Facing Georgia is a revived Harbaugh and a surprising Michigan

December has been very good to Jim Harbaugh, Michigan’s cross between a football coach and a quirky, absent-minded classics professor.

Just months ago, Harbaugh seemed to have one foot in the program and the other in a wood-chipper. Then, come December here he is the Coach of the Year in college football for taking his undervalued Wolverines to a Big Ten title and a spot in Friday’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Georgia. He didn’t just flip the script, he apparently had Woody Allen come in and do a complete rewrite.

And, it seems that with a little help from family this month, he’ll never lose his car keys again. Asked Thursday for his favorite Christmas gift, Harbaugh went to the GPS locators his son gave him for his wallet and key chain. That he would require such technology hints at a certain casual relationship with life’s small details.

Even through the filter of a Zoom press conference, Harbaugh’s slightly eccentric nature seeps through the laptop screen. Football coaches often don’t match their answers to the questions asked, a valuable strategy. But Harbaugh, with his 1,000-yard stare from behind professorial spectacles and a stream-of-consciousness way of speaking, is naturally suited to that task.

Like when asked Thursday about his personal satisfaction in winning coach of the year. “It’s been great,” he said. “We’re happy, really happy to be here. There’s a great joy around the team, the locker room, practices. If you weren’t happy about that, there’s something else you need to look into – why wouldn’t you be happy?”

Then, when he does synch the answer to the question, what comes out can be unusual.

As when the subject of his January contract extension was raised. With faith in Harbaugh waning, Michigan offered him a heavily incentive-weighted deal through 2025 that effectively cut his annual base salary in half (from $8 million to $4 million) and gave the Wolverines a clearer path to firing him. How did he react to that? Did that sting his pride?

“No big deal,” he said. “(Still) attacking each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind, as always. It didn’t really mean anything to me. It’s just money.”

It’s a concept he doubled down on later when saying, “I would do this job for free. I just love it.”

Somewhere in the distance you could hear an agent scream as if pierced through the heart.

Harbaugh was brought back to his alma mater in 2015 with orders to return the Wolverines to Big Ten and national primacy. He’s the member of the Harbaugh coaching clan who orchestrated big turnarounds both in college – Stanford – and the NFL – the San Francisco 49ers – but whose personality occasionally undermined him at both stops.

At Michigan, it all starts with beating Ohio State. And as Harbaugh struggled with that task, losing his first five times (the rivals didn’t play last year because of COVID-19), support for him eroded. Then, after going a miserable 2-4 over the shortened 2020 Big Ten season, came the downgraded contract extension with its win-now-or-else undercurrent.

By just making it to Friday’s semifinal – soundly beating the Buckeyes along the way – he has managed a somewhat epic reversal. Harbaugh had shaken up his staff, getting younger and more energetic while bringing in new assistants throughout the offense as well as a new defensive coordinator. The Wolverines were an afterthought at the beginning of the season, unranked and unloved. In classic Harbaugh fashion, over the summer when asked if this was the year he’d get over the OSU hump, he proclaimed, “We’re going to do it or die trying.”

Now here they are 12 wins later with a team built on the rock-ribbed values of strong offensive and defensive line play and power running. Michigan never really went away – this is Harbaugh’s fourth double-digit winning season there – but neither was it the kind of program you’d spell out in all capital letters and exclamation points.

“I feel like we’ve created some new buzz this 2021 team,” he said Thursday. “Let’s face it, it had died down a little bit. It’s been a good thing.”

To hear his star rush end talk, the changes on the coaching staff were huge, but they weren’t the only changes in play this year.

“I think (Harbaugh) brought in the perfect chemistry of guys this offseason in terms of coaches,” Aidan Hutchinson said.

“It’s what makes a team work, that’s part of it, finding the right coaches,” Hutchinson said. “He definitely did that this offseason, that’s a big head nod to him. Also, there’s how he’s adapted over these years, how he’s adapted toward the players.”

Harbaugh even has turned turn the doubt into a benefit, pledging to donate all the incentives built into that new contract to university staff who had their pay cut during the pandemic. He’s already in line for some substantial bonuses and the total could run in excess of $3 million if Harbaugh goes all the way through the national championship.

Everybody’s digging Harbaugh now. Even he and Georgia’s Kirby Smart found themselves laughing Thursday about their shared birthday - just passed, Dec. 23. Harbaugh is 12 years older than the 46-year-old Smart.

And joking about some of the same satellite high school camps that were once bones of contention between the two. (Shortly after arriving at Georgia, Smart suggested the NCAA needed to look into the camp visits and the training trips south that Harbaugh was using so often and so effectively to spread the Michigan name in fertile recruiting territories. The led Harbaugh to tweet in response, “If the Georgia coach is implying any intent on our part to break the rules, he is barking up the wrong tree.”)

There was the one in 2015, Smart’s last year at Alabama before taking over at Georgia. Remember that one?

“I remember when he played a little football down in Prattville (Ala.), he took his shirt off,” Smart said. “I could never do that. He can get away with that a lot better than I can. I have to keep my shirt on.”

Responded Harbaugh, “I wasn’t trying to take my shirt off to show off. Not a lot to show off. It was an old-fashioned shirts and skins game.”

And everybody laughed. They’ll have far more substantive issues to hash out Friday night.

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