Michigan football Jim Harbaugh's brother pushed for new DC; 'Mike is really good'

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Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read
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Jim Harbaugh has had a busy offseason.

Michigan football's head coach signed a four-year extension in January. He assembled a new staff, hiring six new assistant coaches. He put the finishing touches on the 2021 recruiting class, ranked No. 10 nationally.

Now, football is back in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines began spring practice Monday and, as of Thursday, had conducted two practices. The next, Harbaugh said, will be Friday.

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“We are underway here,” Harbaugh said Thursday.

Here's what else Harbaugh said about U-M's transitional offseason:

Macdonald: John Harbaugh-approved

Harbaugh's biggest coaching decisions this offseason were the firing of former defensive coordinator Don Brown, who coached three top-10 defenses in his five seasons at Michigan, and the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. Previously the linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens, Macdonald has never called plays before and has never been an on-field college coach.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, left, walks off the field with his brother, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, at the end of the first half of U-M's win at Maryland on Oct. 3.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, left, walks off the field with his brother, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, at the end of the first half of U-M's win at Maryland on Oct. 3.

Harbaugh says he "interviewed a lot of other great coaches" about Macdonald. But there was one recommendation that Harbaugh trusted and held above all others: That of his brother, John, the Ravens' head coach.

“He really liked Mike," Harbaugh said. “He’d be somebody that would probably be their next defensive coordinator. (John) cares about Michigan football and me as his brother. That was one recommendation I knew I could count on. He did not steer us wrong. I respect so many people in football. So many coaches and people that I trust and respect, get their advice, take very seriously when they recommend somebody. No one more than my brother John. He’s at the top of that list. That’s the way we went. Glad we did.”

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While it is still early, Harbaugh has been pleased by what he has seen from his new defensive coordinator.

“Mike is really good," Harbaugh said. "Really smart. Right now, what we’ve seen on the field is putting in the systems, players understanding them, growing, lot of coaching going on, drill work, installation. On-field coaching has been really good. Really pleased. So far, so good the way the defensive staff is working together and where we’re at at this time.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh watches warm up before the Penn State game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh watches warm up before the Penn State game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

Recent coaching shuffle, explained

U-M's turn on the coaching carousel didn't come to an end until a few days ago. Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary, who had been announced as a returning member of Michigan's staff earlier this offseason, left for the same job at Tennessee. The Wolverines filled that open position by hiring Matt Weiss from the Ravens as the quarterbacks coach.

That led to a few other changes: Ron Bellamy moved from receivers to safeties and Geroge Helow moved from safeties to linebackers.

“Like I did throughout the entire process, I was looking at what coaches would be the best fit for us, best possible coach available, that was the opportunity to hire Matt Weiss, was one of the ones I looked into and I thought that was the best thing for our team," Harbaugh said. "That was the way I could configure it. And also hire Coach Weiss, who I know really good. Been with him at Stanford, he’s been with my brother at the Ravens. Swung for the fences there and that’s how I could make it work.

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"We’re now set. Feel really great about the staff. I really do. Also, told me a lot, too. I asked Ron, ‘Would you be opposed to moving to safeties?’ He said, ‘No, Coach, whatever’s best for the team.’ Talked to George Helow about going from safeties to linebackers and he had the same response, ‘Coach, whatever's' best for the team.’ I told them, ‘That’s music to my years.’ And a tune you don’t hear all that often in today’s world. Told me I have the right guys and the right guys onboard, working hard, coaching hard. I feel, as you can tell, really good about where the staff is.”

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh talks with his team before overtime begins Nov. 21, 2020, against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium.
Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh talks with his team before overtime begins Nov. 21, 2020, against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium.

Why so much change on staff?

Harbaugh didn't want to get into specifics on why he made the decisions that he did this offseason, but said he did what he "felt was best for the team."

“Not going to really go into comparisons, or all the reasons why, but gave it a lot of thought," Harbaugh said. "Put a lot of energy into it. And everything I did, I believed was the best for our program, our players and the Michigan football program.”

He says he did not believe there was "any kind of disconnect" between him and his staff or between his staff and the players.

“Wanted to be strong in all areas," Harbaugh said. "Making improvements to everything. I would describe it as that. Didn’t necessarily feel there was a disconnect, no.”

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And Harbaugh says the youth of his new staff — all 10 assistants are under 40 and are an average of 35.3 years old — was just a byproduct of his hiring decisions, and not something he purposefully pursued.

“Just looking for great coaches, really," Harbaugh said. "That was the thing I was looking for the most. Happens that there’s definitely whatever you classify as young. I feel that they’re already accomplished coaches for their age and definitely coaches that are going to do great things in this profession.”

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Michigan Wolverines content.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh: DC Mike Macdonald 'really smart'