ANN ARBOR — This is the Jim Harbaugh Michigan hired.
When then-interim athletic director Jim Hackett fired Brady Hoke in 2014, there was only one person who could be the replacement: the irascible, successful, eccentric Harbaugh. The guy who won at places not used to winning, doing so with an edge, apologizing for nothing, and making enemies out of the vanquished.
Like the final minutes of Saturday’s 42-7 beatdown of No. 14 Penn State when Harbaugh challenged a completed pass with the hopes of preserving a shutout, poking James Franklin, who tried to run up the score on Michigan last season.
“We wanted our lunch money back,” senior defensive end Chase Winovich said. “The bank’s closed on Sundays, but we’ve got some deposits to make.”
VIDEO: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh
Harbaugh is a Michigan Man for all seasons, someone who can repair the Wolverines’ tarnished reputation. He doesn’t just win games, he annoys opponents with a swagger that sends fan bases into Twitter tantrums.
Reclamation projects at the University of San Diego, Stanford, and the San Francisco 49ers overflowed with opulence. “Extreme Makeover: Harbaugh Edition” became a King Midas redux — everything he touched turned to gold.
An overdose of adversity greeted him in Ann Arbor. Michigan won 10 games in each of Harbaugh’s first two seasons, but they narrowly missed out on the College Football Playoff in 2016, didn’t beat Ohio State either year, and lost to Michigan State in spectacular fashion in 2015. A disastrous 8-5 season last year welcomed Harbaugh and the Wolverines like a bowl of warmed up oatmeal.
When Michigan lost at Notre Dame on Sept. 1, it was UM’s fourth consecutive loss and Harbaugh-to-the NFL rumors were in overdrive. Pundits frequently point out Harbaugh’s record through 40 games — 28-12 — was only one game better than Hoke’s.
The comparisons were cute, serving a purpose for trolls, but they always were misguided. Eight games later, Michigan hasn’t lost again and it looks the part of a playoff team. Shea Patterson is the quarterback Harbaugh’s coveted, tailback Karan Higdon is making headlines, and the top-ranked defense is a suffocating menace.
“We’re extremely confident, especially the way this defense is playing,” Patterson said. “I think we truly care about each other and have each other’s back out there. It adds another dimension to your team, something positive and something that you need to have to keep winning. We’re just going to ride the wave.”
A brotherhood was most evident inside the visitor’s locker room at Spartan Stadium, where during a raucous celebration, Harbaugh, as hardened a soul as there is, became emotional in thanking his team for having his back.
Through it all, Harbaugh has rediscovered the antagonism blended with superior coaching. He’s targeted Mark Dantonio and Michigan State, he’s gone for it on fourth down, and his toughness has been instilled into a group that consistently wilted during the second half of the 2017 season.
As a program, Michigan’s been in lockstep with its coach, refusing to back down and issuing statements that lead to insults of being insufferable. Better to be hated than ignored, which is what the Wolverines have been since 2008.
No more questions about losing to Michigan State, no more questions about winning big games, no more questions about Michigan’s national aspirations. All that’s missing is an elusive victory against Ohio State and Michigan’s first Big Ten championship since 2004.
Those two jewels no longer feel like a needle in a haystack. It was implausible Sept. 2. However, fast forward two months and the fifth-ranked Wolverines actually are expected to achieve those previously unattainable goals.
“There’s a little bit more confidence in this team,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said. “And confidence is a funny thing. It just continues to grow.”
At twilight Saturday, with the outcome all but decided, Michigan Stadium broke out in song, fists rising in the air, the Big House serenading its 111,747 inhabitants with a chorus of “The Victors.” UM’s campus was brimming with optimism not seen in more than a decade, waiting patiently for Nov. 24.
“Our stadium had a different feel tonight,” Harbaugh said. “It felt like the old days. Just energized. It was a Saturday at Michigan in Ann Arbor, the way it’s supposed to be, the way I remember it. It gives me chills.”
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