How Michigan football became a victim of its own ‘rat poison’

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="As Jim Harbaugh began the sixth year of his tenure with Michigan football, the Wolverines entered a transition phase.» data-reactid=»6″>As Jim Harbaugh began the sixth year of his tenure with Michigan football, the Wolverines entered a transition phase.

The roster had turned over, as a wave of starters on both offense and defense left a program that stumbled toward a disappointing 9-4 record in 2019. Only five teams in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision had less returning production than Michigan when the calendar flipped to 2020. Then, as a global pandemic became a disruptive force, more losses occurred. The Wolverines’ best cornerback, Ambry Thomas, opted out. Topreceiver Nico Collins did, too.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="That reduced expectations for Michigan. But the Wolverines’ coaching staff was having none of it. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis claimed the new starter at quarterback, Joe Milton, threw 70-yard bombs and made the kind of plays in practice that would be packaged in NFL highlight reels. He also crowed about tight end Erick All, telling reporters he was going to be a “special talent.” Gattis’ defensive counterpart, Don Brown, dialed up the rhetoric, too. He suggested sophomore safety Dax Hill could be the “best cover guy” in the Big Ten. He also praised defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye, saying they couldbe the best edge rusher combination in the sport.» data-reactid=»8″>That reduced expectations for Michigan. But the Wolverines’ coaching staff was having none of it. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis claimed the new starter at quarterback, Joe Milton, threw 70-yard bombs and made the kind of plays in practice that would be packaged in NFL highlight reels. He also crowed about tight end Erick All, telling reporters he was going to be a “special talent.” Gattis’ defensive counterpart, Don Brown, dialed up the rhetoric, too. He suggested sophomore safety Dax Hill could be the “best cover guy” in the Big Ten. He also praised defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye, saying they couldbe the best edge rusher combination in the sport.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Minnesota coach P. J. Fleck shake hands after the 49-24 win by the Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium, Oct. 24, 2020.Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Minnesota coach P. J. Fleck shake hands after the 49-24 win by the Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium, Oct. 24, 2020.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Minnesota coach P. J. Fleck shake hands after the 49-24 win by the Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium, Oct. 24, 2020.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="[ Mailbag: Will Jim Harbaugh ever make Wolverines a winner? ]» data-reactid=»24″>[ Mailbag: Will Jim Harbaugh ever make Wolverines a winner? ]

Over and over again, the Wolverines injected a big dose of «rat poison» — Alabama coach Nick Saban’s term for excessive hype — into their veins.

Three years ago, Saban coined that phrase during a news conference following a close victory over Texas A&M. Before that day, the Crimson Tide had steamrolled its competition, beating its first five opponents by an average of 37.6 points per game. As the impressive wins piled up, the media began to shower the SEC powerhouse with praise. Saban became concerned it would have a deleterious effect on his players.

“We don’t like for our team to be complacent in any way,” Saban once said.

For Saban, there is no such thing as a sense of security. Last Saturday — Saban’s birthday, no less — he was filmed yelling at reserve defensive lineman Tim Smith after an offsides penalty late in a game Alabama was winning, 41-0.

But no matter the occasion or the scale of victory, Saban is never satisfied. After routs, he’ll itemize his team’s mistakes in news conferences and suppress his enthusiasm about the result. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh takes an entirely different approach. After the Wolverines’ 25-point win over Minnesota in the opener, he wore a look of satisfaction.

“So much good,” he said. “So much good to talk about.”

In the glow of victory, he celebrated his players — most especially Milton — as if they had arrived on the grand stage.

“I think Joe is over there listening, but he’s great,” Harbaugh said with a smile.

A week later, Harbaugh was back in front of the camera and this time his expression had changed. Michigan had just suffered a shocking defeat to Michigan State, losing to a rival it was supposed to beat by more than three touchdowns.

The Wolverines were stunned. Running back Hassan Haskins call it “unreal.”

Days later, Gattis went on radio and said the Wolverines’ offensive preparation was not “up to par.” Had the Wolverines become contaminated by their homemade rat poison?

Harbaugh refused to accept that possibility Monday when he was asked if the coaching staff’s exaggerated praise of the players in the preseason created unrealistic expectations and distorted the reality of a team that is integrating a batch of new parts.

He instead reaffirmed Milton’s success with downfield throws in practice and said Hill is a “tremendous cover” defender.

But according to Pro Football Focus, Milton is just 1-for 9 passing on attempts of 20 or more air yards. Likewise, the website has given Hill one of the team’s lowest grades in pass defense. But they’re not the only players who have failed to meet the hype that preceded them. All, the tight end, accounted for three of the Wolverines’ seven drops, and the Hutchinson-Paye combination has produced just two sacks, despite each topping 140 snaps through two games.

The results so far are disappointing, but that’s primarily because the bar was raised so high.

While senior linebacker Josh Ross said Harbaugh and his assistants strike the right balance between delivering positive reinforcement and constructive criticism behind closed doors, in public settings the players often hear glowing reviews of their performance and little else. After the win over Minnesota, Harbaugh mentioned the one sack the Wolverines conceded, but said he couldn’t remember it — brushing it aside as if it never happened. Earlier this week, he called Vincent Gray the team’s best cornerback, even after he was flambéed by Michigan State.

What does that say to the players competing with Gray for playing time?

Words matter, and it’s why Saban uses his news conferences to fortify the messages he delivers to his team.

The overarching objective for him is to keep 85 young adults hungry from one week to the next. After one of the rare instances when he believed he failed in that capacity, Saban expressed regret. That happened following Clemson’s rout of the Crimson Tide in the 2019 national championship game.

“If you lose your humility,” Saban said, “it sort of creates (a feeling that) I’m above doing the things the way I need to do them to play in a game against good competition. And if I put my own agenda ahead of the team, or winning, it’s going to have some effect on my performance… People have to have humility and understand that regardless of how much success you have, you still have to pay attention to detail and do things right in preparation”

Otherwise, losses can happen, hope turns to disappointment and hype becomes empty promises. This is Michigan football in Week 3, recovering from its own toxic mix of rat poison.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Contact&nbsp;Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans&nbsp;and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.&nbsp;» data-reactid=»50″>Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan football became a victim of its own ‘rat poison’» data-reactid=»51″>This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan football became a victim of its own ‘rat poison’