Under-the-radar Michigan sets about changing culture after struggles
Indianapolis — There has been little buzz about Michigan football during Big Ten Media Days and certainly on the national level, as well.
A 2-4 team last year with staff upheaval as Jim Harbaugh enters his seventh season isn’t exactly moving the needle. The Wolverines, in an informal media poll this week by Cleveland.com, are picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten East, behind Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana.
“It’s fair,” senior returning captain Aidan Hutchinson said of the lack of interest in Michigan. “We went 2-4 last year. We have no reason to have any attention on us. We have a ton of good guys who are so eager to play, but at the end of the day, you go 2-4, you’re not going to be seen as you were in the past, and that’s just the truth of it. We’re fired up to prove everybody wrong.”
Ohio State has won four straight Big Ten titles and is by far the pick to win the conference again. Even before Michigan’s dismal season last fall, interest in Michigan on the national stage had waned. Not beating Ohio State, struggling in big games, particularly on the road, and never reaching a Big Ten championship game under Harbaugh had dulled the spark he brought to Ann Arbor when he arrived before the 2015 season.
Even so, Michigan players said this week they like being under the radar.
“That’s the way we want it, to be honest with you,” senior linebacker and returning captain Josh Ross said. “We want to be the underdog. We want everybody to say whatever you want to say, because we know the work we’ve been putting in, and nobody has been seeing the work we’ve put in but us. They’ll see it when we show it.”
The offseason changes have been well-documented, starting with the firing of defensive coordinator Don Brown last December and the new-look, younger staff. Mike Macdonald, who spent the last seven years with the Baltimore Ravens, is now a first-time defensive coordinator. Only one assistant, defensive line coach Shaun Nua, was retained on that side of the ball, and Harbaugh hired former Michigan players Mike Hart and Ron Bellamy as assistants.
Was a coaching change needed?
“I think coach Macdonald has done a great job since he’s been here,” Hutchinson said.
Ross said he loved playing for Brown, the coach who recruited him to Michigan.
“That’s how the coaching game goes,” he said. “But turning the page over, really, really glad and excited to keep growing and keep pushing with Mike Macdonald because he’s a great coach, and we as players love him, we trust him, we’re ready to go out there for him.”
Hutchinson said some of the issues last season were not limited to that year. He referenced the 2018 and 2019 seasons and said there was something amiss with the team culture even then.
“I can go on about it, but I probably won’t,” Hutchinson said. “There were a lot of things, not wrong about our culture, but things that needed to be improved. I think we’ve made those changes in the offseason and we’ve improved the culture of the team.”
Culture is one of those catchwords that can have a variety of definitions when applied to a team. Hutchinson said his thinking on the subject has evolved since he arrived at Michigan.
“I thought it was more about X’s and O’s, about being in the right gap and guys not being in the right gap, and that’s why we’re losing ballgames,” Hutchinson said. “I was enlightened by coach Mac. He came in, and we discussed this, talking about culture, the importance of it. He opened my eyes to, you can have the greatest X’s and O’s, the greatest plays, but if your team is not fully bought in, and your team isn’t 1,000 percent invested in what you’re doing, it’s going to fail.
“That’s something I didn’t really think of. You’ve got a good D coordinator coming in, you’re going to be a good football team. That’s not the case. It all starts with that good foundation of a good culture and guys being invested in the program.”
Hutchinson’s 2020 season ended at Indiana when he suffered a broken ankle. He is fully healed and participated in individual drills but Macdonald held him out of contact to be safe. Hutchinson, projected a high NFL Draft pick next year, will be used in multiple ways this season, something that excites him, but he is more motivated by building the program.
“That’s one of the reasons I came back is to change this culture, because I knew I was going to be a big part of it,” Hutchinson said. “I know guys see me as the leader. If you see a guy that’s invested as much as me, and I’m the leader of the team, good things are only going to come out of that. That’s why I tried so hard this spring ball and this offseason to be this leader because I’m the leader of this team and I’ve got to set the example for these guys.”
He feels he is equipped to handle this kind of pressure because he is a legacy. His father, Chris, was an All-American and the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1992, and Hutchinson believes Michigan is part of his DNA.
“I think it’s my calling as of right now,” Hutchinson said of returning Michigan to a more consistent level of success. “With my dad having played here, I feel like all the stars are beginning to align. I have so much Michigan football in my blood. My mom went here, my sisters graduated from there. I just feel it’s my responsibility to get this team back on track.”
Harbaugh has likened this season to a hill climb he took this offseason with his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Addie, while in California. It’s always about reaching the top, and that was his theme on Thursday when addressing the media. In evaluating how far the Wolverines have to climb, Harbaugh said they’ve already won half the battle — the preseason. But it’s the second half, winning games, that matters.