Dan Kildee diagnosed with cancer: 'I am going to get through this'

However unorthodox, Harbaugh's message sinks in

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a 9-3 record and a New Year's Day bowl game in his first season.

Ann Arbor – Ask the Michigan players for a story about their coach from this past season, and they all come up with something different.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who turned 52 on Wednesday, has not failed to provide unique moments for his players, let alone the media. He regularly quotes movies, historical figures and philosophers, he has offered advice to young Halloween trick-or-treaters, shared his preferred foods -- including steak and whole milk -- and he sometimes puts his own spin on oft-quoted messages.

Harbaugh, in his first season coaching his alma mater, led the Wolverines to a 9-3 regular season, 6-2 Big Ten. They will face Florida in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on New Year's Day and hope to reach 10 wins, which would double Michigan's win total from last season.

He has electrified the fan base by generating improved play and reviving interest in a program that has not consistently found success since 2007.

Harbaugh also has left his mark on his players. Senior linebacker Desmond Morgan said his most memorable interactions with Harbaugh, the ones Morgan said left him "in awe," came the night before games during speeches to the players.

"Still, to this day, the one that stands out to me the most is he was talking the night before the game and said, 'You know, a lot of people talk about you either look at the glass half-full or half-empty,'" Morgan said, smiling at the memory. "And he goes, 'I don't know why people do that because my opinion is, if you don't like what's in your cup, then empty it out and fill it up with something new, and if you're going to fill it up, might as well fill it all the way up.'

"That's just the way he looks at things. I swear, it's always a day later, maybe a few days later, it's like, 'Wow, there's actually meaning there.' It takes a while to realize that."

Speech with some punch

Special teams coach John Baxter had a four-foot long wooden pencil in the meeting room. Tight end Jake Butt remembered the day the pencil paid the price of being in the same space with Harbaugh.

"Coach Harbaugh was demonstrating to the offense how we need to punch and step at the same time when we block, and he has a podium he uses sometimes to hold his notes," Butt said. "He just went up, and he's like, 'This is how some people do it,' and he kinda punched it real softly.

Jake Butt and the Wolverines say it took time to understand Jim Harbaugh and his anecdotes.

"He's like, 'This is how it should be done,' and punched this podium, sent it flying across the room, hits the pencil, breaks the pencil. And we're all sitting there like, 'Whoa, what just went on here?' It was hilarious."

The players have stories. Lots of them.

Sometimes they don't know where to begin.

"He always tries to tell this story about the philosopher," senior safety Jarrod Wilson said. "He acts like he's never told us before. He just keeps trying to tell us. And we're like, 'Coach, we heard it already.'"

But Wilson said regardless how many times he heard the story – the message was that fate is in your hands – he never rolled his eyes or became distracted.

"I always listen, because he's conveying a message," Wilson said. "They may be kind of off-the-wall, but I know he's trying to present us with a message through those odd stories. To him they may not be odd, to us they may be, but he's still trying to get the message to us, and most of the time I understand them."

The players admit it took some time to understand Harbaugh and his anecdotes. What initially seemed strange has become normal.

"I knew he was an intense guy, but ... it was just kind of a shock because it was a lot different from what we were used to," Butt said. "But now it's not strange. It's the kind of guy he is. He's an all-out competitor."

Building a foundation

This time last year, the Michigan players did not know who would be their next head coach. Interim athletic director Jim Hackett kept them informed as much as he could, meeting with them and giving them a sense of the search process. Hackett, who became interim AD on Oct. 31 when Dave Brandon resigned, fired Brady Hoke after a 5-7 season and the retired Steelcase CEO famously described how he would use "swim lanes" to find the next coach.

"Through December, it was a guessing game for us," said senior fullback Joe Kerridge, a co-captain. "We just knew somebody great was going to come and lead this program."

Jim Harbaugh is approaching his one-year anniversary as Michigan's coach.

Harbaugh, who spent the previous four seasons coaching the San Francisco 49ers, was introduced as Michigan's new coach on Dec. 30. He "met" the team via teleconference that day.

"It was an exciting time for us to know we had a coach and a great one coming in," Kerridge said.

Kerridge said he fully expected a quick turnaround from 2014 to 2015 with regard to on-field success.

"It was a perfect storm," Kerridge said. "We were hungry, and Coach Harbaugh is the same way no matter what league he's in, no matter what team he's coaching. He has that enthusiasm and energy and we were waiting for it and we embraced it."

Wilson believed Harbaugh would return to the program to its winning tradition.

"This team was very hungry this season," Wilson said. "Coach Harbaugh, look at his track record. For him to be able to come in here and guide us to nine wins like he did also shows he's a great coach, not just us being an eager football team.

"It doesn't surprise me at all we improved. This was a team that was eager to be better. We know last year we didn't do a good job. And so this team came together and with a brand new head coach, sold out for him. We played as hard as we can and made it to nine wins."

Kerridge, Morgan and center Graham Glasgow were members of the 2011 team that won 11 games including the Sugar Bowl. They watched as the program floundered the following three seasons.

And now Kerridge believes the team this season has laid the foundation for something significant.

"It's been quite a ride the past five years," Kerridge said. "My freshman year I was redshirted and we were Sugar Bowl champions, then going through the other seasons, there were ups and downs. ... It's great to be able to go out on a higher note."

Citrus Bowl

Michigan vs. Florida

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Jan. 1, Orlando (Fla.) Citrus Bowl Stadium

TV / radio: ABC / WWJ 950

Records: No. 14 Michigan 9-3, No. 19 Florida 10-3

Line: Michigan by 4

Series: Michigan leads 2-0