Michael James, a native Detroiter, formerly worked for The Detroit News and New York Daily News and as head writer for ESPN's Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith. He's the founder of The Tribe Sports and lives in New York. His column is republished with permission.
By Michael James
Something was different at Saturday's rivalry game from the very beginning. You could smell it. Almost taste it. The feeling permeated through the television with the sight of vigorously shaken maize pom-poms – in unison, no less – and especially once a light snow began to fall in Ann Arbor.
This was not going to be another Ohio State steamrolling of the Michigan Wolverines. Michigan was not going to fall for the 16th time in 17 tries. And if you couldn’t be there – although it appeared as though everyone in the country was – you knew this game was must-see TV.
The only questions were what, exactly, was different? And how, precisely, would the Michigan Wolverines change the narrative to make this, indeed, a rivalry once again?
Here’s the answer to what made No. 5 Michigan 42, No. 2 Ohio State 27 possible:
Jim Harbaugh was different. Jim Harbaugh is different. As a matter of fact, Jim has been for the entire 2021 season.
The absolute and thorough demolition of the second-ranked Buckeyes happened because after years of futility against elite competition and conference rivals, Jim Harbaugh finally changed on a fundamental level. In other words, an old dog learned some new tricks.
I don’t know exactly when Jim Harbaugh finally got the message that his cult-of-personality alone was not enough to propel and inspire his Wolverines to win big games, but something finally clicked inside this man to convince him that he needed to change his style, and, astonishingly, he did.
See, the Achilles Heel of Jim Harbaugh has always seemed to be that he was trying to emulate the singular figure that was his mentor, Bo Schembechler, a man who was the ultimate authority figure at Michigan during much headier and more successful times.
If you’ve been a longtime Michigan football watcher, you will know that during Bo’s tenure, you rarely heard about what his offensive or defensive coordinator was doing. Announcers did not laud his special teams coach.
It was Bo Schembechler’s show – win or lose. He was the ultimate Michigan Man.
When Jim Harbaugh returned to his alma mater in 2015, fresh off success in turning around programs at San Diego, Stanford, and taking the San Francisco 49ers to the NFL Super Bowl, the second coming of Bo Schembechler is what most at UM thought they were getting.
The Game Had Changed
The trouble for Harbaugh was that the college game had changed. The lone figurehead style did not work anymore. The players had changed and the top coaches in the business realized they needed assistant coaches who could connect with these players to help realize the head man’s overall vision.
Even the game’s best ever – Nick Saban at Alabama – cultivated and encouraged such an atmosphere.
Yet, through his first six seasons, Michigan football felt all about Jim Harbaugh. He came across as arrogant and aloof, a curious personality who did not quite connect fully with his players.
Oh, Harbaugh did have success, but often not when it really counted. His teams never seemed quite prepared when it came time to face ranked opponents or rivals like Michigan State and Ohio State.
The change in Harbaugh appeared to come following the 2-4 pandemic-shortened 2020 season when he was offered and accepted a pay cut to remain at Michigan. It would be a humiliating occurrence for most, but, apparently, it was humbling for Harbaugh, who now had incentives placed in his contract to recoup that lost salary.
Harbaugh got the message. He fired assistants and replaced them with young and dynamic ones who more closely connected with players. He loosened up. And he listened to the advice of those assistants.
The Quarterback Whisperer
This was in no greater evidence than the alleged quarterback whisperer being willing to platoon quarterbacks Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy – something he was unwilling to do in past years. Back then, Harbaugh would stick with a struggling starter to the bitter end – or until injury forced his hand.
The Jim Harbaugh of 2021 did not settle for field goals or conservative play calls when only everything was at stake. That was the old way.
No, this Jim Harbaugh trusted those around him and it showed. The players noticed, embraced and displayed a confidence not seen often during the Jim Harbaugh era.
Although a successful college team often emulates the personality of its coach, previous Harbaugh teams did not seem to know what was expected – because they didn’t KNOW Jim Harbaugh.
This season, the operative word was “Different.” Harbaugh, at the beginning of the season said the team was different. The players said it felt different. But nobody was able to explain exactly what was different.
Jim Harbaugh is the answer.
Not Necessarily a Fluke
His willingness to finally change and adapt is what happened in Ann Arbor that resulted in the Michigan Wolverines thumping Ohio State, going on to the Big Ten championship game and possibly playing for a national title.
There are some who will feel this was a fluke. They will point to 15 Ohio State wins over the past 16 meetings. But they belong to a generation who do not realize how dominant Michigan once was in this rivalry, so much so that the Buckeyes needed those 15 wins just to come within 59-51-6 in the series.
Nobody knows what the future holds, but for one snowy day in Ann Arbor, where the weather neutralized the vaunted Ohio State offensive machine, everything was, well, different.
The result was one of the most glorious postgame celebrations ever witnessed in college football. It was good for the game and great for the Michigan Wolverines.
Change, you see, can be a very, very good thing.