Michigan football goes through culture shift after 2020 struggles, players say

INDIANAPOLIS -- Coming off a 2-4 season in 2020, coaching changes and offseason questions about Jim Harbaugh's future, Michigan linebacker Josh Ross says the culture of the football program is at the highest level he has seen since joining the Wolverines.

The senior linebacker said that, in the past, there was negativity from the players that spread throughout the program. Losing games and getting down about the outlook of the season had players buying into the negativity.

That changed for Ross and the team after winter conditioning this offseason, when the Wolverines adapted a universal message of accountability going forward.

"The culture of our team, us turning that page, us changing within, starts with the players," Ross said. "It starts with us. It's not just Coach Harbaugh. It's not just the new defensive coaches or coach Mike Hart coming. It's us. We have to turn the page, push everything forward and change everything, which we've been doing every day."

Bringing in Hart to coach the running backs and Mike Macdonald to take over as defensive coordinator has brought a new energy to the program, but Ross, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and running back Hassan Haskins said they believe it has been the players who have driven the change from within.

"It's contagious. Negativity is contagious. That energy is contagious," Ross said. "It spreads really fast. That's the reality of it. On the other side, the positive side spreads even faster, especially when it's a culture built on that."

Harbaugh showed his readiness for Michigan to take a leap as well.

"I'm as enthusiastic and excited as I ever am, always am, even more, to have at it, to win the championship, to beat Ohio [State], our rival Michigan State, everybody, that's what we want to do," Harbaugh said. "We're going to do it or die trying."

Harbaugh is 0-5 against Ohio State, with last year's game being canceled because of an increase in COVID-19 cases among the Wolverines program. He is 3-3 against Michigan State.

To pull off those wins, the players, and the leaders of the team, have taken on more responsibility to hold everyone accountable. They believe that if the result is going to change on the field, it's going to come from them.

"The amount of positivity, how people are attacking what they're doing, getting extra work in, happy to be there, no negativity," Ross said. "The culture of our program right now is the highest I've seen since I've been here. People are going to see, we've been working."

The players acknowledged that the message of change and a new result has been there in the past, but the difference to them this time is in the attitude of the players and the willingness to take on the responsibility of making the change happen.

"What that resulted from was 2-4, bad season and guys just want to play ball," Hutchinson said. "We came out in spring ball popping, energy was there, and the good thing about it was, from what I observed, was we stayed consistent with it all 15 practices.

"Anyone can be hype on the first day of full pads, but the good thing about what we did was we kept with it."

Harbaugh praised the offseason work to this point.

"Maybe we're the Rocky Balboa of college football, you know, beat up and and angry," Harbaugh told ESPN. "... That's what I've been seeing now is half the battle is the offseason, you know, but that's just half the battle. I think we won half the battle."

The message has been to stay consistent but also that change will happen only if they work on it every day. Acknowledging some of the cliché statements, Ross said that it's all happening within and that the players are already feeling that difference.

"What makes football so great is that it's a team sport," Ross said. "It's not just the players, not just the coaches, it's everybody working together. Just as hard as the coaches are working, the leaders and players and the culture have to be just as strong and working just as hard. That's what we've been working on and building going into camp.

"I'm excited, because it's going to be a really big camp for us."

ESPN's Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.