'Coach wants a hug': UM players say Jim Harbaugh is a changed man

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh

Ann Arbor — Michigan running back Karan Higdon walked into coach Jim Harbaugh’s office Thursday morning, asked how he was doing and then ... gave him a hug.

That’s sort of the thing around Schembechler Hall these days.

“Coach wants a hug, gotta give coach a hug,” Higdon said Thursday night after practice.

The players have noticed a change in their coach in large part because he sought input from them after the bowl game that capped an 8-5 season. He held a team meeting in January after the bowl game, and they shared their feelings.

“We had a sour taste in our mouth,” Higdon said. “I did, he did, everybody in this facility. He was open, (saying) ‘What do we need to do? What can I do?’ How often do you see that from a coach, asking his players? That’s stronger than anything.”

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Higdon said Harbaugh has been reaching out more personally with the players. He wants them to feel comfortable enough to, well, give him a hug.

“That’s definitely one thing I’ve been proud of coach doing,” Higdon said. “He’s been more personal with the guys and more approachable. That’s definitely been helping. Coach is a football guru, and he’s been so focused on the game, and (now he’s) taking a step back from that and continuing to build stronger relationships with the players, changed our culture, changed our atmosphere around this facility, and it’s been great.”

Earlier in the week, linebacker Devin Bush Jr., said Harbaugh has stressed maintaining “positive energy” in Schembechler Hall, the football building.

“He’s always talking about our energy,” Bush said. “He’s bringing energy to a practice, off the field and on the field. He’s made changes off the field that we love, and he made changes on the field that we love. He’s becoming more aware of how things (are from) our perspective, how we feel about things

“I think he’s become more aware about the team.”

Harbaugh said last Friday after the first spring practice that he feels rejuvenated and said he had to look at his staff and team and himself an re-evaluation. He made several coaching changes, but the players seem more in tune with how he’s changed his approach with them.

Running back Chris Evans said there’s a distinct difference between spring practice a year ago and now, and that was evident in that team meeting in January.

“We could tell the light bulb in his head is on,” Evans said.

He has shared a hug or two with his coach.

“Sometimes he says, ‘Give me a hug sometimes,’” Evans said. “That’s what we do — we just go up and give him a hugs sometimes, see how his day is going.”

Chase Winovich, who decided to return for his final season of playing defensive end for the Wolverines, offered several suggestions for Harbaugh. He shared them with his coach even before making his decision to come back.

“I always say I’m in no position to make demands,” Winovich said Thursday. “I told him, ‘Hey, if I come back, these are some things that I really think we can improve on.’ I’ve been through years … I’ve seen a lot of coach changes (at Michigan), I’ve seen a lot of dietary changes, and I’ve personally had to transform my body, so I felt like I had some basis to go to him and say something.

“I basically said, they are providing a lot of food and spending a lot of money on food, I just said straight up I don’t think the players are eating it. That was a shock to him. He didn’t believe me at first. They did some research and they’ve done an overhaul of everything. They wrote down different restaurants that we get to go, certain amounts we get to go spend every week. They’re bringing in omelet bars and pasta stations, fresh food, so changed up that front.”

Winovich shared other opinions of how there could be improvement in the program.

“I thought the winter conditioning last year needed (to) switch it up a little bit because it felt like we were so focused on these competitions on Tuesday and Thursday, guys weren’t trying to lift on the other days, because it was just like, everything’s on the board,” he said. “You were trying to go out and win your fastest sprints. I felt that was across the board. Everybody was not trying to squat that heavy, so they were sandbagging to show their scores.

“I felt like we lost last winter in a way. I said if we could switch something up, that was just my opinion. Other people might think it works.”

Harbaugh hired Ben Herbert as the new strength coach, and Winovich said the players have responded well to the change.

“I felt like with coach Herb switching up and making so like our focus was on getting stronger and incorporating competition, rather than just being the competition,” Winovich said.

Winovich has had one hug with Harbaugh. “This is coach Harbaugh’s way of trying to combat the idea that he’s a boss,” Winovich said.

“I might be overstepping my boundaries, the thing about coach Harbaugh, he’s going to do whatever it takes for him to win. Whoever he’s got to bring in, he might have to say step down, he’s going to do whatever it takes. It’s not an easy thing to do, so kudos to him. It’s a cutthroat business and our faith is behind him as coach and obviously I’ve spoken with actions by coming back. We’re just ready to win and ready to stop talking about it. Let’s just go do it.”