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.)