Wojo: Wolverines' task grows taller, but Jim Harbaugh isn't surrendering

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Jul. 23—Amid the football talk, Jim Harbaugh cheerfully volunteered a mountain-climbing story, which seemed appropriate. The Wolverines have been climbing and slipping, climbing and slipping, for much of his six seasons. You do it long enough without reaching the top, you might be inclined to surrender.

Harbaugh has surrendered some things, including hubris and salary. He has altered his look — no omnipresent Block M cap at the podium at Big Ten Media Days. He completely altered his coaching staff, adding six new assistants. In some ways, Harbaugh has bowed to decorum, and with all the changes, admitted to faults.

But don't misread it. He's still committed to climbing, and invigorated to try again. He stood Thursday on the Lucas Oil Stadium field in Indianapolis, the figurative mountaintop, site of the Big Ten championship game, a place the Wolverines have never reached. If anyone expected a defeated or defiant Harbaugh, not there. He was upbeat and engaging as he spoke to the assembled media, a positive demeanor that doesn't guarantee success, but is far from surrender.

"I'm here before you as enthusiastic and excited as I ever am, even more, to have at it, to win the championship, beat Ohio and our rival Michigan State, everybody," Harbaugh said. "That's what we want to do. And we're going to do it or die trying."

Michigan taking fresh approach to stop slide against Ohio State

This sounds like one more shot, all the chips pushed in. Adapt or die, right?

Michigan football has been at this point for a while, without a Big Ten title since 2004. Harbaugh still doesn't have a clear identity for his team, or even for himself. The Wolverines are pegged to finish third or fourth in the Big Ten East, behind Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana. Most projections have them around 8-4.

It's unusual to enter a seventh season with this much uncertainty but he's an unusual coach and Michigan is an unusual place, tied tightly to traditions and dated ideals. I have no problem with AD Warde Manuel giving him another shot, partly because the 2-4 pandemic season was difficult to define (and impossible to defend), and also because Harbaugh is 49-22 at Michigan.

This offseason was about one message: Not good enough. Fans made the point loudly, furious about an 0-5 record against Ohio State and last year's inexplicable loss to Michigan State. Mel Tucker's rivalry stunner in his first season with the Spartans was a huge perception-shaker, for both programs. Manuel made the point with a modest contract extension that sliced Harbaugh's annual salary from $8 million to $4 million — incentives could push it higher — with a lower buyout.

Harbaugh is taking a flyer on a bunch of young, spirited assistants. Based on his career track record, it's a worthwhile flyer. Based on his recent record (Michigan is 11-10 since late-2018), an unproven roster and a tough schedule, the mountain sure looks steep.

The defense has questions everywhere, outside of end Aidan Hutchinson and safety Daxton Hill. Don Brown and his uber-aggressive scheme is gone, replaced by Mike McDonald, 34, who has never been a defensive coordinator and arrives from the Ravens with the sibling endorsement of John Harbaugh.

The best-case scenario on offense is Cade McNamara battles five-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy and develops into a precise passer and decisive decision-maker. Michigan has a batch of good backs in Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum and freshman Donovan Edwards, a decent receiving corps and some talent and experience on the offensive line.

McNamara is the latest quarterback project, and his decent stint last year spurred the transfer of Joe Milton, the previous latest quarterback project. One way Harbaugh can save his legacy: Finally find a quarterback who sticks.

"Cade McNamara has done a tremendous job," Harbaugh said. "You talk about taking the reins and leadership, that's something he has done. He's a fiery competitor. He's got that gene. J.J. McCarthy has some of those very same qualities. He's got the athletic ability to get it done, but Cade McNamara is not letting him take it away."

We've heard it before, so you're entitled to be skeptical. The no-surrender motivational approach plays well in the summer, we'll see about the fall. Harbaugh isn't ducking or denying the pressure, which is encouraging. Frankly, he's embracing it, as if it's liberating. At a high school clinic in January, he posted six personal goals, and the final one simply read: "Do not be scared of any man, moment, circumstance or of being fired."

Something that was unthinkable when he was the brightest coach available six years ago could easily become plausible. I think this is a two-year window for Harbaugh with his new staff, but if the Wolverines don't beat the Spartans or Buckeyes, or both, anything could happen. When you talk about heat on Big Ten coaches, the conversation centers on Harbaugh and Nebraska's Scott Frost, former quarterbacks struggling to find great success at their alma maters.

Asked about the hot-seat topic, Harbaugh took another tact.

"I look at it like people are trying to discourage you," he said. "It's almost like WWII propaganda machines — 'Stop, quit, no need to try, you have no chance. Don't even try any further'. No, we don't subscribe to that at all."

Harbaugh had great success with the 49ers, moderate success here. It's hard to reinvent oneself at 57 but he's determined to alter the mentality and lift the negativity. Only two assistants are in the same position as a year ago — third-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and defensive line coach Shaun Nua — and former Michigan stars Mike Hart and Ron Bellamy have come aboard.

"(The new coaches) are young, energetic, relatable," linebacker Josh Ross said. "It's about attacking and stacking the days and having a purpose."

Harbaugh's purpose is to take a different path up the hill. He told his story of hiking a mountain with his wife Sarah and daughter Addie, and after about 15,000 steps, they were close to the apex. Addie implored them to keep going, a metaphor you can bet the team will emphasize.

"(Addie) said we got to get to the top," Harbaugh said. "You're darn right we do. She's got that gene in her and I was darn glad to see it. We got that gene in us, we got to get to the top."

Necessary changes were made but the mountain hasn't moved. Somehow, it's even higher. So much swirls anew in college football — COVID variants, NIL opportunities for players to make money, pending conference and playoff realignments, the transfer portal — you can lose your footing very easily. Michigan and Harbaugh still have a chance to find their way, but every step is treacherous now.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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