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Why Michigan football’s culture change goes beyond hopes and smiles

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — If you talk to a Michigan football player, they will tell you that the culture has completely changed inside Schembechler Hall. Given the moribund aura around 2020, that’s the least you could hope for.

That’s been the talk of the team since spring ball, with just about every Wolverine noting how much different things are compared to before.

“Oh yeah. The culture is amazing. When I wake up, I look forward to coming in, getting treatment, watching film, because everybody’s here,” junior tight end Erick All said. “Everybody has a smile on their face, everybody’s ready to have a better season.”

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“Oh, I feel it. Everybody feels it,” junior defensive tackle Chris Hinton said. “Everyone just has an extra pep in their step when it comes to practice, meetings. You feel the culture change around this building.

“We have a lot of trust in Coach Mac and the new staff. Like I said, the new staff is young – really young – so they relate to us a lot. Just do football, do life, what you’re going through – things of that sort. When you trust somebody, you’re gonna give your all.”

While both players above expounded a bit on what it means, it goes deeper than just liking the coaches or having smiles on their faces.

Junior left guard Trevor Keegan notes that a big part of the change includes players who wouldn’t have consorted with each other now getting to know their counterparts on the team they might not have been quite as familiar with.

“100%, yeah. Players, the coaches, the team camaraderie,” Keegan said. “We got dudes talking to dudes that wouldn’t even talk to each other two years ago. Now, spirit’s up, hopes are high and we’re determined this year.”

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Hinton confirms what Keegan says, noting that a big part of the change is the fact that last year, players couldn’t hang out together in the building, especially during meal times. With the pandemic raging, many meetings were virtual, and if players were getting food, it was a grab-and-go situation.

However, now it’s all quite different, but not just because new friendships are being forged. It all started back in January when Jim Harbaugh let many of his longtime staff members go in favor of bringing in younger coaches. Himself eager to right a sinking ship, Harbaugh gave a speech to the team that encouraged the downtrodden to bound together.

“Honestly, I think the first team meeting we had after the season,” Keegan said is when he first noticed the culture change. “Coach Harbaugh said, ‘If you’re gonna hop on the train, don’t miss it. Just stay on it and keep going.’ First spring practice, it’s been rolling.”

That was true for Keegan, but for Hinton, it was more forged when new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald arrived, encouraging more participation in what the players wanted to see happen on that side of the ball. The inclusive nature of having a younger, yet storied NFL-level coach coming in and relating to the players certainly helped someone like Hinton — who had been recruited by and played under Don Brown — buy in.

“(I) probably first noticed the culture change the first meeting he had with us in January,” Hinton said. “(Macdonald) came in, we had a defensive meeting. Laid down what he envisioned and he said, ‘What do y’all envision this to be? Because it’s y’alls defense at the end of the day.’ And the guys really soaked that up and really appreciated that he was really giving us the keys to the defense – I mean, we all know that he’s the coach though! But having us put a blueprint in the defense.”

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