As the Michigan Wolverines struggled through a pandemic-impacted 2020 season, swaths of fans and college football observers called for coach Jim Harbaugh to lose his job.
Those sharpening their pitchforks did not have the foresight of Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, ESPN “College GameDay” analyst and 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard – one of the program’s most visible alums – said.
“There was a lot of outside noise telling him that Harbaugh should be fired. All the pundits were saying he should be fired,” Howard said. “All the social media and all that stuff was talking about he should be fired, ‘Look at this record.’
“But when you’re on the inside and you understand the sport and you understand what’s going on and you may be looking at it a little differently from a different lens than everyone else on the outside because you may understand just how close this team may be, then you make decisions based on your information and based on your gut and based on your knowledge and don’t let all the outside noise influence you.”
Now the Wolverines are 12-1, Big Ten champions and the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff, with a date against third-ranked Georgia in the Orange Bowl on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Howard saved his official prediction for “GameDay,” but before fully diving into the tape, knew that the battle in the trenches – in both directions – would dictate the result.
Georgia’s front seven has been one of the most dominant units this season, Howard said, while Michigan’s offensive line won the Joe Moore Award for the country’s top offensive line. The Wolverines’ defensive line is led by Heisman finalist Aidan Hutchinson, plus other playmakers such David Ojabo.
“You look at Georgia, they’re built up front offensively similarly to a Big Ten team,” Howard, 51, said. “They want to run the ball. They want to smash mouth and pound you. They’re not built like a lot of other SEC teams.”
Howard spoke with USA TODAY Sports on Monday through his partnership with Modelo, the official sponsor of the College Football Playoff, which will give away 300 $108 gift cards if a punt return goes for a touchdown in the national championship game on Jan. 10.
The conversation with the former Heisman Trophy winner touched on everything from the anatomy of a big play, which famous touchdown is his favorite and whether he has media aspirations beyond “GameDay.”
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
USA TODAY: So much game-planning and coaching goes into football. Then something like your famous run happens and flips the game on its head. What makes a big play such a big part of football, and why are we so drawn to it as fans?
Desmond Howard: “A big play, it uplifts your team, then deflates your opponent. … As a player, you always want to go out there with the mentality that you’re going to make the big play. You don’t know when it’s going to come. But you always have to be prepared. That sort of fighting spirit drives the big play, that mentality to go out there, ‘I’m going to go out there and make something happen.’”
USA TODAY: Is that why big plays sometimes feel like they always come from the same players? That “fighting spirit” mentality?
DH: “I believe that’s one of the components that’s involved, because you have to believe in yourself and have that fighting spirit where you never quit. You talk about an Aidan Hutchinson, the thing that grabbed viewers’ attention about Aidan Hutchinson is that he has like that endless motor, that he never quits, he never gives up. To me, that’s symbolic of having that fighting spirit. If you have that fighting spirit, you never quit, you never give up, you fight on every play because you never know when that opportunity is going to present itself and have that big play. Whether it’s a sack, in Aidan Hutchinson’s situation, or it’s a big punt return.”
USA TODAY: When did you realize your Heisman pose was iconic?
DH: “It was a spontaneous move. I actually wanted to do a backflip. I thought it would be the coolest thing ever if I stopped at the one-yard line and did a backflip into the end zone across the goal line. I have to admit I chickened out probably around the 8- or 9-yard line and now I’m trying to decide ‘OK, am I going to do anything or am I going to do the usual?’ The usual thing was the Barry Sanders … every time he scored, he just handed the ball to the official, turned around and celebrated with his teammates like he’s been there before. So that’s what I did every time I scored. But I was like, ‘Ah, I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is the greatest rivalry in the history of sports in my eyes. This is a moment.’ Spontaneously, I did that. I guess when I was on the cover of the EA Sports game (NCAA Football 06), I realized how much life this thing continued to have and how iconic it had actually become.”
USA TODAY: Do you have broadcasting aspirations beyond that? Where do you see yourself going in the media space?
DH: “That’s a good question. I think I’d want to host ‘The Desmond Howard’ show. I don’t know what the format would be. It would expand beyond sports, but obviously sports would be a part of it. I love what I do and I really love the team I work with. But I would say, probably that, ‘Desmond Howard Show.’”
USA TODAY: Which runback do you prefer: the one in the Super Bowl or the one against Ohio State?
DH: “As a kid growing up, I was a big NFL fan. I loved the Dallas Cowboys, like, Tony Dorsett was my dude. Every time we went outside, played streetball, the backyard, people would say ‘Hey, I’m Walter Payton, I’m Franco Harris.’ I’m like, ‘I’m Tony Dorsett.’ If anyone else wanted to be Tony Dorsett we would have to fistfight for it and that was my guy. So I say that because I loved watching the Cowboys in the Super Bowl. Growing up, that was it, that was the pinnacle of the sport, it gets no bigger, it gets no better than the Super Bowl. So as great and as fantastic as everything was for the punt return against Ohio State, I was born and raised in Cleveland, I’m in Michigan, the rivalries, The Game. In this sport, it gets no bigger than the Super Bowl. At the time, to set a record (for longest kickoff return in the game’s history), and then to be crowned the MVP of that game, it gets no higher. So that was a big moment for me, for my family, for my team.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.