CHICAGO — By Jim Harbaugh’s usual bombastic standards, Michigan’s second-year football coach was more comatose Monday than controversial.
He arrived at Big Ten media days in a light blue suit and a dark blue baseball cap with a big block “M” on it. He didn’t shout, generally stayed on point and mostly got to his appointed rounds on time, all the while shying away from headline-making proclamations or stunts.
Harbaugh downplayed that NBA superstar/Nike pitchman Michael Jordan will serve as the Wolverines’ honorary captain for the home opener.
“My thoughts are, I’m proud and honored to share a sideline with Michael Jordan,” he said.
(Amazing, isn’t it, what signing a Nike apparel deal can do for recruiting?)
When asked about the Michigan-themed rap video he recently took part in, Harbaugh again played it cool.
“It’s a respectable song and video,” he said. “All cool people like it. Some uptight people don’t, but they’re very few.”
Then he added: “It’s only uptight white people that don’t like it, man.”
Harbaugh has no need to get loud or sassy this season. His football team has the talent to speak for itself.
Senior Jourdan Lewis is an early front-runner for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. Senior Jake Butt is a strong contender for the John Mackey Award as the country’s best tight end. Defensive lineman Chris Wormley is an All-America candidate.
And then there is Mr. Everything, Jabrill Peppers. The 6-foot-1, 208-pound junior from East Orange, New Jersey, leaves his coach drooling.
“He has greatest-in-the-world-type athleticism,” Harbaugh said. “He can play just about anywhere on a football field and be effective.”
Harbaugh rattled off corner, safety, nickelback, linebacker, return man, punt-coverage gunner and punt-return hold-up guy as potential positions.
“Offensively, he could probably be our slot receiver and would give all of our running backs a run for their money to be the best,” the coach said. “He could be a Wildcat quarterback. He could be an outside receiver. He can run all the reverses and fly sweeps.”
That load of star power is why Michigan has been a surprise entry in many preseason top 10s.
Bring it on, Harbaugh says.
“We want our dreams to be big and our goals to be lofty,” he said. “We want to dream those dreams so much that people would laugh at us. If they aren’t laughing at us, then we haven’t set high enough goals.”
Year 2 is usually considered far too early to build a national championship team in college football. But Bob Stoops did it at Oklahoma (2000). Urban Meyer did it at Florida (2006). Meyer also won in his third year at Ohio State (2014).
Veteran players such as Butt, who saw sporadic success under previous coach Brady Hoke, like what is brewing.
“The first two years, I didn’t get to experience any of the reasons I came to Michigan,” Butt said. “That’s to win and win big. Now, I think we have a good chance.
“There is hype within our team, but it’s not from what other people are saying. We build our own hype from the work we put in. If we prepare the way I know we’re capable of, we could have a real special season.”
Michigan went 10-3 in Harbaugh’s first season, either because of or despite the culture change the new coach brought.
“When he first came here, it was a shock,” Butt said. “He got us out of his comfort zone. After two weeks, we were asking, ‘Is this going to keep up?’
“A year and a half later, we saw that it was.”
Everything in Michigan football is about competition and getting “1 percent better every day,” according to Harbaugh.
“He doesn’t take any days off,” Butt said. “He forces us to be tough. When you practice for four hours and you’re smashing into each other, you don’t have any choice but to be tough.”
Those four-hour practices in the offseason became known as “class on the grass.” The Wolverines appear to have learned well.
The defense, ranked fourth nationally last season, might be even better under new coordinator Don Brown, who came from Boston College after D.J. Durkin took the head coaching job at Maryland.
“I get a big smile about Don Brown every time I hear his name,” Harbaugh said. “He is a legend in my mind. Everything he has been associated with has been successful, even when he was the baseball coach at Yale.”
Brown, a 60-year-old with a cookie-duster mustache, hasn’t coached at a ton of high-profile schools. His résumé includes Plymouth State, Dartmouth, Mansfield and Northeastern. But his work is universally respected.
Said Harbaugh: “The number of people who come up to me and say, ‘Don Brown was the best coach I ever had,’ is amazing.”
Combine a powerhouse defense with strong special teams and an efficient offense that grinds on opponents physically, and the Wolverines definitely will be worth paying attention to.
And that’s regardless of how their coach acts.