CHICAGO — Jim Harbaugh was always going to be the main attraction on the first day of Big Ten media days. And the Michigan coach did not disappoint.
On Monday, Harbaugh wore a Michigan hat with his gray suit because he said he forgot to get a haircut during his whirlwind offseason. He signed a fan’s bicep with a Sharpie, then told the fan to come back for another try Tuesday because he didn’t like the way his skin signature looked.
Of his appearance in a recent rap video, Harbaugh insisted that only “uptight white people” didn’t like it. He even claimed to have written one of the song’s lyrics (“Roughest team in the B-I-G!). At another point, Harbaugh used the word “meritocracy,” briefly wondered if he had just invented it, then looked disappointed when he learned it already existed.
In short, Harbaugh was the same guy who dominated offseason headlines with his quirkiness. Yet something was also different about him.
At this same event last year, Harbaugh was evasive and even difficult at times during his interview sessions. He refused to give many specific answers to the media horde looking to lap up the story of his return to college football. On Monday, though, he was playful and animated, willing to talk at length about his team and other issues.
It’s not hard to figure out what has changed. The Wolverines came to Chicago last summer as a curiosity, boasting a superstar coach but not much else. Now they’re coming off a 10-win season and returning one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten. It would be a stretch to say the manic Michigan man was relaxed, but he certainly seemed comfortable and confident heading into Year 2.
“We have big hopes,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got big dreams. We’ve got lofty goals. And all those are achievable.”
Michigan isn’t the Big Ten favorite, per se. The league doesn’t do a preseason poll, and the media surveyed by Cleveland.com overwhelmingly picked Ohio State to win the conference. But the Wolverines have been ranked in the top 5 by several prognosticators, and more money has been wagered on them winning the national title than any other team.
The hype is immense, especially for a program that hasn’t even shared a Big Ten title since 2004. While Michigan players didn’t exactly embrace those expectations, they didn’t shy too far away from them, either.
“We don’t really get caught up too much in the rankings, but I definitely do think we have a swagger,” tight end Jake Butt said. “We know we have talent, experience and leadership in our coaches and our players. The hype within our team comes from the work we’ve been putting in.”
Like Butt, cornerback Jourdan Lewis was an All-American last season who decided to return to Ann Arbor rather than enter the NFL draft. Lewis was so excited about this year’s prospects that Harbaugh’s grueling four-hour practices — which Lewis described as “like a Titanic movie” in 2015 — didn’t bother him in the spring.
“After you saw those 10 wins, we knew we could do something special,” Lewis said. “I really want to win a Big Ten championship and a national championship.
“It’s definitely a culture shift, and you can feel it through coach Harbaugh. If you want to call that swagger, then yeah, he’s bringing that back. And we’re trying to get that tradition back.”
Rival fans may still look skeptically at the Wolverines. They’re 1-7 in their past eight games against Michigan State, an even worse 1-11 in their past 12 tries versus Ohio State. They have to go on the road this season to face both East Division opponents, who will share the stage at media days on Tuesday. The Buckeyes and Spartans deserve more benefit of the doubt at this point.
“We’re not chasing anybody,” Lewis said. “We’re just trying to be [the] best we can be. You can’t say we’re chasing anybody because everybody is 0-0 right now.”
Harbaugh emphasized several times on Monday that Michigan just needed to focus on getting better every day. But he also didn’t dispel any grand notions for this year’s team.
“We want to dream those dreams so much that people will laugh at us,” he said. “If they’re not laughing at us, then we haven’t set high enough goals.”
Harbaugh was at his amusing best on Monday. But few people are laughing at the Wolverines’ aspirations these days.