<
>

Despite loss, Harbaugh has Michigan fans feeling optimistic

Play0:45
Harbaugh's impressions of first game at Michigan

Jim Harbaugh discusses the Wolverines' 24-17 loss to Utah and what the focus will be moving forward for the rest of the season.

SALT LAKE CITY - By now, we know with certainty that Jim Harbaugh is no miracle worker, although nobody ever suggested that he was.

What we do know -- after eight months of the kind of hype, paparazzi-like hoopla and rock-star treatment that would make even Mick Jagger blush -- is that Michigan's most popular "Michigan Man" for the time being has his work cut out in restoring his beloved alma mater to prominence.

His famed million-mile stare -- or his "dead stare," as his wife, Sarah, refers to it -- was on full display several times late Thursday night while breaking down Michigan's 24-17 loss to Utah before the largest crowd ever to see a game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

What did he learn about his team when every ounce of the buildup had centered on him and his highly anticipated return to the college game?

"That we prepared for this game the way we will every game. We'll do the same next week," said a stone-faced Harbaugh, who showed about as much emotion in a cramped, steamy visitors' interview room as the Wolverines showed offensive punch for much of the night.

"Everything that happens from here matters the most."

And it's that last part that has the Maize and Blue Nation hanging on the edge of its seat. Sure, the running game still left a lot to be desired, and Jake Rudock's three interceptions -- the last one returned 55 yards for a touchdown by Utah's Justin Thomas -- were disappointing.

But it was just the start, and the reality is that in a lot of ways, Michigan was looking across the field at the type of team it wants to become under Harbaugh.

The Utes, who've now won three straight games over the Wolverines, were tough, resourceful, forced turnovers on defense and took care of the ball on offense. When it looked like Michigan might crawl back into the game in the fourth quarter, Utah's defense slammed the door shut.

"This isn't going to define us," Michigan tight end Jake Butt said, repeating Harbaugh's message to the team after the game.

And, really, not even the most unrealistic Michigan fan expected any quick fixes. Harbaugh still has to build future classes with his own recruits, his type of players, and his track record is proof that he's going to win.

That's why the Michigan fans poured into Salt Lake City from all over the country to see the beginning of what they unequivocally feel is the rebirth of one of college football's most dominant programs.

College buddies Jurek Huszczo, Scott Long, Tom Helmboldt and Raj Kulkarni met up Thursday from their homes in Minnesota and Arizona to see history. They all lived along the same hall during their freshman year at Michigan in 1992, and this was a game they weren't about to miss.

"Rumors were going on for years and years about Harbaugh coming back, so you almost got numb to the whole thing," said Long, who flew in from Tucson, Arizona. "You just felt like Christmas Day would never come, but Harbaugh is going to bring us back and he's going to make it fun to watch again.

"A lot of Michigan fans over the last several years were like, 'Gee, do I really want to go to this game,' and you'd sell your tickets. But not anymore."

Michigan fans aren't going to judge Harbaugh on Thursday's loss. They're not going to judge him on this season.

The measuring stick will come on what happens that final weekend in November, which is never going to change in the world of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.

"That's it, getting back on a par with Ohio State," said Huszczo, who flew in from Minneapolis. "We have faith he will get the rivalry back to where it used to be."

Long quipped, "My kids are too young to remember the last time Michigan beat the Buckeyes. I feel like a bad dad."

The Michigan fans strained to get a glimpse of Harbaugh as he made his way into the stadium with his wife, Sarah, by his side, and many of those same fans were still there hours afterward.

Sarah conceded before the game that even for a guy as zoned in as her husband, the pressure of such an undertaking is real, and he feels it.

"I feel a little bit more nervous, personally, about this beginning than any of the others," she said. "There's a tremendous amount of pressure on him right now. Taking a job at the other places, it was more, 'We just want to get better. We have a good coach.' The expectations weren't that high, and then good things happened. Here, the expectations are very high, and that's not to diminish the other places. There's such a rich tradition at Michigan, and I'm learning more and more about it every day."

At the same time, Sarah said this is what Jim lives for and why it was an easy decision for him to come back.

"The fans are just so hopeful, and that's the good news because I feel like there's going to be some patience because they have such faith," she said. "Being that he's quote-unquote a Michigan man makes a big difference for the fans. It's a one-of-a-kind school, and I think they're hopefully going to be patient. Hopefully, they won't have to be patient.

"It also makes me nervous, because he's their hope ... but I'm not going to say savior."

And as one Michigan fan pointed out as he walked out of the stadium, it wasn't a complete loss for the Wolverines on Thursday.

"At least Tom Brady [another proud Michigan Man] kicked the NFL's ass," he chortled.