|University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh at the 2015 Michigan spring game. What he’s doing may have implications that go far beyond college football. Source: mgoblog.com|
College football fans, this month University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is in the middle of a 39-site, 22-state and three country (USA, Australia and American Samoa) satellite football camp tour where he and his staff are spreading the gospel of Michigan football. They are going anywhere high school football talent exists, coaching players up in the Michigan way, and leaving indelible impressions on impressionable minds. Yes, it’s controversial. Today’s college football establishment in the South can’t stand the idea of a Big Ten school lurking in their midst. Yet here they are.
It may seem mighty strange to say it, but Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh may be showing the rest of the Rust Belt exactly how you put together a restoration. His approach may be a template for the way Rust Belt cities can recapture their glory.
I don’t think it often comes across here on this blog, but I’m a big football fan. A huge college football fan. A massive University of “Mee-chigan” football fan. I began to develop a child’s interest in sports shortly after Bo Schembechler took over as coach of Michigan in 1969, and I was won over by their dominance over the Big Ten and colossal battles with rival Ohio State during the 1970s. Michigan and Ohio State fans know all about the “Ten Year War” between 1969 and 1978 that saw Schembechler and Ohio State coach Woody Hayes face off annually with national championship implications. Unfortunately for both schools, stringent conference rules that prohibited teams from participating in bowls other than the Rose Bowl, and a few bad breaks on the field, prevented either from winning national championships during this period. But I was hooked. (Full disclosure: I didn’t attend Michigan. I grew up in Detroit but moved to Indiana while in high school. I desperately wanted to go there but out-of-state tuition was out of the question for our family at the time. Still, I applied there as a senior and one of my proudest possessions is a University of Michigan acceptance letter.)
College football fans know that Michigan has a long and storied history in college football. Michigan football stretches back to 1879. Michigan was one of early college football’s most successful programs, winning multiple national championships at the same time that the auto industry was taking hold in the state in the early 20th century. Michigan has gone on to win more games than any college football team, and has the second highest winning percentage of all time, after Notre Dame. Michigan claims 11 national championships in the sport, with its last being in 1997. Michigan is the owner of one of the most iconic uniforms and distinctive helmet design in the sport. Michigan holds the largest football stadium in the nation with more than 107,000 seats, and has led all of college football in attendance for nearly all of the last 45 years. Michigan football developed a strong culture of power, toughness and discipline on and off the field, and created not only successful future pro football players, but successful men in all endeavors. The program is the epitome of tradition and success.
Or, once was. And this is where you can see how the fortunes of Michigan football and Rust Belt cities are linked.
You could say that Michigan football had early national success in the sport in the 1900s and ’10s, another period of sustained success in the ’40s, and a third peak of sustained success in the ’70s. Since then Michigan has been doing everything it can to recapture the glory, sometimes succeeding, as in 1997 (and to a lesser extent in 1989, 2004 and 2006), but generally entering a long and slow slide into mediocrity ever since. Things bottomed out in 2008, when Michigan had a record of 3-9 and ended its consecutive bowl game streak at 33 seasons, the third longest of all time. Why the slide? Many reasons, but it could be boiled down Michigan not being able to “own” the sport the way it used to, with increasing competition from schools in the South and West.
Michigan’s football nadir corresponded with its attempt to play the game the way other new winners were beginning to play it. In 2007 Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez as its coach — an innovator of the spread offense that was — and still is — taking college football by storm. Many people (including me) thought his new approach would invigorate the program with the kind of scheme and talent that would make it successful once again. But Michigan’s power-and-toughness players weren’t built for the transition to speed and deception, and it showed in 2008. After 2010 Michigan fired Rodriguez and hired Brady Hoke, who promised a return to Michigan football. He delivered early, but Michigan again slid back. Hoke was fired after the 2014 season.
Enter Jim Harbaugh.
Jim Harbaugh was one of Michigan’s most successful quarterbacks during the ’80s who went on to a fantastic NFL career. After playing he went into coaching, first at the University of San Diego, then at Stanford, and then for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. He had incredible success at each stop, and emulated the power-and-toughness tactics he learned while playing for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. When the head coach position at Michigan opened up in 2014, he jumped at the chance to return to college football — seen as a step backwards by NFL observers, but clearly the opportunity of a lifetime for Harbaugh. His first season saw Michigan return to respectability with a 10-3 record and a bowl win, and the Wolverines enter the 2016 season as one of the top challengers for the four-team College Football Playoff this year.
How has Harbaugh brought the program back? In my mind, five things stand out:
- Emphasize the qualities that made the program great, but update them for a new era. Harbaugh’s brand of power football — a punishing running game, stout defense — has worked at every level. However, he’s tweaked it significantly from power football of old in the ’70s and ’80s, with formations, motions and principles gleaned from the spread innovators. It confounds opponents. But it’s still power — and that pleases him, the players and the fans that grew up on that identifiable Michigan style.
- Utilize your legacy assets to their fullest extent. Michigan had the foresight and the ability to build a massive football stadium in the 1920s. Doing so, and filling it regularly, was just one step in developing a unique set of legacies that set Michigan apart from other football powers. An outstanding academic reputation, top notch athletic and academic facilities and a full integration of the athletics system into the overall university make Michigan unique, and it sells that quality to recruits.
- Make your story national. A partial list of some of the states that the Michigan satellite camp will visit; Indiana; Ohio; New Jersey; Georgia; Florida; Texas; California; Hawaii. With the exceptions of Indiana and Hawaii, these are some of the most talent-rich high school football states in the nation. Harbaugh and the athletic department have taken great pains to send invitations to high schools near each camp site, and invite other in-state college coaches to participate in camp drills. This, along with Harbaugh’s shrewd marketing on social media (454,000 Twitter followers and some of the best subtweeting around) firmly establishes that “something good is happening” at Michigan.
- Make attraction — not retention — your trademark. Kinda related to the above, but let me explain where Harbaugh’s approach differs. For decades, Michigan relied heavily on players from the Big Ten footprint (i.e., the Midwest), with scattered numbers from elsewhere across the country. As Michigan began its slide a decade ago, there were calls from a segment of Michigan fandom that the Wolverines needed to lock down Midwestern talent to be great again (case in point: Flint native Mark Ingram left the state of Michigan to play football at Alabama, where he won a Heisman Trophy and a national championship). But Harbaugh wants the best, the hungriest, from anywhere, and promises he can make them better. That’s the difference between building a walled fortress and a powerful engine.
- Don’t be afraid to challenge the establishment. I understand how Harbaugh grates on many. He indeed does appear to be a totally unique personality with an exceptional competitive drive. Hey, maybe he is crazy. But he’s used that drive to take on the powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC), home of eight of the last ten national champions and blessed with some of the most fruitful recruiting grounds in America. He’s recognized that if he’s going to win and win big, he’s got to be disruptive.
Let’s bring this back to cities. These points clearly seem like a winning recipe for Rust Belt urban rebound as much as the restoration of Michigan football among the college football elite.
There’s been so much bad stuff written about the Rust Belt over the last fifty years that we often forget what was good. Manufacturing and the jobs it brought created a middle-class economy and culture in the Midwest that other regions wish they had, but that economy and culture is indeed in need of an update. Perhaps the Rust Belt is well suited to addressing the issues of income inequality that are growing nationwide. Rust Belt cities have unparalleled legacy institutions, from excellent hospitals to top universities, and they can provide the foundation for sustainable growth. Decades of derisive commentary about them (and a culture of modesty) make Rust Belt cities a little fearful of blowing their own horn, but the Harbaugh approach shows how it can work in the region’s favor. The walled fortress/powerful engine metaphor is apt; retention is not about growth but the status quo. Attraction means your building an engine that requires fuel to sustain it. Lastly, there was a time when Rust Belt cities were the establishment in America, but we must now recognize that the power has shifted south and west. Rust Belt cities cannot be afraid to call out actions and policies that favor one region at the expense of another.
I love Michigan football every bit as much as I love Rust Belt cities and all they represent. It would be great to see them both return to glory — together.