Inside Jim Harbaugh's bold move to transform Michigan's offense

Josh Gattis had one simple question in January when Jim Harbaugh called to see if he could talk him into coming to Michigan.

The 35-year-old Alabama co-offensive coordinator/wide receiver coach was in a position to be picky. He was on the heels of helping the Crimson Tide reach new, explosive heights on offense in 2018, as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa finished second in the Heisman race, Jerry Jeudy won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver and tight end Irv Smith Jr. turned into a potential first-round NFL draft pick.

Nick Saban planned to promote him to associate offensive coordinator, letting him plan the offense but bringing in a more experienced coach to oversee the operation. Several other schools already had called to offer him coordinator positions with no strings attached. He was getting ready to pack his bags after one season in Tuscaloosa.

Harbaugh took his first run at Gattis a few years earlier. At that point, he wanted the up-and-comer to coach the Wolverines' wide receivers and add perspective to a democratic offensive coaching room where all decisions ultimately ran through the head coach. That was the way Harbaugh had always operated through more than a decade as a head coach.

So Gattis wanted to know, who would be calling the shots this time around?

"You run your offense, all your stuff," Harbaugh told him. "We'll get you a contract today. I don't want to miss on another chance to hire you."

This is new territory for Harbaugh, who had been reticent to even name an offensive coordinator in the past, let alone cede full control of the playbook. But four years into his tenure at his alma mater without a championship or even a win over rival Ohio State, Harbaugh was willing to try something new. He picked Gattis -- a first-time coordinator with no previous history with Harbaugh -- to steer Michigan's offense into a more modern look to keep pace with the top run of college football programs.

They broke the ice with a two-week road trip through wintry Midwestern roads, attached at the hip as they worked on the finishing touches of their recruiting class. Gattis learned quickly that his new boss' hands-on personality extended beyond the football field. Harbaugh popped out of the car to pump gas. They battled over who would pay the bill for meals on a daily basis. He was the first head coach Gattis knew who asked to drive rather than keep busy with some other task on long, dull trips from one high school to another.

But when Gattis asked if Harbaugh wanted to pass the time on some lengthy stretch of highway by diving into the details of his offensive plans, Harbaugh waved him off. The man, who in his first spring as Michigan's coach shimmied under a center's legs and looked skyward into maize-covered nether regions to make sure the snap was landing properly in his quarterback's hands, said he would wait and learn the new playbook along with everyone else in the program during spring practice.

"At first it was like, 'OK, I'm about to change all this. We good here?'" Gattis said. "But he's never questioned it. He stressed to me that it's my terminology, my plays, my offense. After that, I didn't need to back to him and ask for approval. I haven't done that once. I think he's enjoying the offense."

"I like that there is an attack feel that the defense has to be aware of. And then the tempo, that feels good, too. That feels like we're attacking." Jim Harbaugh

Huddles are gone. Fullbacks and snot bubbles will fade from center stage. Gattis assures Michigan's traditionalists, though, that there will be no need to tilt their bedside photos of Bo face down to shield his eyes. The Wolverines' offense will be faster and replete with trendy run-pass option, but it will still set its roots in a power run game. Quarterback Shea Patterson will still tuck himself under center, flanked by at least a couple of tight ends when the team needs to pick up a couple of tough yards.

Gattis calls his scheme "a mutt," an indistinguishable mix of styles that will fold in elements of what Harbaugh's past offenses have done best. Senior tight end Sean McKeon said the new playbook adds a modern touch and a needed fresh air to Michigan's playbook.

"It's definitely different from the past few years," he said. "It's a lot different."

Michigan's offense wasn't exactly inept before Gattis arrived. The Wolverines averaged 35.2 points in 2018. At its best, Harbaugh's offense found creative twists to make troops of tight ends and fullbacks feel fresh. But that ingenuity was absent during the past couple of seasons, and the teams the Wolverines are chasing were using more innovative approaches to average at least a touchdown more per game.

The result was a group whose talented wide receivers and athletic quarterback Patterson seemed at times as if they were rattling the iron gates of an old pro-style offense. Former quarterback Wilton Speight said he got the same sensation before transferring to UCLA last year. Speight saw the creativity seep out of Michigan's offense after former assistant Jedd Fisch left in 2016 (the team's production slipped from 40 points per game to 25.2 amid some injury issues the following year) and says the group seemed rejuvenated when he returned to campus for a visit this spring.

"I know [Patterson], and I'm sure Michigan Nation, are very excited for the handcuffs to come off," Speight said. "I remember that same type of scenario. Once Jedd left, it was like, 'God, I feel like I can do a little bit more here.'"

Gattis said he arrived to a group of players eager to do more. By the time he and Harbaugh returned from their recruiting road trip, most of Michigan's players had devoured all of Alabama's game film from the previous season.

The Crimson Tide's 2018 offense is the closest representation of what Michigan will attempt to do with the ball this fall, Gattis says. He helped stitch together a plan last season that incorporated what he learned from Joe Moorhead's explosive offense featuring Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley at Penn State with the downhill stop-us-if-you-can mentality that comes naturally for Alabama's bevy of five-star athletes.

"I like that there is an attack feel that the defense has to be aware of," Harbaugh said after getting a brief introduction this spring. "And then the tempo, that feels good, too. That feels like we're attacking."

Michigan's players liked the options for opportunities they saw on film. Gattis helped devise offenses early in his career that found creative ways to get the ball into the hands of a dominant playmaker. In his one season at Western Michigan, Gattis helped receiver Jordan White haul in 140 catches in 13 games. At Vanderbilt, it was Jordan Matthews averaging more than 100 catches per season with Gattis as his position coach.

With more playmakers at this disposal at new stops, Gattis helped to find ways to keep everyone involved. Last season, all five of Alabama's wide receivers who played regularly finished with at least 40 catches. Three different running backs had at least 100 carries. He sees the same type of possibilities for Michigan's mix of big receivers, tight ends and running backs when they all return to full health.

Injuries to key players such as receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins have slowed some of that process this spring and will leave the Wolverines looking a little bit bland during their spring game Saturday at the Big House. Gattis says fans will nonetheless get a taste of some of the changes in store for 2019. He said he might even send out a pair of fullbacks and a pair of tight ends before shifting into the spread on the team's first play just to let the world know things are changing.

That's a message received and accepted -- welcomed even -- by Harbaugh months ago. When snowy weather hit on their road trip back in January, Harbaugh insisted that he should be the one behind the wheel. Gattis said he has no fear that his boss will be looking to wrestle control back from when stormy patches inevitably arise on offense in the coming season.

"No chance," he says. This isn't just a different driver for the Wolverines in 2019. Gattis is building a new car.