By: Will Burchfield
As a coach and a man, Jim Harbaugh is pretty set in his ways.
But he’s learning to be more patient this season with an especially young Michigan team.
“There’s definitely a certain level of patience there — and stubbornness. Call it either way. Some people like to say stubbornness, I like to say patience,” said Harbaugh.
It’s not that he’s lowered his expectations. It’s that he’s viewing this group through a different lens, aware that many of his players are facing challenges that last year’s veterans had long overcome.
After Michigan’s sloppy 36-14 win over Cincinnati on Saturday, Harbaugh looked past most of the team’s technical problems and talked instead about the value of getting one’s feet wet.
“We grew in experience. There will be a lot of things for each individual player to think about. In a number of ways of playing a football game there’s things that you can’t experience until you experience them,” Harbaugh said. “There’s handling your emotions, handling a week of school for the first time, being in that environment, that atmosphere. There’s nerves, there’s butterflies, and you get experience in how to handle them.”
Harbaugh can almost remember the rush himself. Once upon a time, he was a wide-eyed quarterback in a winged helmet making his first career start at the Big House.
“Me, I’m 53, it’s gone, I’m dead in here,” he laughed, pointing toward his heart. “It’s like burnt wood in terms of nervousness and butterflies and emotions. But for guys that are doing it for the first time or the second time, even, it takes some time on task. It takes some experience. We got some more of that today and that’s a good thing.”
After sending a school-record 11 players to the 2016 NFL Draft, Michigan brought back just five starters this season, fewest among all FBS teams. Even if that doesn’t count a few returners who played significant roles on last year’s squad, such as Rashan Gary and Chris Evans, the 2017 Wolverines are inescapably green.
Harbaugh has plenty of faith in their potential, make no mistake about it. But he seems cognizant of the fact that it’s going to take them longer to fulfill it.
Sophomore wide receiver Kekoa Crawford, a starter this year after making just four catches last year, said Harbaugh is no less fiery but perhaps a bit more understanding.
“He does his yelling, but he’s definitely being patient, too. He knows that guys are going to mess up, but as long as they’re not making the big error and we’re doing what we need to do we’re going to be alright,” said Crawford.
Harbaugh said the team’s inexperience is constantly on his mind when he’s interacting with his players, especially when they fail to execute. What might have been a basic concept to last year’s vets is likely a foreign one to this year’s rookies.
“I think about it a lot, what you’re asking somebody to do and putting them in a position where they’re confident and they really understand it. That’s the ideal position. Right now, there’s a lot of, ‘Who’s really got this?’ And you don’t know for sure. You don’t know, but you remember that it’s hard to execute, it’s hard to play with a lot of emotions — you’re better off being dead to them,” said Harbaugh.
Fifth-year running back Ty Isaac isn’t a player to whom Harbaugh might extend some extra slack. Isaac doesn’t need it. But he knows some players do, and he’s appreciative of the fact that a coach must tailor his approach to his roster.
“It’s a lot different in terms of last year’s team, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s certain guys who don’t have as many game reps or who have not played college football as long. That’s not to say that you’re not a good player or you’re unprepared. It’s just — if I’ve never done something before, you can’t yell at me like I’ve been doing it for two or three years,” said Isaac.
For Harbaugh, the challenge is in maintaining patience while also pushing for excellence. Michigan has loads of talent, and the players won’t be served by a culture of clean lines and simple concepts.
Experience is most instructive when coupled with adversity.
“The other thing in my mind is you just can’t dumb it down Barney style, either. Just line up with two tight ends and a balanced line and think that you’re just going to run off-tackle play after play after play when they have five defensemen linemen in the game and they’re doing a nice job, as the case was today,” Harbaugh said.
The coach would never be one to coddle his players. But he’s doing his best to put himself in their shoes, which better be tied tight.
“I do think about it. I try to anticipate, try to resolve and the experience has taught me that they have to go do it,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll keep moving forward and gaining the experience. I know what these guys are made of. And they’re going to get it. I feel very, very confident about that.”