USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder hit the field as an official during a South Carolina spring game. He now has a new respect for the job.
USA TODAY Sports
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Jim Harbaugh shirtless. Or witnessed him engage in a Twitter war. The Michigan football coach has muted his social media megaphone, except for the occasional condolence or congratulation tweet meant as a salve or an attaboy.
A year ago, last winter, he was hanging out with Usher at the White House, and inspiring headlines seemingly every week. His step back from the stage this spring, I suspect, is calculated, as he has homed in on the changes he felt his football program needed to make.
Rejuvenated is a word Harbaugh used to describe things inside Schembechler Hall these days. Recalibrated would be a good word, too.
That will happen after an 8-5 season and an ugly bowl loss. After a season in which his message didn’t always land where he wanted.
Harbaugh runs a famously complex offensive system, and with his young team last year, that complexity led to a certain level of confusion.
This spring, as he prepares to wrap up his final practice on Tuesday, the U-M coach has talked about his need to self-assess and perhaps scale some things back.
“There’s a lot of great things in our program,” Harbaugh said earlier this spring. “Felt like taking those great things and keeping them. And then anything that was mediocre, wanted to change it and make it great. That’s been a lot of work. Been a process. Maybe that’s what’s rejuvenated me.”
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He’ll have to get better play from the quarterback spot, obviously, along with improved efficiency on the offensive line. But then Harbaugh didn’t need to self-evaluate to learn that.
These are things in his coaching DNA. The proof is in his track record.
Instead, the issue is about communication, and figuring out who can absorb what. It’s also about connecting, as a few players this spring talked about Harbaugh’s subtle change in demeanor — most noticeably in seeking out hugs.
“I think this is Coach Harbaugh’s way of trying to combat the idea that he’s a boss,” said Chase Winovich, the defensive end who skipped the NFL draft to play another year in Ann Arbor. “Rather, he’s trying to paint this picture … that he’s with us. He wants to win just like we do. He wants us to succeed just as we do. … He’s in there with us. He takes criticism just like we do, if not more. ‘If you see me out there, just give me a hug.’ ”
Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh plays shirtless with participants during the Coach Jim Harbaugh’s Elite Summer Football Camp, Friday, June 5, 2015, at Prattville High School in Prattville, Ala. (Photo: Albert Cesare, AP)
Harbaugh didn’t always look like himself last season. Whether it was his inability to coax steady play from the quarterback position or in dealing with such a young roster, he gave off a whiff of solemnity.
Or maybe it was just frustration. An emotion that often serves as a springboard for change.
Harbaugh’s best teams — at Stanford and especially at San Francisco, with the 49ers — played with a kind of ferocity that embodied his spirit. His ability to imbue his players with the force of his personality is his greatest coaching gift.
Last year’s squad didn’t quite harbor that spirit, though we saw moments of it. Again, Perhaps it was nothing more than youth. Though I doubt it, for if this were simply a question of inexperience, Harbaugh wouldn’t have spent his winter looking inward.
Or looking outward, either.
He made several coaching changes, including replacing strength coach Kevin Tolbert and Tim Drevno, the offensive line coach and running play caller with whom Harbaugh had coached 14 years.
When you coach that long with someone, they become more than a co-worker. Yet Harbaugh knew he needed new ideas. New methods, too.
It’s not unlike what John Beilein did two seasons ago, though the U-M men’s basketball coach didn’t have to dismiss a long-time running mate to make changes. His assistants left on their own, and Beilein used the opportunity to rethink how he taught and coached defense.
Beilein did it again last summer, when he brought in the defensive-minded Luke Yaklich to replace the departed Billy Donlon. That decision helped propel the Wolverines to the NCAA title game earlier this month.
Harbaugh is hoping to oversee a similar surge for his football team. That fresh voices and strategies might lead U-M to his favorite kind of stage: the football field with a championship at stake.
“You plow the fields, expose what’s good and what’s not good and then you go about fixing it,” Harbaugh said earlier this spring.
It sounds simple. And, in a way, it is, particularly when you’re eyeing what’s broken.
Yet the tougher question is figuring out why part of your philosophy no longer works. This was Harbaugh’s charge this offseason.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of talent. But sometimes, it’s a matter of how best to nurture and harness it.
We won’t know the results of Harbaugh’s retooling until the fall. In the meantime — other than in Paris later this month you can expect Harbaugh to remain quiet.
That (relative) silence is likely the result of change, too.