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Michigan has coaching succession plan if Jim Harbaugh gets sidelined with virus

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said he, his coaches and staff, along with university doctors, have been thorough in their planning and considered every detail, including what might happen during the season if he were to test positive for COVID-19.

Harbaugh, appearing on the recent “In the Trenches” podcast with host Jon Jansen, said if he were to miss a game this fall in the event of a positive test, coordinators Don Brown and Josh Gattis would be next to take over for him on game day. Michigan has a plan prepared in case any coach has to miss a game.

“Succession plan? Sure,” Harbaugh said on the podcast. “Those are the two coaches that would be in that succession. At every position, not just myself, at every position on the staff (there’s a plan).”

Josh Gattis

Last month, Toledo head coach Jason Candle tested positive for the coronavirus but was not experiencing any symptoms. He planned to self-isolate for 10 days.

There's plenty of uncertainty regarding fall sports, but the Big Ten released a 10-game composite football schedule on Wednesday, and it provides flexibility if games must be postponed. Michigan opens against Purdue on Sept. 5 at Michigan Stadium -- it is unclear if there will be a limited number or no fans for games -- and then travels to Minnesota the following week. Michigan was originally scheduled to play MSU in East Lansing, but the game has been moved to Ann Arbor on Oct. 3. The most notable change is the Michigan-Ohio State game moved from its tradition spot at the end of the regular season to Oct. 24 in Columbus.

"The reaction was good,” Harbaugh said of seeing the schedule. “Like the players I felt, ‘OK, now we know who we’re playing our first game.’ We knew nine of the opponents we would have that were on the schedule and added Northwestern (at the end). Just a good feeling to see the schedule, know who your first game is against and I could tell with our players, coaches and staff, there was an enriched sense of enthusiasm and juice that everybody had at (Wednesday’s) workouts.”

Harbaugh was asked if it will feel “odd” to face Ohio State in October.

“I don’t know that it will or it won’t right now,” Harbaugh said. “We’re ready to play right now anybody, anywhere. We just want to play football games. There’s been so many guys who have trained so hard their entire life for this opportunity. They have played and put themselves in a position to have success.

“For those guys, those players that want to play, need to play, that’s the one that we’re all willing to bend over backward for so they can have the opportunity to do that.”

Don Brown and Jim Harbaugh

Michigan opens preseason camp Friday. Here are other highlights from Harbaugh’s conversation with Jansen on the “In the Trenches” podcast:

►On how Harbaugh has managed the roller-coaster of news and emotions during the pandemic: “A lot of respect for the virus, even fear for the virus. But also the belief, the hope and strong feeling we, us together, we can be smarter than it and we can be stronger than it, and we can overcome it together. This is not an us versus them. This is us versus the problem and finding a solution.”

►On how to manage emotions heading into the season: “The Navy SEALs have a great way of saying it. They talk about Hell Week and not talking about how they’re going to get through the whole thing but getting to breakfast the next day. Living life in stages is what we’ve been doing under the advice of doctors and the Big Ten protocols for return, mitigating as much risk as we possibly can. Now we’re entering a phase that’s going to be training camp, football practice, and I really believe our team is ready for that with two great weeks of training and walkthroughs and really all being good news. The players have a tremendous amount of juice, especially (Wednesday) when the schedule came out and the (announced) protocols for testing and we also had really good news with all of our tests (Wednesday) came back negative. Well over 100 players tested and every single one of those tests came back negative. That’s how we’re doing it, putting it in God’s hands and moving forward.”

More: 'A weird look': In a year where nothing is normal, Michigan vs. Ohio State moves to October

►On what has been the key to so few positive test results: “It hasn’t been zero, but the biggest defenses you have are social distancing and wearing the mask and many other things, keeping a clean environment, really trying to create a bubble, the best bubble that we can. Not talking about the NBA bubble, but our bubble here on campus and within Schembechler Hall. Our staff, our university, our doctors have done an incredible job with the protocols put in, and we live them continuously and reinforce those and our players have really grown with those protocols and with that advice. They just keep getting better and better. That’s what we’ve been doing daily, weekly, continuously, day after day.”

Zach Charbonnet

►On what he has seen from his players during the pandemic: “They continue to love and support each other. I would talk about keeping them safe, mitigating risk but still also getting the training they need. That training has really been phenomenal the way they’ve come back in shape, especially strong. You could tell they were doing workouts on their own when they were not here. So when they came back here, they were very strong. About 60 percent of the team was in good shape cardiovascularly but that’s really grown. (Strength coach) Ben Herbert and his staff have done a great job and the players have done a great job. We have a conditioning test that we’ve been putting our players through and about 100 have passed that test, some are very close to passing that test. We are using that as a cardiovascular threshold but also as a baseline as well. Many of our guys took it to a new level, not just to pass the test but to compete and turn it into how fast they could go. It’s a test that measures speed, measures athleticism and measures endurance. There are guys who have taken that and blown it out of the water. There’s passing it and there’s crushing it.

"I could go through the names. Zach Charbonnet, for instance, was the fastest on the team in the different position tests at different times they have to make. Aidan Hutchinson was five seconds under what his prescribed time was for an average. Brad Robbins also an unbelievable job of over five seconds under his average time as a specialist.

"Our guys are ready. They’re ready for training camp to start and then some. And very excited to play. Many have worked so very hard in this offseason and also their entire life for this opportunity and the opportunity they put themselves in by their training.”

►On how Harbaugh has engaged the players during the pandemic and addressed concerns and questions: “Extremely productive. So many conversations through Zoom, through text, through individual calls, team-parent meetings, parent and player meetings, doctors have been on some of the calls, (athletic director) Warde Manuel, coaches and myself. The amount of feedback, the questions, the ideas, I’ve come to rely on them from our parents, from our players, from our staff and from our medical people. They really deserve so much credit. The medical personnel here, so many individuals who are going above and beyond for all of us, not just football but for all our student athletes, for our community, for our state. People who are working 15, 16 hours a day and sometimes you have these conversations with them at 10, 11 o’clock at night and they still have three, four hours of contact tracing they have to do and up the next morning doing it all over again. You can’t under-credit all the medical folk. I can tell you, tireless in their work ethic, their study. What they’re doing is so remarkable.”

►On how to keep the players safe when they engage in contact in practice: “No. 1, the testing (but) there’s other things. As we said, the two best defenses right now are social distancing and wearing a mask. All those things are put into place. All rules are being followed. Only 10 can be in a room. There are 10 or less depending on the size of that room. Then to the question of actually on the field, to the best of your ability you’ve tested and people out there are negative, then also other measures. The face shields, People are familiar with the ones that go from the top of the helmet to the top of the face mask. They have in the past protected the eyes and the face but (now) also a face shield over the mouth and over the face mask. When they’re not wearing that, they’re wearing a mask.

"Taking it to another level as we start practice that linemen that are going to come face to face, they’re going to be double protection wearing a mask plus the face shield over their helmet. We’re going to limit the reps that somebody is in continuously because we want them to get used to it and not be out of breath or overheated, those kind of scenarios. 

"So far, so good. As our guys wear their helmets now, you can see that face shield over the face mask, it does collect the spray that comes out of somebody’s mouth.”

►On whether he has worn one: “Yes. Another face shield the coaches wear and a mask under that as well."

More: B1G questions: Breaking down UM's, MSU's revised 2020 football schedules

►On whether they will limit reps until the players adjust to practice since there was no spring ball: “We had a very good thing happen this year where we’ve been able to have two weeks of walkthrough going into training camp. We’ve never had that. We’ve always gone from strength and conditioning right into training camp. This year we’ve had the strength and conditioning and then we’ve also had the ability to perform these walkthroughs. The last week has been with helmets. I feel like from a movement standpoint, from the standpoint of cardiovascular, our guys are in a good place regarding that. There’s going to be some catchup to the physical part of the game because we didn’t have spring practice, we didn’t have the tackling. Starting (Friday) we’ll be able to use equipment with blocking sleds, tackling dummies, those kind of tools."

►On if there is anything they can do to prevent exposure for a position group: “We all think of position group and meetings and closeness on the field, but it really goes back to wearing the mask and having social distance. Yes, you can do that on a football field. There’s plenty of drills you can space out. We’re not packing guys into meeting rooms. It’s a combination of Zoom and in person where we have six to eight feet distance between desks. And then, also day-to-day how we interact with each other. Cut down the communication when we’re just moving around not at practice, cut down the chit-chat, eat away from people, get your social distance. Warde Manuel had a very interesting stat that within in the athletic department, there hasn’t been anybody that has got the virus in the facility. That was good news, too.”