By Will Burchfield
Twitter: Burchie_kid

With the usual horde of cameras and microphones aimed in his direction, Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh conducted a relatively tame press conference on the first day of the annual Big Ten Football media scrum.

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Oh, there were some Harbaugh-esque moments – “did I make that word up?” he asked at one point – but the eccentric coach mostly played it safe.

He discussed the importance of steady improvement, his strategies for managing expectations and the process of dolling out playing time. He praised the three players who accompanied him and spoke glowingly of one who couldn’t.

And, of course, he touched on his rap debut.

Michigan enters the 2016 season as the No. 12 ranked team in the country, led by eight returners on offense and six on defense. It is the Wolverine’s highest preseason ranking since 2011, and the hype surrounding the team seems to grow by the day. Harbaugh believes Michigan can justify it, but not without a diligent work ethic.

“We’ve got big hopes, big dreams, we’ve got lofty goals. All those are achievable [but] they have to be worked for. You can accomplish anything if the work is realized and those things have to be earned. We are in the position right now to work to get the things we want – that’s the fact, that’s the mentality, that’s the attitude,” Harbaugh said.

Since becoming Michigan’s head coach last season, it has become a credo of Harbaugh’s to achieve one percent improvement every day. He compared it to getting in shape, in that steady effort yields positive long-term results.

“Another way to look [at it] is the NASCAR boys,” he explained. “They will stay up all night long trying to get one mile per hour faster – can we get one mile per hour faster each day? That mentality, simply put, is ‘better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today.’”

Along with its 15 returning starters, Michigan will be buoyed by a vaunted freshman class, one that features number-one overall recruit Rashan Gary. But Harbaugh insisted playing time will be distributed based on merit, not reputation.

“My personal favorite thing about our program is that you will be known by your effort and your talent,” Harbaugh said. “It’s as simple as that. There are no games or tricks or politics or ‘What class are you in?’, ‘What year are you?’, “Are you on scholarship, are you not on scholarship?’ It’s based upon a meritocracy, the way it should be.”

Then he paused and added, “I hope I made that word up, by the way. I’ve never really researched that, if it’s in the dictionary. Is meritocracy a word, or did I make that up?”

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Told it was indeed a word, Harbaugh clenched his fists in disappointment.

“Gosh,” he laughed, “I thought I made that up.”

Harbaugh was accompanied on Monday afternoon by seniors Jake Butt, Jourdan Lewis and Amara Darboh. He called the tight end Butt “one of the most gung-ho players I’ve ever been around,” and said of the All-American cornerback Lewis, “He’s just a pleasure to be around…Very competitive but also very likable because he doesn’t act like the big man on campus.” As for Darboh, Harbaugh commended him for pushing fellow senior Jehu Chesson for the top wide receiver’s role, calling it a “very good-hearted competition.”

Later on, Harbaugh was asked about junior defensive back Jabril Peppers. The coach responded with heartfelt praise.

“Anything’s accomplishable for Jabril Peppers in the game of football,” he said. “Again they’ve gotta be worked for. Let me start by saying this: I think professional football players are the greatest athletes in the world and Jabrill is that kind of athlete. He is that kind of athlete that has the greatest-in-the-world type of athleticism.”

Over his Michigan career, Peppers has gained recognition for his versatility on the field. Harbaugh listed a total of twelve different positions at which Peppers could flourish, from safety and linebacker to running back and wide receiver.

“I think you get the picture. He is a tremendous athlete,” Harbaugh said.

“He is highly motivated, and with that type of athleticism that he has, I truly believe if he keeps working and keeps having the same intensity and focus and seriousness about being a very good football player and student and person, he could explode into being a giant of a man.”

Harbaugh certainly had a headline-making offseason, from his controversial satellite camps to his bold sartorial choices. But nothing gained more attention than the recent video he recorded with the rapper Bailey, titled “Who’s Got It Better Than Us?”

Harbaugh was asked how he responded when first approached about the idea.

“My default is usually ‘yes,’” he said, before adding that he has received a lot of positive feedback via phone calls and texts.

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“I think the cool people liked it.”