You can't understand Michigan culture until you take in a game in the Big House. Not so that you can observe the football team, which has faltered for nearly a decade, but so that you can observe the context in which that struggle has occurred.
Every other TV time out, the university sends athletes from various eras onto the field for curtain calls while the PA lists their achievements. "2014 Big Ten Champions, 1978 national champions, Olympic Gold medalist," it goes on and on. Meanwhile, you find yourself next to decorated service members, business owners, doctors, and engineers.
The university's 40,000-plus students are essentially the cream of the crop, the kids in high school who were pushed to be the captain of the swim team, the football star, the valedictorian, or president of the science club. It's a culture of excellence where anything less receives zero tolerance.
There's also a country club feel. Outsiders are treated with mistrust. The Wolverines have been quick to dismiss anyone who fails to acknowledge the banners on the wall and suggests there might be a different way.
The same insistence on landing a "Michigan Man" who could restore the practices of the revered Bo Schembechler were used to justify bringing aboard Brady Hoke to rebuild the football program.
The Michigan way
Schembechler was all about team, toughness, and an insulated culture. He built up an expectation that Michigan would dominate any other program in the region.
"Those who stay will be champions" encapsulates Michigan's self-image. Only the best need even apply, but if you enter, you are elite. Although Schembechler never won a national title, his words still rang true, as no Michigan player who played four years under him graduated without a Big Ten ring.
Bo was a defensive-minded coach of the classic play base defense, stuff the run, and control the passing game philosophy. On offense, he brought a physical, "pro-style" tradition described by Michigan fans as manball.
Michigan's calling cards were fullbacks, wingbacks, tight ends, occasional option, ball-control passing, and, most importantly, brutality at the point of attack.
When Hoke failed to build a culture that could match Bo's standards with Bo's tactics, interim AD Jim Hackett suggested that Michigan should retire the "Michigan Man" mantra and look for the coach who'd match that excellence by whatever means came naturally. As it happens, they likely found both when they brought home Ann Arbor's favorite son, Jim Harbaugh.
Michigan's culture is resistant to non-manball strategies, and not just because it wasn't how things were done under Bo. There's also the region's talent, which is full of hefty road-graders but isn't overflowing with explosive athletes. Rich Rodriguez tried to pull about six athletes from the South or West Coast every year, which yielded stars like Jeremy Gallon and Denard Robinson.
However, an approach that relies on throwing a lot or spreading out opponents and relying on Rich Rod principles like "NAG" (numbers, angles, grass) to run the ball isn't perceived to match the identity of Michigan. Going around foes is not what Michigan men do.
The spread can be a passive offense, counting numbers and hitting 'em where they ain't, with a few exceptions. Within the various schools of spread offense, increasingly complex option strategies leave much of the decision-making in the hands of the defense. The offense is drilled to be efficient at attacking space with speed, rather than angles with power.
With pro-style sets and manball tactics (best defined as the use of formations with larger players to physically move opponents), a team takes more initiative and command over its own destiny. That's a major reason why many larger schools still favor pro-style traits over spread tactics. If you can recruit the biggest people in the country, why use tactics that allow your opponent to determine the terms? Instead, power over him.
Michigan is no exception to this rule. Indeed, Michigan is the rule.
The flirtation with spread tactics that came with the RichRod hire, who failed in part because the established culture failed to embrace him, was halted when Hoke sought to bring in a power-coast offense that would mix West Coast passing with power running. As it turns out, Hoke and his OCs were incapable of building a dominant culture. The Wolverines' record got worse each season as they phased out RichRod's players and schemes.
The Harbaugh way
If there's an argument to be made that manball is still a good strategy, Harbaugh has been making it. When he took over at Stanford, the program was coming off a season in which the offense finished 113th in the nation in offensive S&P, a dismal performance for even a bad power-conference program.
Harbaugh improved those numbers to 83rd in 2007, 31st in 2008, sixth in 2009, and third in 2010 as the Cardinal went 11-1 and won the Orange Bowl while ranking No. 3 in passer rating and No. 16 in yards per carry.
He was the one who popularized the power-coast offense. He used that notoriety as a launching pad into the NFL, where he then helped bring collegiate pistol-option strategies into the pro game.
At heart, Harbaugh is a quarterbacks coach with a West Coast passing game. He relies on concepts with horizontal and vertical stretches to create clear reads for his signal caller. Many of these concepts require a great receiver at the Y position, but unlike at many programs, Harbaugh's system won't allow him to just move a good receiver inside.
Why? Because you can't go toe-to-toe with a loaded box if you put three or four receivers on the field. Harbaugh will use spread sets, but he'll always use tight ends, H-backs, fullbacks, or wingbacks so he can run the dang ball.
Harbaugh's offense features a brutal running game of the sort that even SEC programs dream of fielding. You can see it in how Stanford blocked power and zone under their OL coach, now Michigan OC, Tim Drevno.
Many teams use double teams with the goal of controlling defensive linemen so OL can advance to the second level and maul linebackers. Harbaugh's teams take the opposite approach, looking to get under the DL and drive them off the ball while seeking to control linebackers at the second level.
Stanford's attention to getting strong double teams on DL made penetration by the defense difficult. In 2009, Stanford led the country with the fewest tackles for loss allowed. It increased their efficiency, as three- to five-yard gains became nearly guaranteed. Their ability to stop penetration even allowed Stanford to run on 10-man boxes.
Most offenses, especially spread systems, have to deal with the possibility of the defense dictating the terms. Baylor threw the ball all over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, but when the Spartans determined to take the run away, the Bears were at the mercy of their own ability to move the chains with the pass. They couldn't burn clock, made mistakes, and allowed the Spartans a chance to make a dramatic comeback.
You can't dictate like that to Harbaugh's offense. If he wants to run out the clock, his system can do it over your protestations. He'll put big blockers on the field, move people to create angles, and smash you at the point of attack.
His offense brings the same approach to double teams in the zone running game.
It's difficult to tell at first glance if this is zone left or right, since the OL aim for the DL to drive them backwards. The running back manipulates the linebackers, the fullback picks one off, and the back makes a cut off-tackle.
Harbaugh will also use his backfield blockers to trap linemen who are left unblocked, a tactic that has become very popular again among pro-style offenses. He motions wingers and H-backs across the formation before the snap to create leverage advantages and force defenses to reveal their intentions or make simpler calls. It's difficult for defenses to keep up with motion calls and stay in sound alignments against both runs and passes.
He'll also motion receivers into bunch sets. That makes it hard for defenders to prevent free releases with press coverage. It also sets up tight ends to draw defenders away so quicker receivers can settle underneath in open spaces.
Harbaugh football is not just "hit 'em in the mouth." There are sophisticated strategies, but they all serve a physical approach. As a defender, you know that after all the deception, someone big is going to run into you.
How Michigan landed him
The return of Jim Harbaugh to Ann Arbor appeared to be considered a longshot. But the twists and turns and a perfect storm of events brought the two sides together again. Finally.
Harbaugh + Michigan
Quarterbacks get coaches hired and fired. Hoke had an unimpressive run at Ball State before Nate Davis helped lead the way to the MAC Championship Game, which Hoke parlayed into the San Diego State head coaching job. There he found future NFL backup QB Ryan Lindley on the roster, enabling a turnaround from 4-8 in year one to 9-4 in year two.
When Michigan came calling, he didn't inherit a QB ready to run his system. It's likely that trying force square pegs Robinson and Devin Gardner into that round hole cost him his job.
Harbaugh has another advantage over many other head coaches, in that developing quarterbacks is his specialty. If you were hesitant to give him credit for developing Andrew Luck, his resume lists some 49ers teams that did well due to his ability to work with college spread-option QBs Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick.
Hoke did Harbaugh a few favors in re-stocking the roster with pro-style QBs rather than spread-option specialists. Current options for Michigan include junior Shane Morris, minimally accomplished senior Russell Bellomy, big redshirt freshman Wilton Speight (6'6, 234 pounds), and early enrolling freshman state champion Alex Malzone, plus perhaps another freshman.
The Wolverines were hurt in 2013 and '14 by a young OL. For 2015, they are better situated, after years of strong recruiting. Multiple outlets declared tackle Mason Cole a freshman All-American in 2014, and his fellow starters all return. Michigan should lead the Big Ten in returning starters overall, in fact.
The hardest part of building a pro-style offense might be developing tight ends. Harbaugh's system depends heavily on them, not just for flooding the field with blockers, but also for flooding zones with receivers. The Y position in particular has to be a receiver who can find soft spots in zones and do damage with the ball in his hands.
For the last few years, Harbaugh has had Vernon Davis in this role. At Michigan, he'll have 6'6, 250-pound Jake Butt and three others who caught passes in 2014, with a wide set of skills among them. There's a good chance he'll re-secure one-time Michigan commitment Chris Clark, a four-star prospect with ideal size and great receiving skills.
Hoke might as well have been recruiting for Harbaugh's eventual takeover.