Late in the first half of Michigan’s spring game Saturday afternoon coach Jim Harbaugh sidled up beside the head official and shared a few words while pointing at the scoreboard clock. A moment later 30 seconds disappeared. Harbaugh toyed with the game clock twice more before the game was over, tweaking it to fit his needs. So go ahead and add that to the growing Chuck Norris-like canon of Harbaugh mythology -- the man can actually control time.
Michigan fans hoping their new head coach could fast forward to the results he’s had elsewhere learned that might not be the case during Saturday’s 7-0 inter-squad scrimmage. It will take more than a month of practice to untangle the past decade -- one of the worst in Michigan’s football history. Nonetheless, the scene at the Big House Saturday showed that Harbaugh is equipped with the tool he needs most, a rare and treasured gift in today’s coaching world. He’s got time.
The track record of renovated teams and Harbaugh’s status as a native son of the Maize and Blue gives the coach a stockpile of benefit of the doubt.
The fanbase trusts him. No one is going to question his decision to run four-hour practices throughout the spring or make his quarterbacks fair game for tacklers during several of those sessions including the spring game. He’s going to toughen ‘em up, they say. No one is going to question his quirkiness on social media or a mid-spring trip to moonlight as a celebrity Oakland A’s first base coach. He’s having fun, they say.
He is Harbaugh after all -- a true disciple of Bo and an architect of success at Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers. Almost every coach gets a honeymoon period with his new fans, but this feels like more sustainable bliss. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 fans showed up to Saturday’s game, and the biggest cheer of the day came during pre-game stretching when Harbaugh trotted out of the tunnel and onto the field.
His boss trusts him as well. It’s unclear how long Jim Hackett will stick around as Michigan’s athletic director, but his legacy is already set in stone. He brought Harbaugh home.
Business since then has been good. Hackett said Saturday there’s a waiting list for season tickets for the first time since the beginning of Rich Rodriguez’s tenure. All of the stadium’s luxury boxes are sold out for 2015, unlike a year ago. They won’t be giving tickets away with bottles of Coke this season.
Hackett said he nearly choked up the first time he watched Harbaugh run a practice at Michigan this spring.
"I don't know if it was the effort, the suddenness of me coming here, all the time trying to get him here, but it just hit me how excited I was with what I was seeing,” he said before describing the drills in detail. "…I got emotional. I just thought, 'This was what I wanted.'”
More important than the fans or his boss, Harbaugh has the trust of his players too. When the winners of their coach’s endless small competitions throughout spring practice were made to run -- because the chance to get better is a reward, not a punishment -- they bought in.
When Harbaugh unleashed blitzers on an overmatched offensive line and told them not to hold up when they reached the quarterback, the normally-protected throwers loved the idea. “That’s football,” said junior Shane Morris, who had last left the field at Michigan Stadium concussed and battered beyond safety last September. Harbaugh said he heard nary a negative word during a month designed to test his players’ toughness.
"I was pleased with the way they competed, and they did it without complaint -- without excuse,” he said. “They kept their heads down and grinded. It's starting to surface.”
The team that Michigan trusts its new coach to build hasn’t emerged yet. Saturday’s game showed Harbaugh still needs a lot of time to get them there. It also showed their willing to give it to him.