all day,” he told me in his first spring. “But I remember telling recruits there’s a lot of excitement and hunger for Michigan football right now.”

He paused just a bit before adding, “Hungry dogs hunt best.”

That Harbaugh, the biggest catch in the coaching sea, seemed to be hungrier than the rabid fans and determined insiders who helped bring him back to Ann Arbor only made them love the guy even more.

But could Harbaugh do the job? Given the scope of the task, it wasn’t a rhetorical question. Harbaugh had to restore a program that had fallen into almost unrecognizable disrepair. He had to fill the Big House, and help get the department out of debt, while adhering to Michigan’s values of fair play. And he had to reunite the Michigan family, which had been fractured for a decade.

Harbaugh, consciously or not, started doing all these things the day he arrived, but in reverse order. The moment the tires on Harbaugh’s plane touched the tarmac, Michigan's fan base was united, in a way it hadn’t been since at least 1997.

Likewise, after thousands of Michigan fans stubbornly held on to their ticket applications until interim AD Jim Hackett named the next coach, the instant Harbaugh took the podium, the fans’ forms started flooding the department to ensure they could keep their seats, including the all-important skyboxes, which quickly sold out. The Nike contract soon followed, worth a record $173.8 million, which prompted MGoBlog’s Ace Anbender to write this headline: “Nike Gives Michigan All the Money.” It’s safe to assume Nike didn’t back up the Brinks Truck based on Michigan’s 5-7 record in 2014, but because they wanted the man in khakis.

The stunning change of fortune could only be sustained, however, with success on the field, and that would be harder to achieve.

If Harbaugh and the fans were hungry, so were the players. The Wolverines got their five Big Ten losses in 2014 the old-fashioned way: they’d earned them.

One trait throughout history that all successful generals have shared is an uncommon ability to analyze their troops strengths and weaknesses with cool detachment. Leaders in the habit of kidding themselves do not last long. Harbaugh demonstrated this vital quality when he started evaluating the game film of Michigan’s returning players in his office, which he calls his “football bunker.” Despite Brady Hoke’s top seven recruiting classes from 2012 and 2013, who were now sophomores and juniors, according to several witnesses, not only did Harbaugh grade most of Michigan’s returning players as average or lower, he was alarmed by what he termed an “intensity deficit.” They simply weren’t tough enough, physically or mentally. As a direct result, they were prone to wear down and fall apart by the fourth quarter, a tendency Michigan demonstrated in numerous games the previous seasons.

The clear-eyed assessment presented only three solutions: recruit better, coach better, and play better. In typical fashion, Harbaugh didn’t waste any time getting to work on all three.

“The biggest change,” tight-end Jake Butt told me, “and a lot of people noticed it, was this: my first two years [under Brady Hoke] we heard constant talk of challenging each other in practice, and competing to win a Big Ten title, but the level of work did not compare to what we did when Coach Harbaugh first got here. We’d always worked hard before, but we were not as smart, or as efficient.

“He made it crystal clear: The only way to win is to put the work in. Because of the environment he created, we were forced to prepare to compete against the best, every day.”

This sea change started on the first day of spring practice. While most college coaches use the NCAA’s daily allotted four hours with their team by meeting for 90 minutes or more, then practicing for 2.5 hours or less, Harbaugh decided to spend all four hours practicing, which was unheard of.

“Very first day, he got our attention,” Butt said. “I’d never done a four-hour practice. No one had. It kind of just smacked you in the mouth. By the second hour, because of the pace, it started to hurt. By the third hour, Coach Harbaugh gathered us around him, and told us, ‘This is where you guys lost games last year. You ran out of gas. You started making mistakes. And you started turning on each other.

“’These practices are not supposed to be easy. We’re not focusing on winning this or winning that. Not now. We’re just going to be the hardest working team in the country. And we’re going to embrace that.

“’We’re turning our weakness into our strength. And that’s why, this season, we’re going to win games in the fourth quarter.’”

With that, Harbaugh blew his whistle, and sent them back to their stations to complete their fourth hour of practice, at full-speed.

The visitors to that first spring practice included Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, who’ve seen several thousand practices between them. But they’d never seen this.

“Four hour practices?” Jack told me. “I’d not experienced that in my entire career. Golly, is this thing ever going to end?

“After practice, Jim ran by me and said, ‘Class on the grass.’ And just like that, it all made sense to me,” Jack said. Yes, Jack is Jim’s father, but impressing Jack Harbaugh isn’t easy, even for his children – and perhaps especially for his children. But this impressed him. “I’ve been in so many of those team meetings, which you spend three hours just preparing to run. When you finally got up there, you always had a handful of players that are grasping it, but others who had no interest in it at all. And that was about the best you could do. You get two-thirds, you think you’ve hit a home run.

“What Jim did is take the meeting out of the classroom, and onto the field, where you don’t have much choice but to pay attention! In his class, they’re looking at an actual 4-3 front, or they’re looking at a blitz, they talk about it -- and then it comes after them! Yes, they were paying attention!

“My goodness! All those years I was coaching, there wasn’t anyone who could come up with that idea? Not me, I’m not smart enough. Glad Jim is!”

Ultimately, the only opinions that mattered were the players’ – and Harbaugh had them.

“Coach was right – about all of it,” Butt continued. “Last year, when just one thing went wrong, we we were so shocked we had no ability to adjust, to come back. And we didn’t have enough strength left to do it, anyway.

“Coach talked to us about the ‘football callus,’ the soreness, and the pain, you feel at the end of the day after a good practice. So you just toughen your skin a bit, and you go another week, you get a stronger callous, and by the fourth or fifth week, a four-hour practice is nothing. And everything he told us was true."

By the end of spring ball, Harbaugh had his team.

“The 20-year olds know when the coaches are sincere,” Jim’s mother, Jackie, told me. “I just marveled at the way the players reacted to the practices. They were all quick tempo, but I didn’t see one player coming off the field, dragging or complaining. They had smiles on their faces when they came off the field, because they knew they were getting better! ‘I feel better! I understand what I’m supposed to be doing in this situation.’ And you’d see them in the hallway after, they were all so happy, so polite, so very nice. You could just see the players wanted to compete! They wanted to be the BEST!

“It was just fun for me to watch all of that, to see it develop.”

What Harbaugh’s players were doing on that practice field, when almost no one was watching, was more important to the future of the program than all the things happening outside it.

Two weeks after the Michigan State loss, Michigan traveled to Minnesota to face a resurgent Gopher team, which had thrashed the Wolverines in the infamous “Shane Morris game” the previous season. The Gophers had more motivation in 2015, after head coach Jerry Kill announced he was stepping down due to epileptic seizures.

The Wolverines had plenty of motivation of their own, including a share of the East Division title if they won out. After suffering a historic setback, would the Wolverines fold the tents, as they had in recent years, or would they take the punch and come out fighting, as Harbaugh had been training them to do since their first four-hour practice?

The teams swapped the lead in the first half, with Michigan taking a 21-16 lead early in the third quarter.

“In the first six games,” quarterback Jake Rudock told me, “I’d felt my confidence and rhythm gradually improving, but it was on and off. It wasn’t until the Minnesota game that I really got in a groove, and knew the light was staying on.”

But late in the third quarter, Rudock tried to scramble for a few yards. “But the way the geometry and physics of the situation played out, I could see the play was not setting up well for me, so I just tried to get down.”

He did, but not before two Gopher defenders got to him. “When my helmet came off, I’m thinking, ‘That’s usually not a good sign.’ It was one of those hits that just hurt – hurt real bad – and I felt it in my neck and ribs. It hurt to move, and I wasn’t breathing.”

Once he was out of the game, he told backup quarterback Wilton Speight, “Just relax. Just play. Don’t worry about the coach, or anything else. If there’s a play you don’t want to run, tell him now! Trust me, [offensive coordinator Jedd] Fisch would rather not call it than have you in the huddle saying, ‘Shit, what is this?’”

It didn’t take immediately. Speight’s three passes were incomplete, resulting in three punts, while the Gophers took a 26-21 lead with 11:43 remaining. But with Harbaugh and Fisch giving Speight the plays he wanted, Speight found his own rhythm. On third and ten from Minnesota’s 12-yard line, and about five minutes left, Speight threw a perfectly placed pass to Jehu Chesson in traffic, for a touchdown, and followed up with a pass to Amara Darboh for the two-point conversion, and a crucial three-point lead.

Down 29-26, Minnesota drove the ball to Michigan’s one yard-line with two seconds left. Interim coach Tracy Claeys bypassed the field goal to force overtime, to try for the touchdown, and the win. In one of Michigan’s most dramatic goal-line stands, the Wolverines broke through the line, stuffed the runner, and held their ground, for a gritty victory.

Harbaugh had promised them that, if they stuck with it, they’d be winning games in the fourth quarter, and here was proof.

"To be able to win a tough one, it's a great learning experience because it reinforces everything you tell them about never giving up, fighting to the end," Harbaugh said after the game. "That's the thing I'm most excited about. Our team has learned a very important lesson."

Six months later, the lesson seemed just as big.

“Against Minnesota, we battled back,” Harbaugh told me. “The big thing, to me, was this: no one gave up. That’s why I don’t think anyone on our side was surprised we had a chance to win it at the end. And when we stuffed them at the goal line – man, that was great. A thrilling victory. The wonderful feeling of winning.




The revised edition of Endzone is available now. (Yes, they fixed the typos.)


Autocracy Now

October 13th, 2016 at 5:33 PM ^

That's a bummer. I love JUB and have bought almost all his books, but I'm not sure it makes sense to pay book price just for an afterword.

I have the kindle version of the book and just tried updating the file from the kindle store, but no such luck. I'm certain there's no technical barrier in giving previous purchasers access to a version with the new afterword, so maybe it's something in the way the contract is set up or simply a quest for more moolah (which would be ironic). Either way, I hope I can read it at some point!


October 13th, 2016 at 11:12 PM ^

That's how the name is spelled everywhere I've seen it (save when I myself have routinely misspelled it "D'Antonio," probably the result of seeing it spelled that way, and any number of other ways, by folks on this blog.)

But I did see another typo in there. did you find it?

I understand that the typos were all cleaned up. It could be that the other one I saw was due to a reproduction of the piece by blog editors, though I don't claim to know that.

Bo Glue

October 13th, 2016 at 1:00 PM ^

I hated every moment of Brandon, and reading about it was almost as bad. But knowing that it was part of a culmination that led to one of the greatest coaches of all time being here, and in a position where it's not completely outlandish to think it might be for the long haul, made it so much easier to bear.


October 14th, 2016 at 12:48 AM ^

I'm usually a pretty fast reader. I'll tackle a novel in a few evenings.

This one took me a while, having to put it down for a few days at a time. Not because I was disinterested, but because I wanted to keep my sanity.
It's worse than you think it was. It's worse than you can even imagine.
But (sorry for the spoiler, but I'm sure you know by now) we got our guy (although many people thought we wouldn't, for various reasons).
Positivity ensues.

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad

Blue Sharpie

October 13th, 2016 at 12:38 PM ^

He should be a DL position coach. He is not savvy enough to be a coordinator. He can get by as a head coach at small schools if he has very good coordiators like Rocky Long who is doing very well at SD State.
I am of the opinion our defense was good because of Mattison, not Hoke. The only thing Hoke did with competence was recruit.

Hail Harbo

October 13th, 2016 at 7:14 PM ^

The Oregon defense was horrible last year and nothing short of divine intervention was going to make it better this year.  You can have the best mechanic in the world working on your classic car, but if all he has to work with is the broken car in front of him and the basket of defective parts you hand him, he won't be able to do a damn thing for you.

No, not even Doctor Don Brown could fix Oregon in less than one year.  Look back at what Brian wrote about him.  Every time he went to a program to fix their defense, the defense was actually worse during his first year than the year previous.  Michigan's defense this year might be his only exception.


October 13th, 2016 at 12:34 PM ^

that was fun to re-live.


The information on the practices and Harbaugh's film sessions was really interesting. Soooooo Happy he's there.


October 13th, 2016 at 12:36 PM ^

Have always enjoyed Bacon's books. He always gets a very up close look at the program and what is happening behind the scenes.  Can't wait to see how what else Harbaugh does with this program and how many NC's he can win while coaching here for a long time. I could forsee him wanting to win more then Saban has at Alabama before he hangs it up.

Revisionist Hi…

October 13th, 2016 at 12:45 PM ^

How many damn times do i have to buy this book? Can't we just get a subscription to 'john u' and get this stuff?


And Seth, are you still giving us some uses for Hummus this bye week? Or do i have to post my own?


October 13th, 2016 at 12:48 PM ^

I just hope to hell that someone gets the pregame speech on film. I can just imagine the heat that our coach will bring after reading how he fires these guys up for practice!


October 13th, 2016 at 1:26 PM ^

I don't play football, and I'll never have the pleasure of being coached by Harbaugh, but I've seen the Callous.  My mentor on toughness was my grandfather.  We didn't have a lot of money growing up, not dirt poor but very paycheck-to-paycheck, so he and I were often called on to do house and car repairs that otherwise wouldn't get done.  Because it was an older house, parts needed for maintenance or repair just weren't to be found, which meant he had to figure something out, and he always did.  One of these projects, we were working for several hours (already exhausting for a young boy, but I wasn't thinking about how a sixtysomething could get tired) when his rig failed and the whole thing came apart.  He was fine, but most of the work we'd put in until then was reset to zero in a second.  Just seeing all that work amount to nothing, I think I started crying, probably was; I was a real selfish whiny brat as a kid.  Grandpa just shrugged, and went right back to work again.  It was late at night when we finally finished.  He must've been exhausted but he never once swore or complained; he just worked until he was done.  That stuck with me 'til this day -- there's no work like overcoming adversity.  I ain't half as tough as he was, but I know what tough looks like.  Running ten miles is nothing like running 4.5 and then realizing at the end that you have to start over.  Less overall distance but emotional toll is otherwordly different.  Blowing up effort is a brutally efficient way to break someone's will; fatigue hits you like someone dropped a car onto your back.

That Minnesota game, the home team was playing out of their minds, and Michigan kept seeing their efforts blow up in their faces.  Under Hoke they'd definitely have quit.  But even when they were behind late, it was plain to me that they weren't demoralized.  It was obvious the team had learned a similar lesson on toughness.

Wisconsin Wolverine

October 13th, 2016 at 5:30 PM ^

I'm a scientist by trade, and one thing we have to come to terms with in research is the reality that we can pursue something for months or years only to find out it's a dead end, or to have the bottom fall out entirely for reasons unknown.  I've seen so many of my colleagues hit absolute walls at full speed, and they just sort of pick themselves up and get back to work trying something else, or finding a way around.  Any time spent feeling sorry for yourself is just a waste.  It's a great example that I try to learn from.

Blue Balls Afire

October 13th, 2016 at 12:58 PM ^

About those four hour practices, if I recall, JH splits his squad so that the freshmen and underclassmen have a separate practice session from the uperclassmen with maybe some overlap with the whole squad.  That means this coaching staff is on the field coaching for perhaps 6 hours a day during camp and maybe more!  Holy crap.  The man is a machine.


October 13th, 2016 at 1:14 PM ^

of the Harbaugh to Michigan story brings to mind the early Schembechler days with the Michigan program, in a similar state when he arrived. It was about drawing out his players collective toughness of mind, durability and strength of character and led, of course, to the slogan that has become the catch phrase of Michigan Football: Those Who Stay Wiil Become Champions.

We are seeing that slogan embedded in the will and determination that Harbaugh is now building and advanced through learning by doing.