Much has been made over the past two years about the Michigan football team’s culture change. And while culture is generally a hard-to-quantify buzzword, it’s clearly played a meaningful role in the program’s stunning transformation.
On Thursday, as the Wolverines sit on the doorstep of their second consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff, players unfurled the curtain a little more to reveal what exactly changed.
“We just had a lot of selfish players, didn’t really have a good culture,” senior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said. “There were people who were here to go to the NFL, and that was all they cared about. Now, there’s dudes who have created a brotherhood, who care for each other, want to come in here every day and work, achieve goals together. It’s completely different.”
Keegan clarified that players are still driven to reach the next level, but that their personal goals take a backseat to the team’s motto.
“With team success comes individual success,” Keegan said. “We know that if we have success, individual success will come, and that’s everybody’s mindset.”
Graduate linebacker Mike Barrett, much like Keegan, has witnessed the before and after of the facelift. Barrett enrolled as a freshman in 2018 and worked his way up to a full-time starter in 2020. But, following that season, Michigan parted ways with embattled defensive coordinator Don Brown and overhauled its defensive system, eliminating Barrett’s VIPER position.
Instead of sulking — or even transferring — Barrett stuck around, carving out a prominent role for himself on special teams in 2021 and then re-emerging as a starting linebacker this season.
“Everybody who stayed, we just made that pact that we’d never feel that way again,” Barrett said, recalling the shift following the 2020 season, when Michigan went 2-4. “… We knew what we could do, the kind of team that we could have. And we just went up from there.”
During his first three years in Ann Arbor, Barrett said, players were more “individually focused” and worried about their personal accomplishments. Now, it’s the opposite.
“What’s good for the hive is good for the bee,” Barrett said. “Everybody’s kinda working for the person next to them, everybody wants to see their brother succeed. There’s no bad looks from anybody or anything like that. It’s more of a family. … It’s a little tighter than it was in previous years.”
That tight-knit, team-first community manifests itself in several ways. For one, it leads to strong mentorship from upperclassmen to newer players. Freshman tight end Colston Loveland exemplifies that, bursting onto the scene as one of sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s favorite targets. Loveland credits his growth to the “trust” he’s placed in the team’s veterans.
“A lot of guys in the locker room … all of the guys have just shown me the ropes,” Loveland said. “They’ve been teaching me and teaching me and teaching me.”
That’s not a coincidence, it’s a concerted effort.
Barrett, who has become one of the team’s leaders, acknowledged that players make a concerted effort to help freshmen and sophomores — not only by showing them the ropes on the field but off of it, introducing them “as family.”
The approach also starts from the top. After the Big Ten Championship Game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and a number of players celebrated on a makeshift stage in the middle of the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, basking in the maize and blue confetti and hoisting the championship trophy.
But when Harbaugh noticed that some players weren’t being allowed onto the stage because of a weight limit, he sprung into action.
“He just blew us all through up onto the stage,” Keegan said. “It just shows who he is as a person.”
It also shows where Michigan stands as a program, one seismic culture renovation later.