Leadership lessons from the 2021 University of Michigan football team

Note: I originally posted this article on LinkedIn.

I went to the University of Michigan in 1994 and became a fan of their football team since then. Since I came back to Indonesia in 1997, it has not been easy being an American football fan in this part of the world. Besides the non-existent fan community, the time zone difference makes it hard to watch games.

As a Michigan Wolverines fan, my best day this year was the 28th of November (the 27th in the US). It was the day when we beat our heated rival Ohio State Buckeyes for the first time since 2011 (and only the second time since 2003). I woke up at 2 AM that day to watch the game. Although the season had been going quite well up to that point, most Wolverines fans, including me, suffered from PTSD after years of beating and had little expectations for the game. The Buckeyes were also having an excellent season and came into the game ranked number 2 in the country. Well, this year turned out to be different. By the time the game ended around 4:30 AM, I was so happy I might have cried a little.

After defeating Ohio State, Michigan beat Iowa to win the Big Ten Conference for the first time since 2004. 2021 has been a storybook of the ages for Michigan, and the story of this team starts with their head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh was already one of the top coaches at the professional football level (NFL) before he decided to coach his alma mater in 2015. At that time, Michigan had been mediocre-to-bad for almost a decade. The university appointed him a savior and gave him one of the highest salaries for a head coach. He had two big tasks: return the football team to glory and beat Ohio State University.

Lesson 1: There is no end to continuous improvement

Jim Harbaugh was a good coach before he started at Michigan, and he continued to be a good coach there. In his first season in 2015, he immediately brought Michigan back to a nationally-ranked level. He started strong and continued to field good teams year after year. His most significant shortcoming had been his poor record in beating Ohio State.

Undeterred, Harbaugh kept making tweaks to his coaching staff and football strategy. Year after year, he was not afraid to make a change when proven wrong. In 2016 he hired Don Brown, one of the top defensive coordinators in the country at the time. From 2016-2019, Michigan's defenses rank in the top 10. By most counts, Don Brown was a good hire except for what matters the most: helping Jim Harbaugh beat Ohio State. With victory eluding him, Harbaugh made another coordinator change in 2021 and brought in Mike Macdonald. Macdonald brought youthful energy and a new defensive scheme, which proved to be the missing ingredients for beating Ohio State.

On offense, Harbaugh made the team much more physical in 2021. His offensive team relies on a balanced attack and does not depend on the quarterback to be a superstar. The team also grew better throughout the season, from the first game in September until their last in early December.

Lesson 2: Keep the faith and stay the course

When you're one of the highest-paid coaches in the country and when millions of people watch your team play on Saturdays, your performance is bound to be put under the microscope. When the result falls below expectations, people forget about your efforts and over-emphasize your mistakes.

Looking back, many of Harbaugh's losses to rivals were due to freak plays and bad luck. In 2015, the team lost to Michigan State University because of poor handling of the ball in the last 10 seconds of the game (see this one-in-a-million-chance tragic comedy plays out in this video). In 2016, the team lost to Ohio State because Michigan's quarterback (pretty much the most essential player) had to play with a broken collarbone that he suffered two weeks prior.

You have to separate good decisions from bad results. When you believe that you are doing the right things, you must trust that the results will eventually go your way.

When Harbaugh's contract was near ending last year, many Michigan fans wanted him terminated and replaced. Eventually, in January this year, the university and Harbaugh finalized a contract extension with restructured terms. Harbaugh bet on himself and agreed to a lower base salary with performance-based incentives. The bet paid off. With his successes this year, he will make up his reduced salary and more (note: he committed to donating his bonuses to university employees impacted by Covid-19).

Lesson 3: Show your appreciation

At the end of the day, the head coach's success is determined by his staff's game-day preparation and his team's performance on the field. Jim Harbaugh is vocal in elevating the profiles of his staff and players. When TV reporters interview Harbaugh on camera, he turns the spotlight on his players instead and calls out their names. He shows how much he enjoys coaching his team, and his passion rubs off on his players. You can see how much his players enjoy being part of the team.

It's great to be a Michigan Wolverine. Congratulations to Coach Harbaugh for winning 2021 Coach of The Year. We have an upcoming game against the University of Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinals on the 1st of January, so I already know how I'm spending my New Year's holiday.

Go Blue!