ANN ARBOR, Michigan -- We know Jim Harbaugh can breathe life into the dead. He took over a Stanford program that had one foot in the FCS and laid the foundation for consecutive Pac-12 championships. And the Michigan program, as exasperating as it had become for Wolverine fans who believe the Rose Bowl is their birthright, was not dead when Harbaugh returned to his alma mater in January.
But still. Anyone outside of Schembechler Hall who tells you they saw this coming is telling you a story. As Michigan prepares to host unbeaten and No. 7 Michigan State on Saturday (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET), the Wolverines are No. 12. They are 5-1. And they are halfway down the road to a historic season.
Turnarounds hold a special place in a Michigander's bosom. The auto industry that fell over a cliff during the Great Recession has climbed back. The Tigers lost 119 games in 2003 and went to the World Series three years later. Latch a Shinola watch around your wrist and tell me the city of Detroit isn't turning around.
Michigan football isn't supposed to turn around. When you live in the penthouse and you turn around, you're going in the wrong direction. Michigan football hasn't won the Big Ten in 11 seasons. In the seven seasons after Lloyd Carr retired in 2007, the Wolverines went 46-42. The university brought back Harbaugh, the first alum to coach the team since Bump Elliott (1959-68), to return the team to prominence.
But this fast? Who turns a program around in one season?
"I don't think about it," Harbaugh said at his press conference Monday. "See if we can't be better today than we were yesterday. See if we can't be better tomorrow than we were today."
The great coaches who took over mediocre programs typically needed longer. Bear Bryant went 5-4-1 in 1958, his first season back at his alma mater, Alabama. Woody Hayes went 4-3-2 in 1951, his first year at Ohio State. Bob Stoops went 7-5 in 1999 at Oklahoma, and Jim Tressel did the same two years later at Ohio State. Each coach won the BCS title in his second season.
Few coaches have taken over a traditional winner that had lost its way and then turned it around immediately: Gus Malzahn at Auburn, going from 3-9 in 2012 to the BCS National Championship in 2013. Brady Hoke, Harbaugh's predecessor, went 11-2 in 2011. His success had no staying power, and Malzahn's Tigers lost a string of five straight SEC games before Thursday night's win over Kentucky.
Yet Michigan feels different, permanent, an adjective that hasn't been applied to Harbaugh as he has jumped from the University of San Diego to Stanford to the San Francisco 49ers. But then Harbaugh had never returned home. He had never returned to a program where he didn't have to take the existing structure down to its foundation. The structure has been here since Schembechler built it in that feverish year of 1969. Ohio State was the defending national champion that year, too, with a team that featured so many returning starters that the Buckeyes were considered shoo-ins to win again.
That Michigan team snuck up on Ohio State and won 24-12. This Michigan team isn't sneaking up on anyone, not in this day and age, not with this coach, and not with that defense. The Wolverines have shut out three consecutive opponents for the first time in 35 years. (Before you ask, the Wolverines last shut out four straight in 1931, when they blanked their last six opponents and then posted a shutout in their opener in '32.)
"A lot of people are trying to explain," linebacker Joe Bolden said. "I would say finishing. Just being able to finish football games."
Or even halves. Last season, seven Michigan opponents scored in the last two minutes of the first half. Four scored in the last four minutes of the second half. Bolden believes this year's team began to learn to finish in the spring, when Harbaugh held four-hour practices.
A quarter-century ago, the NCAA instituted the four-hour rule: no football-related activity could last longer than four hours a day. That includes meetings, conditioning, practicing, you name it.
"His idea was, why spend any of that in the meeting room? We need to get better on the football field," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said.
Linebacker Desmond Morgan said he learned the first week that the key to surviving a four-hour practice is simple: Don't look at the clock. He and the rest of the Wolverines learned something else. If you can finish a four-hour practice, if you can maintain focus and be as mentally sharp at the end as at the beginning, then a three-hour game should be no problem. Not to mention a six-second play.
"Don't take your foot off people," defensive end Willie Henry said. "Finish to the whistle. Take that half-step farther to finish your opponent."
Durkin has been coaching for 15 years. His former bosses include Urban Meyer and Ty Willingham, Harbaugh (at Stanford) and Will Muschamp. Durkin had never coached a four-hour practice.
"About everything we do is not the way it's done," Durkin said, laughing. As he described the four-hour practice, he shone a light on the transformation of a team that went 5-7 last season into the team that is 5-1 today.
"Jim's strongest suit probably is his confidence and his vision," Durkin said. "He's not afraid to do things differently. He truly is going to do things the way he sees best. Everything is well-thought-out. There's a reason for why we do everything we do. And it's not ever, well, that's just the way it's done. In his mind, this is what we're trying to accomplish, I think this is the best way to get that done, and he has no fear of failure or anything else. He's going to will it to work."
Harbaugh's genius is his ability to instill his self-confidence in his players. As Northwestern secondary coach Jerry Brown said last week, before the Wildcats lost to the Wolverines 38-0, "Jim is doing what Jim does. He gets in his players' heads and makes them believe they're better than they are."
Quarterback Jake Rudock, a fifth-year transfer from Iowa, smiled as he described his 51-year-old head coach, cleats laced, running pass patterns to explain to his quarterbacks and receivers what he wants.
"I'm sure if he could start himself, he probably would," Rudock said. "I feel like he would go out there and play if he could. He still has all that confidence in the world that he's the best player on the field. I'm not going to argue with that."
Added corner Jourdan Lewis: "Coach brought that intensity about him. Every day is a new challenge. You have to conquer the day. You have to win. You have to win every minute, every play."
Everything is a competition. The Michigan Mile that the team runs every Monday is timed, and the results are posted. The scout team scrimmages. Video captures every rep of every player, from Rudock to the skinniest walk-on. All of them are ranked every week, No. 1 to No. 105. The scout-team players are competing for spots on the travel roster.
"If you're a guy that maybe thought, 'Hey, I'm just a scout-team guy, no one is going to notice if I take a couple of reps off' -- there's no way to hide or slack off," Morgan said. "It will be exposed, that's for sure. ... It's not set in stone who is going on the trip every week. It's not just a guy that they expect to play next year. It's more like, who worked their butt off this week?"
Halfway through an already memorable season at the Big House, the answer seems to be everyone.