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Shawn Windsor: Michigan football needs the old Jim Harbaugh to rescue them
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Shawn Windsor: Michigan football needs the old Jim Harbaugh to rescue them

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Jim Harbaugh on sidelines, AP generic file photo

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh.

Maybe Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh needs to take his shirt off. Or get back on Twitter and call out coaches down south. Or reach out to Madonna. Or the Pope. Or God  it doesn't matter which one.

Maybe he needs to lace up his cleats and grab his sleeping bag and hit the virtual recruiting trail like a groundhog hitting lettuce.

Yeah, it would be for show. But at least it would be his show.

Because this version of Harbaugh?

It's hard to recognize.

Maybe there is hope. Because a bit of the old Harbaugh made a return on Monday. You could hear it in his voice as he spoke to reporters during his weekly news conference.

This isn't to say his program will change overnight with a change in tone. But tone matters, especially to Harbaugh, who sounded shell-shocked late Saturday night after his Wolverines lost, 49-11, to Wisconsin, but sounded ready to take on the world by noon Monday.

"I'm energized as a coach," he said.

And he sounded like it. Even if he also sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

He was cheerful, too. Then told us.

"I'm excited to coach the day," he said. "Never gonna stop. Never gonna quit. Never gonna slow down ... I don't think I could live without that."

That last sentence is about as much self-reflection as we're ever gonna get from Harbaugh, at least publicly. But it says something about his state of mind. He knows what folks are thinking. He hears — he has to, right?  what folks are saying.

This isn't just about losing three games in a row  new territory for Harbaugh. It's about how his Wolverines are losing. The way they look as they lose.

It's stunning to watch, truthfully.

"Just demoralizing," ESPN/ABC color commentator Kirk Herbstreit said during Saturday night's demolition. "I can't believe this is the Big House and we're watching Michigan right now down 28. I can't believe this is happening."

He was reacting to a 10-yard touchdown run by the Badgers' Nakia Watson. He was barely touched.

Herbstreit went on to question U-M's backbone, wondering what had happened to its fight. An hour after the game, after he'd had more time to marinate over the carnage, he was dumbfounded, and tweeted:

"Man, I don't know what to say."

Harbaugh didn't know what to say, either. Not during his postgame news conference, anyway, when all he could muster was that his team played poorly, that he coached poorly, that everything would be re-evaluated.

By Monday, he sounded almost optimistic. Grateful, even. That he has the opportunity to coach, to teach, to dig his team out.

A few of his old sayings resurfaced. He talked about enthusiasm and winning the day and making the next meeting the best meeting ever.

When he was hired, the lingo sounded over-the-top and easy to dismiss as the musings of a hyperactive mind. But it worked. And his team worked. And it adopted his half-crazed relentlessness.

Hearing a little of that intensity mixed with hope had to sound like a relief to those inside the program. In tone and in words, he reminded his listeners of what made him such a good coach in the first place.

Which is why Herbstreit — and so many others  couldn't fathom Saturday night's performance. There is losing. And then there is what has happened to this once-proud program the last three weeks.

Herbstreit at one point asked viewers:

"Where in the heck is ... the fight?"

Now, before you dismiss Herbstreit as a biased observer  he played quarterback at Ohio State in the late '80s and early '90s  understand that the broadcaster has been on record hoping that Harbaugh would succeed in Ann Arbor.

"Anybody who thinks he can't coach is crazy," he said recently.

Besides, Herbstreit thinks it would be good for college football, and good for the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. And he's right.

Harbaugh has a sizable rebuilding job to get his team ready to compete with the Buckeyes again. But it's not as far-fetched as it sounds. It was just four seasons ago that he lost to Ohio State by a matter of a few inches.

Maybe you remember that game, and remember Harbaugh's reaction after the bitter loss, when he all but screamed during the postgame news conference.

For better or for worse, his anger and competitive spirit that day damn near melted Ohio Stadium.

That isn't to say he doesn't care as much now. Or doesn't love his alma mater the way he once did. Or doesn't bring the same dogged, stubborn, life-affirming intensity to every practice and every meeting and every film session.

But this is to say it's getting harder to see it. To see the results, at least. To see the version of the coach who had all that success and gave U-M an immediate jolt and wasn't afraid to try anything or say anything to anyone.

And while all the fire in the world won't make up for a lack of depth or talent — or defensive tackles who can collapse the pocket and cornerbacks who can press up in man coverage  that extraordinary fire has always been the basis of the Harbaugh universe.

On Monday afternoon, a sliver of that old coach made an appearance. Whether it makes a difference is hard to say.

If it doesn't, at least he will go down being himself. That's the only way he has a shot.


Photos: Wisconsin Badgers put Michigan Wolverines away early

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