ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Santa Ono’s phone pinged on Jan. 16 with intel that Jim Harbaugh would return to coach Michigan in 2023 and not bolt for the NFL, he did what any true blue Wolverines fan would do.
Ono grabbed his phone, opened X and started typing. But Ono isn’t just any Michigan fan — he’s the university president — and his text had come from a pretty good source: Harbaugh himself. Ono hit post.
Was this a Santa Scoop? A Har-bomb?
“I’m not your typical university president, I get excited and I really care about our teams,” Ono told ESPN. “So in this backdrop, I tweeted it out when [Harbaugh] texts me, ‘I’m staying.’ All I did was to say I’m excited that he’s staying and I told Warde.
“That’s all it was.”
Ono’s Harbaugh announcement and the addendum that he had communicated the news to athletic director Warde Manuel — not the other way around — set off alarms about the Harbaugh-Manuel relationship, which had reportedly frayed. Ono, not Manuel, had been the public face of the Harbaugh-NFL saga, first expressing the desire for Harbaugh to stay at U-M, and then ultimately confirming the coach’s return.
The lingering speculation about the Harbaugh-Manuel relationship led Ono to mention the Harbaugh tweets, unprompted, during a joint interview with Manuel on campus in June.
“Warde and I have always been absolutely 150 percent aligned,” Ono said. “We both wanted [Harbaugh] to stay here. I want to be really clear about that.”
Michigan football is at its highest point in a generation under Harbaugh, but the rise has coincided with some turbulent times away from the field.
The Wolverines have won back-to-back outright Big Ten titles for the first time in 20 years and have made their first two College Football Playoff appearances. They have consecutive wins over archrival Ohio State, after going 1-15 in their previous 16 matchups. And they start this year No. 2 in the AP poll.
But the last six months have brought a decade’s worth of drama.
Harbaugh, after a second straight offseason of NFL flirtation, will begin 2023 serving a self-imposed three game suspension for NCAA violations committed during the COVID dead period.
In January, co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss was fired for alleged “computer access crimes.” In May, Michigan hired Shemy Schembechler — son of legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler — only to see him resign three days later because of offensive social media activity.
To this point, Michigan has navigated the self-generated storm clouds.
MICHIGAN’S RENAISSANCE IS significant, not only because of the hazards it has encountered, but how quickly the team has improved. The Wolverines completed a shortened 2020 season at 2-4 and faced significant questions about Harbaugh, who had become the first Michigan coach to start 0-5 against Ohio State and was 3-3 against Michigan State. Harbaugh overhauled much of his staff, and agreed to an incentive-laden contract with a reduced salary that also gave Michigan a more favorable buyout if it chose to fire him.
He then hired talented young assistants, leaned on a group of veterans to shift the culture in the locker room, and doubled down on his run-heavy offense. Michigan entered the 2021 season unranked for the first time since Harbaugh’s debut season of 2015, but finished No. 3.
“That was a year where everybody was calling for me to fire Jim, because of losses in the pandemic, when you had kids opting out, kids that were sick, injuries that occurred. You had all these things that were so different,” Manuel told ESPN. “But Jim was a great coach before the pandemic, and he’s a great coach now. He made the adjustments that were necessary to do it, and I give him all the credit.
“You have to adapt, you have to learn, you have to modify, you have to change. And he did it. That’s why we are where we are today.”
After 2020, Michigan players became more intentional about their shared goals. The fights that offensive lineman Zak Zinter saw in practices stopped. Wide receiver Roman Wilson saw the team’s biggest stars coming in for extra film study. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy saw divisive cliques splinter.
Team leaders like Josh Ross, Aidan Hutchinson, Brad Hawkins and Hassan Haskins would hold meetings, asking the group a simple question.