Similarities in Frost and Harbaugh, programs and culture abound
LINCOLN — The most distinctive football coach in the Big Ten is a few seconds late for his weekly appointment on the league’s teleconference. The unmistakable sound of a phone being picked up precedes Jim Harbaugh’s almost-surprised “Hello.”
It’s his fourth season at his alma mater, Michigan, and Nebraska’s football program faces Harbaugh Saturday for the first time since he returned to the Big Ten. Initially heralded by the national media as college football’s great disruptor, now regarded by some with skepticism, Harbaugh, the former All-Big Ten quarterback who’s quickly become synonymous with Wolverine football, is a wild card in interviews.
He may go off on an unrelated tangent. He may seem confused. He saves some deeper insights for his podcast or the “All or Nothing” Amazon Prime documentary series on his team. Come along when he takes his team on an overseas trip, and perhaps a layer gets peeled back. During the season itself, Harbaugh’s answers sometimes become a fog.
College football fans know the moods well. Wearing his trademark blue hat, Harbaugh is attempting to fully restore a proud program that ranks No. 1 all-time in wins. Nebraska ranks No. 6 all-time and has turned to its own former quarterback, Scott Frost, to rouse it from a nearly two-decade slumber. Frost is off to a 0-2 start. Harbaugh did better at Michigan out of the gates — back-to-back 10-3 seasons — before slipping back to 8-5 last season. The skepticism started to kick in around then.
So what has the entire experience been like?
“It’s been a great thrill, one of the great thrills of my life, to be here,” Harbaugh said with his typical pauses between sentence fragments. “Love it. Yeah. Love coaching, love football, love coaching at my alma mater. And — been wonderful.”
Is that how it’s been at Nebraska for Frost so far? He’s consistently said he loves being back. But this week, after NU’s stunning loss to Troy, Frost’s focus tightened in to the point where, by Thursday, he offered fewer answers about his program, including the Huskers’ messy special teams that gave up a punt return for a touchdown against Troy.
“Improved play,” Frost said — and only that — when asked what he wanted to see from the unit.
His first game was washed out. He lost his next two at home and his true freshman quarterback, at least for one game, to a knee injury clearly exacerbated by an opposing defender. He takes his young players on the road to the “Big House” for a 11 a.m. game where it’s almost impossible to know how they’ll respond.
“I want it to work more — and I know it’s going to work,” Frost said Tuesday when asked about his emotions surrounding the job. “It hasn’t happened as quickly as we want it. We’ve had some pretty tough breaks in these first few weeks here. But that’s the way the sport goes.”
It’s a heck of a thing, when you’re the biggest name in the state for what your team does 12 Saturdays a year, and a couple bad tackling angles on a punt return can shift the mood of thousands. In the case of Harbaugh, it was a botched punt play at the end of the 2015 Michigan State game, which turned a certain win into an unforgettable loss.
Harbaugh and Frost have a few more things in common. They have some similar friends, Harbaugh said, because of their Stanford connections — Frost played there and Harbaugh coached there. Both played college quarterback for legendary coaches. Both were head coaches elsewhere before returning to their alma maters when both took over after their predecessors had losing seasons. Both enjoyed NFL playing careers, although Harbaugh, nicknamed “Captain Comeback,” had a longer and more notable stint as a pro.
They both started with modest coaching jobs, too. Harbaugh, after serving as an unpaid assistant for his dad, Jack, at Western Kentucky, began as a NFL assistant for Bill Callahan before moving to head coach at the University of San Diego, a school that didn’t award athletic scholarships. Only after winning there did he move to Stanford, a struggling program before his arrival. Frost climbed an even longer ladder back to Nebraska, starting with graduate assistant roles and an assistant coaching job at Northern Iowa.
The similarities don’t exactly end there, but, as their coaching careers progressed, some distinct differences emerged, too.
Harbaugh stayed with his West Coast Offense roots and, in fact, dug even deeper into them, developing a system of intricate power running plays that many coaches won’t bother to embrace or draw up. To the extent he used the zone read option at Stanford and later with the NFL’s 49ers, he did so with top-shelf, athletic quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick) that he has yet to recruit to Michigan. Harbaugh is willing now to commit eight blockers, on multiple plays in a row, to a defense, the better to set up later passes that go over the heads of defenders expecting the run.
Frost, meanwhile, has taken the spread, no-huddle, fast-tempo offense to the “outer edge of the universe,” according to one assistant. Another compares it to “poetry.” It’s fluid, open, and improvisational at times. It values big plays anytime, anywhere, and requires no warming up.
And while Harbaugh initially brought some long-time staff members to Michigan — and his son, Jay, coaches running backs — his boldest and most important choice, at defensive coordinator, was to pluck Don Brown from Boston College because BC’s defense was among the nation’s best in 2015.
“You could tell a lot from just looking at the Internet, seeing the track record and the facts,” Harbaugh told the Detroit Free Press. He hadn’t met Brown, who spent almost all of his career in the northeast, until he interviewed him.
That decision — more than documentary series or the trip to Paris — has kept Michigan anchored through struggles on offense. UM had the nation’s No. 1 pass defense in 2016 and 2017 and top 15 scoring defense in 2016 and 2017, as well. The Wolverines have been in the nation’s top ten in sacks the last two seasons, as well. Michigan plays aggressive man coverage, has five-star talent and brings players from so many angles, quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said, it sometimes looks like UM has 19 guys on the field.
“They’ll be coming over the walls on blitzes,” Frost said Thursday of the 63-year-old Brown’s defense.
Harbaugh also overhauled his offensive coaching staff in the offseason. He fired his strength and conditioning coach, too and hired one from Arkansas who brought a staff and a nutritionist with him.
Though Frost is still in his first year, those moves don’t seem likely to come from his playbook. He has stayed down-the-line loyal to the assistants who helped resurrect Central Florida. They plan to do the same at Nebraska. He brought UCF’s entire coaching staff to NU, including defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, whose defenses occasionally come over the walls themselves. He talks effusively about strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval and Nebraska’s director of performance nutrition, Dave Ellis.
And now, as NU heads to Michigan — as Frost faces a coach just as visible but different in temperament and management style — Frost and his staff won’t panic.
“We can’t all of the sudden change our entire MO just because of one or two results,” Frost said.
They’ll talk buy-in and process and little details, hoping two avoidable losses drill home the message better than they can. The sooner, the better, because fans are waiting. Patiently. But still waiting.
Harbaugh knows that story well. He’s the biggest name in Ann Arbor, and one of the biggest in Michigan football history. But fans’ grace, sooner or later, runs out.
“They’re been playing football here for 139 years,” Harbaugh said. “And they’ve seen a lot of tremendous football, and so that’s ... that’s the expectation. You pour your heart and soul into meeting that expectation.”