NFL overtures, NCAA suspensions and fired assistants: Can Michigan get

  • Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Senior WriterAug 29, 2023, 07:00 AM ET


    • College football reporter.
    • Joined in 2008.
    • Graduate of Northwestern University.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Santa Ono’s phone pinged on Jan. 16 with intel that Jim Harbaugh would return to coach Michigan in 2023 and not bolt for the NFL, he did what any true blue Wolverines fan would do.

Ono grabbed his phone, opened X and started typing. But Ono isn’t just any Michigan fan — he’s the university president — and his text had come from a pretty good source: Harbaugh himself. Ono hit post.

Was this a Santa Scoop? A Har-bomb?

“I’m not your typical university president; I get excited and I really care about our teams,” Ono told ESPN. “So in this backdrop, I tweeted it out when [Harbaugh] texts me, ‘I’m staying.’ All I did was to say I’m excited that he’s staying and I told Warde.

“That’s all it was.”

Ono’s Harbaugh announcement and the addendum that he had communicated the news to athletic director Warde Manuel — not the other way around — set off alarms about the Harbaugh-Manuel relationship, which had reportedly frayed. Ono, not Manuel, had been the public face of the Harbaugh-NFL saga, first expressing the desire for Harbaugh to stay at U-M, then ultimately confirming the coach’s return.

The lingering speculation about the Harbaugh-Manuel relationship led Ono to mention the Harbaugh tweets, unprompted, during a joint interview with Manuel on campus in June.

“Warde and I have always been absolutely 150% aligned,” Ono said. “We both wanted [Harbaugh] to stay here. I want to be really clear about that.”

Michigan football is at its highest point in a generation under Harbaugh, but the rise has coincided with some turbulent times away from the field.

The Wolverines have won back-to-back outright Big Ten titles for the first time in 20 years and have made their first two College Football Playoff appearances. They have consecutive wins over archrival Ohio State, after going 1-15 in their previous 16 matchups. And they start this year No. 2 in the AP poll.

But the past six months have brought a decade’s worth of drama.

Harbaugh, after a second straight offseason of NFL flirtation, will begin 2023 serving a self-imposed three game suspension for NCAA violations committed during the COVID dead period.

In January, co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss was fired for alleged “computer access crimes.” In May, Michigan hired Shemy Schembechler — son of legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler — only to see him resign three days later because of offensive social media activity.

To this point, Michigan has navigated the self-generated storm clouds.

Said Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel of coach Jim Harbaugh: “Jim was a great coach before the pandemic, and he’s a great coach now. He made the adjustments that were necessary to do it, and I give him all the credit.” Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire

MICHIGAN’S RENAISSANCE IS significant, not only because of the hazards it has encountered but also because of how quickly the team has improved. The Wolverines completed a shortened 2020 season at 2-4 and faced significant questions about Harbaugh, who had become the first Michigan coach to start 0-5 against Ohio State and was 3-3 against Michigan State. Harbaugh overhauled much of his staff, and agreed to an incentive-laden contract with a reduced salary that also gave Michigan a more favorable buyout if it chose to fire him.

He then hired talented young assistants, leaned on a group of veterans to shift the culture in the locker room and doubled down on his run-heavy offense. Michigan entered the 2021 season unranked for the first time since Harbaugh’s debut season of 2015, but finished No. 3.

“That was a year where everybody was calling for me to fire Jim, because of losses in the pandemic, when you had kids opting out, kids that were sick, injuries that occurred. You had all these things that were so different,” Manuel told ESPN. “But Jim was a great coach before the pandemic, and he’s a great coach now. He made the adjustments that were necessary to do it, and I give him all the credit.

“You have to adapt, you have to learn, you have to modify, you have to change. And he did it. That’s why we are where we are today.”

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After 2020, Michigan players became more intentional about their shared goals. The fights that offensive lineman Zak Zinter saw in practices stopped. Wide receiver Roman Wilson saw the team’s biggest stars coming in for extra film study. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy saw divisive cliques splinter.

Team leaders like Josh Ross, Aidan Hutchinson, Brad Hawkins and Hassan Haskins would hold meetings, asking the group a simple question.

“What do we want to be as a team?” running back Donovan Edwards recalled.

The answer: a Big Ten champion that finally got the upper hand on Ohio State. After reaching those goals, the Wolverines focused on repeating their steps.

“That’s almost like the norm now,” McCarthy said. “It’s really special to be in the locker room where there’s not a single person that wouldn’t do anything for me and vice versa. That’s one of the main things you need. If we don’t have to worry about getting that chemistry, we can focus our efforts on the little stuff that’s going to make us even better.”

Michigan has transformed significantly since 2020, but that season remains a layered reference point for veterans like Zinter.

“I always think back to the 2020 season,” Zinter said. “Everyone wanted our heads. Everyone told us we were terrible, we sucked, Coach Harbaugh should be fired. We didn’t care about any of that. We knew what we had in the building. So it’s up to us older guys to be like, ‘Hey, all you know is winning, but it’s not always pretty.’ It’s not easy. You got to come in and work.

“And if there’s distractions, forget about it and move on.”

That mindset has been tested.



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McCARTHY REMEMBERS A Monday morning weight training session in the winter — perhaps an indicator of Harbaugh’s frequent NFL dalliances, he can’t pinpoint whether it happened in 2022 or 2023 — when Harbaugh was talking with an NFL team. Angst was building in Schembechler Hall.

Ben Herbert, Michigan’s director of strength and conditioning, began to speak.

“Let’s address the elephant in the room,” McCarthy recalled Herbert saying.

Herbert explained that Harbaugh was talking to an NFL team and might leave to pursue his dream of winning a Super Bowl. He said he supported Harbaugh and hoped the players would, too.

But it didn’t change that day’s plan.

“Coach Herb’s like, ‘We all know where he’s at. It doesn’t change what’s going on here,'” Wilson said. “We’re still about to put this work in. We’re still a great football team.”

Several players credited Herbert, one of Harbaugh’s most trusted assistants since his arrival in 2018, for helping the team overcome challenging moments.

Herbert, who was promoted to associate head coach last week, uses different strategies to redirect players.

Running back Blake Corum recalled being sent to the cold tubs before workouts, which are then done in wet shoes and clothes.

“He trains our mentals, and it helps with distractions,” Corum said. “So when stuff happens, it is what it is. We don’t think too hard about it.”

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Still, Harbaugh’s continued dialogue with the NFL is a factor in forecasting Michigan’s future. When the NCAA rejected the negotiated resolution from Harbaugh earlier this month regarding the alleged violations in 2020, some immediately speculated the coach wouldn’t be at Michigan when the full penalties ultimately came down. No other CFP contender has a coach who stirs NFL rumors like Harbaugh.

“It’s an ongoing thing, something that we treat as a really positive thing,” Harbaugh said in February. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.) “NFL franchises, NFL teams have a lot of interest in all of our personnel: coaches, players, staff. If somebody in our organization feels that’s going to benefit them professionally and personally, we say, ‘Have at it.’ We don’t hold anybody back.”

Harbaugh, who turns 60 in December, went 44-19-1 as San Francisco 49ers coach. He reached the Super Bowl once and the NFC Championship Game three times in his four seasons.

“Seeing what he did in San Francisco, I would have some interest, if I’m the GM or president or owner of an NFL team,” Manuel said. “So it is something we talked through. Jim was very open with me about it, each of the years, and I was open with him. Is it something you want to deal with every year? No, but it’s understandable that teams are interested in Jim, and given his longevity as [an NFL] player and his success as a coach, it’s also understandable that Jim might have some interest in talking to them.

“I don’t try to hold back people from having conversations about other things.”

Harbaugh’s NFL interest doesn’t worry Manuel because he believes the coach is “100% focused” on Michigan, which is thriving on the field.

“I’m here as long as Michigan wants me here,” Harbaugh said in February.

There have been other more delicate personnel challenges for the program, though. Manuel said Michigan responded exactly as it should have in the Weiss situation, immediately alerting university police. (He declined to comment further, citing an ongoing investigation.) The Schembechler situation “saddened” Manuel, who, like Harbaugh, played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan, and knew Shemy when he was growing up. Michigan now reassesses how it screens the social media of job candidates university-wide before making hires.

Michigan players have grown accustomed to changes, whether they’re the standard variety — defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald returning to the NFL after one year, for example — or more jarring, like Weiss. McCarthy was most directly affected by Weiss’ removal, but said Kirk Campbell, an analyst promoted to coach the quarterbacks, has been a “game-changer” for him.

“Coaches come and go,” Edwards said. “Like, [offensive coordinator] Josh Gattis left after my first year and it’s like, ‘OK, Sherrone Moore is stepping up.’ We love the coaches, but you can’t fall in love with them. It’s like leaving your parents to go to college. They’re not going to hold your hand forever.”

Although Harbaugh has contributed to potential distractions for Michigan, he hasn’t been a bystander to them. Wilson said Harbaugh addressed his NFL talks with the team, to ensure players would hear from him directly and not from social media.

“When it gets on Twitter, that doesn’t bother us, we already knew,” Wilson said. “It just feels better when Coach Harbaugh’s straight-up with us.”

After Michigan announced the self-imposed suspension for Harbaugh, the coach, who seemingly wanted to share his side of what happened with NCAA investigators, issued a short statement that read: “I will continue to do what I always tell our players and my kids at home: ‘Don’t get bitter, get better.'”

Asked earlier this month about how Michigan overcomes possible distractions, Harbaugh said the team is on “a happy mission.” Even one of his signature quotes — one borrowed from his father, Jack, a longtime college coach — has contributed to players remaining in the moment.

“It’s the beauty of my dad’s mantra: Attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” Harbaugh said. “He just frames it right there: Attack each day, attack this day.”

University of Michigan president Santa Ono cheers on the Wolverines men’s basketball team in January. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

THE SON OF Japanese immigrants, Ono was born in Canada but went to high school in Baltimore, where he developed a love of football. Ono felt the energy in the sport as he watched Colts stars Johnny Unitas and Bert Jones play on muddy fields at Memorial Stadium.

His excitement for football has only amplified since becoming Michigan’s president in 2022, after a six-year run at the University of British Columbia. Michigan has had presidents who supported football or at least recognized its value, but perhaps none was as immersed as Ono, who even threw passes with McCarthy and Manuel this spring.

Ono knew Manuel from their time in the Big East/American Athletic Conference — Ono was Cincinnati’s president, and Manuel was UConn’s athletic director — and said the AD was part of the draw to Michigan. Ono says he is in sync with Manuel and Harbaugh, calling them “three peas in a pod.”

“It’s incredible alignment,” Ono added. “If you look at a lot of the universities, you might have a president that barely knows there is a football team. That’s certainly not the case with me.”

Manuel and Harbaugh overlapped as players for the 1986 season under Bo Schembechler, when Harbaugh served as captain and Manuel was a freshman offensive lineman. Although Manuel did not hire Harbaugh, the two seemed like a natural pairing. During Manuel’s introduction as Michigan’s AD in 2016, Harbaugh interrupted, saying, “I just want to give you a hug!” He then presented Manuel with a personalized jersey.

“He’s been great for our athletic department and our university,” Harbaugh said in February of Manuel. “Nothing but good. I trust Warde; he trusts me.”

But Harbaugh has butted heads with his bosses at other stops. According to media reports earlier this year, his relationship with Manuel had deteriorated to the point where they barely spoke. Both Harbaugh and Manuel have pushed back against those claims.

“It doesn’t bother me, but it’s ridiculous,” Manuel told ESPN. “In any relationship, you’re going to have differences. That tension, in many ways, is healthy. It’s a healthy environment when you have discourse between two people working together so closely.”

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy and running back Donovan Edwards watch as TCU celebrates its playoff victory over the Wolverines. Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire

POSTSEASON SUCCESS IS the next, obvious goal for Michigan and Harbaugh. Michigan is 1-6 in bowls under Harbaugh, including the two CFP semifinal defeats. The team’s struggles on the national stage extend a pattern that stretches back decades, even during Schembechler’s tenure. Michigan has claimed only one national title since 1948. Since 1969, the year Schembechler took over as coach, Michigan is 7-18 in the five major bowl games it has played in: Rose, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Peach.

Players look at the Georgia and TCU losses very differently. Michigan had never been to the CFP before 2021, and faced a Georgia team that produced five first-round NFL draft picks and 15 total, a record for the seven-round draft era. Last year, Michigan faced TCU as a favorite, threw two pick-sixes and allowed 50% of third downs to be converted in a performance that didn’t resemble any other it had delivered all season. Michigan created a “Beat Georgia” period in practice to match the long-standing period labeled “Beat Ohio State.” There is no such designation for TCU.

“Definitely hurt a whole lot more,” McCarthy said of the TCU loss. “When I went in freshman year and we were playing the defense of the decade, it was like, ‘All right, let’s see what I can do.’ … But this TCU one, it was all in my hands. It was obviously a team effort, but I was in the driver’s seat. It’s just a whole different pain.”

One of the few links between both games was McCarthy remaining on the field long after each had ended. McCarthy listened to a podcast from Tim Grover, the longtime trainer for Michael Jordan, who advised not to run from losses.

“Sit in it, soak in it, like really sit there and embrace all the pain, all the regret, all the disgust that a loss like that can bring you,” McCarthy said. “What that did for me both times has been very, very profound going into the offseason, because I feel like I can now go back to that point and channel the pain of regret and anger and use that as a sense of motivation.”

Michigan is set up to push for its first national championship since 1997. The Wolverines have experience, star power and depth. They once again have a favorable schedule, which includes no nonleague games against power conference teams and four home contests to begin the season. They end with Ohio State visiting the Big House.

The all-too-familiar distractions will be there, too, starting with Harbaugh missing the first three games. Defensive lineman Kris Jenkins, a potential first-round pick, said in July that Harbaugh’s absence will “hurt our hearts,” but the coach has prepared Michigan’s players to charge forward, undeterred, just as they have during the past two years.

“There’s always going to be distractions, there’s always going to be adversity, and it’s always going to hit you at the most random points in time,” Jenkins said. “You’ve got to keep pushing, regardless of what happens in your direction, on your path, to be great.

“That’s what we try to do every day.”

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