In 2014, the biggest drama of Michigan football wasn’t on the field: as the U-M struggled through its sixth dreadful season in the past seven, the fans went missing.

With the price of games increasing in inverse ratio to success on the field, the waiting list for season tickets evaporated. Students, socked with the highest prices in the Big Ten, deserted by the thousands. And as the Wolverines slogged their way to a 5-7 record, the Big House started to empty out. By the time attendance numbers were announced in the fourth quarter–102,824 for Miami of Ohio!–some fans just laughed.

Last year at this time, I predicted Michigan would win nine games. In the moment, it seemed only slightly bonkers–no one else, to my recollection, had Brady Hoke’s team winning fewer than eight.

I assumed that, under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, the offensive line would finally open up a credible running game. It didn’t happen. The offensive line’s performance in 2014 was among the worst I’ve seen in my fifty years watching Michigan football (the worst was probably 2008, when Rich Rodriguez tried to run his spread offense with players recruited and trained for Lloyd Carr’s power game). And with no consistent running threat, the offensive burden fell on Devin Gardner. Recruited by Rich Rod as a spread quarterback, Gardner was out of his element in Hoke’s mix of spread and power theories A great scrambler, Devin just couldn’t let go of a play–which meant he got banged up a lot and committed far too many errors. Of the 128 FBS teams, Michigan’s offense ended the season at 115th in yards gained–and 127th in net turnovers.

While the season confirmed many fans’ suspicion that Hoke wasn’t much of a coach, few were really steamed at him. On the contrary, fans liked Brady, even those who’d rather have seen him be just another fan in the bleachers, as opposed to the guy on the sidelines.

But frustration abhors a vacuum, and if the fans couldn’t get that mad at Hoke, AD Dave Brandon was another matter. The beef with Brandon was as much over style as substance. Even fans who wanted Hoke fired would have liked to have had a beer with him. I had such opportunities, and, yeah, he is a great guy, a genuine mensch. Brandon, on the other hand, was widely perceived as a corporate shill–in a world where that aspect of the job is supposed to be in the shadows. Everyone understood that ADs like Don Canham and Bill Martin had a business to run. But most fans preferred, in the framing of sportswriter John U. Bacon, to be treated not as customers, but as part of the Michigan family.

It’s a lot to ask an AD to be both “one of us” and a manager who can adroitly handle a $150 million operation. Bill Martin managed to straddle this dichotomy–save for his hiring of Rich Rod–and even the Rich Rod fiasco was something that most fans (including me) were excited about at the time. Fans knew that Martin would manage the business of sports competently, and that he had taken the job initially for no pay. They’d be glad to have a beer with him at his bar, Casey’s Tavern. And they knew that Martin answered emails personally and with respect.

By the time that Brandon’s arrogant and dismissive emails to fans became public, there was reason to question the business and social elements of his job performance. Brandon had confidently handled (the absurd) “stretch-gate” alleging that Rich Rod’s players exceeded practice limits. He built good schedules for Michigan football, and, following Martin’s lead, he built needed new facilities. He paid attention to the minor sports. All good. But some of his promotions–the skywriting in East Lansing, the call for near-constant fireworks–came off as tone deaf. And as long-standing Michigan icons like Jon Falk (equipment manager) and Bruce Madej (assistant AD) vanished, decades of goodwill left with them.

Of course, if Hoke had won more games, Brandon would have endured. But in Hoke’s last three years U-M won a total of two games against non-meatballs (MSU in 2012; Notre Dame in 2013).

New U-M president Mark Schlissel moved decisively. He canned Brandon and hired Jim Hackett, an ex-U-M player and former Steelcase CEO.

Hackett was supposed to be an interim hire, but no executive has ever looked less interim. First, Hackett shut the door behind the deposed AD. In a Michigan Daily interview, Hackett decried the growing corporatism of the program and said, “I don’t want to sound sarcastic …, [but] what I don’t want is more entertainment that’s not football. I think that works in the pros, but we’re in college. I believe college shouldn’t be like the pros. It shouldn’t cost like the pros.” I translated this as: “Let’s get back to our roots and sell the games, not the externalities of the games. And let’s not kill our fan base with our ticket prices.” Student season tickets this year will cost $75-$105 less than last year.

Faced with his first (and most important) decision as AD, Hackett terminated Hoke, with regrets. Everyone was onboard for this denouement; even the few stragglers (like me) who thought Hoke deserved more time understood the decision and didn’t criticize it.

The People’s Choice for Hoke’s replacement was Jim Harbaugh, a great Bo Schembechler quarterback who went on to a successful career in the pros and then, as a coach, turned around programs at San Diego, Stanford, and the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. But as much as the Michigan fan base wanted the fiery and big-personality Harbaugh, it was generally perceived as a pipe dream. There was no history of a successful NFL coach–as Harbaugh certainly was–going back to the college game. Some flops in the NFL (Nick Saban, Pete Carroll) have returned, but no one with a history of success like Harbaugh’s had willingly made the sojourn back to the restrictions imposed by the NCAA and the college game’s endless recruiting wars.

Outside of Ann Arbor, the hope that Harbaugh might come back to Michigan was roundly derided. “I said it before, will keep saying it: Harbaugh wants to stay in the NFL,” wrote San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami. “Do you think Harbaugh wants to leave the NFL after watching his brother and then Pete Carroll win the Super Bowl the last two seasons? No, he does not.”

Michigan’s AD pursued Harbaugh knowing that he was hunting a rare beast. As Bacon related in an August Wall Street Journal article–an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Endzone–“Hackett always referred to Harbaugh internally as ‘Unicorn …'” But as Bacon revealed, the coach never lost his love of Michigan and Ann Arbor–and, the night before his last NFL game, he gave Hackett a verbal commitment.

Some in the national media tried to portray Harbaugh’s choice as a money grab. Quoting speculation that Harbaugh would be receiving $8 million per year, Michael Weinreb of wrote that if he were a Michigan fan, he’d worry that “Harbaugh is doing this for the money… or out of some misguided sense of obligation to his alma mater.”

It turned out that Harbaugh took the job at the same salary–$5 million per year for seven years–he was receiving in the NFL. And even Weinreb–a Penn State fan–admitted that Michigan fans had cause for their excitement at the news: “Jim Harbaugh is legitimately certifiable and an abject workaholic,” he wrote. “Harbaugh is a prideful man, and … his loyalty to Michigan will be rekindled and manifest itself in maniacal ways, and … he will galvanize an alumni base that has become dispirited and lost the arrogant self-assuredness that made a Michigan Man a Michigan Man in the first place.” Yowza. Straight from Paterno-ville.

Harbaugh’s first press conference was a major success. His (clever and subtle) Bo homages went over the heads of some but endeared him to others. And, in a major surprise to those covering the team, Harbaugh proved to be a lot less paranoid than Hoke about spring practices. Plenty of detail and information came out of this year’s workouts, and (unlike the past) no one in the football program made any fuss. Harbaugh seemed to understand that the information that seeps out doesn’t dampen a team’s prospects–it’s more like a fire that warms and excites the media and whets the fans’ anticipation.

The fire burned hotter as Harbaugh brought aboard an all-star coaching staff. He kept Greg Mattison on the defensive side of the ball, but the former coordinator is now defensive line coach; the new boss is D.J. Durkin, who was once a grad assistant for Mattison at Notre Dame. (Durkin worked with Harbaugh at Stanford and last year was the Florida DC and interim head coach.) Mike Zordich and Greg Peterson both have coached defensive backs in the pros. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno coached Harbaugh’s offensive lines at Stanford and San Francisco; last year, he did the same at USC. Pass game coordinator Jedd Fisch was offensive coordinator with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars last year. Add U-M icon Tyrone Wheatley (Buffalo, NFL) and Harbaugh’s son Jay (Baltimore, NFL) on the offensive side, and the staff is rife with experience.

Plus, Harbaugh made one other compelling hire. For many college coaches, special teams are placed to the side or assigned to a position coach, even though about 25 percent of all plays are kickoffs, punts, extra points, or field goal attempts. Harbaugh hired John Baxter, one of the most productive and perhaps the most innovative special team coaches in the game. At Fresno State from 2002 to 2009, his teams blocked forty-nine kicks (not a typo) and scored thirty-nine TDs (still not a typo). He spent the last five years at USC, where he delivered uniform success. Baxter’s hiring is a big deal.

About 60,000 fans turned out for Michigan’s spring game, probably four times as many as the year before. And to everyone’s delight, it turned out to be an actual (more or less) game–something that hadn’t been seen in many years. But because Harbaugh conducted a draft in an attempt to evenly match the squads, evaluation of the team’s overall quality was quite difficult. This was heightened by the fact that, on defense, Michigan has twenty-five or so guys who can actually play, so there is depth at most positions; splitting the defense in two didn’t reveal much of a drop in quality from Team A to Team B. And whatever the new coaches may be planning offensively they were keeping under wraps. In terms of play structure the spring game was the most vanilla, ever. Power, Power, stretch, then a try at beating the defense’s cover-two zone with a deep sideline throw between the corner and the safety.

Off the field, Harbaugh continued to make headlines. In April, Michigan announced it was scheduling “satellite camps” for high school players at venues far from Ann Arbor. Such camps provide opportunities for teenagers to receive the sort of coaching not readily available locally, without the travel and housing expense. They also give teams a chance to build relationships with athletes they might want to recruit.

The move made sense: As the rust belt lost economic vitality, football talent seeped out of the Midwest and is now most prominent in California and the Deep South. Last year, Penn State’s new coach, James Franklin, ran camps for high school kids in Georgia and Florida. He suffered some mild heat from the SEC for poaching in their territory but shrugged it off and expanded to five camps this year (including one in Detroit).

Harbaugh upped the PSU ante by scheduling nine camps in nine days in seven states. Workaholic? I guess so.

A camp in Prattville, Alabama, drew the ire of Alabama coach Nick Saban. First, Michigan was encroaching onto his turf. Second, the SEC barred its schools for holding such events more than fifty miles from campus. Saban and Georgia coach Mark Richt complained to the NCAA and pressed the national organization to adopt the SEC rule.

Far from backing off, Harbaugh trolled SEC coaches by inviting them to the Michigan camps. “As a Collegial gesture we invite Coaches from every college to be involved in our football camp,” he tweeted. If the SEC disallows that, he added, “…we cordially invite your head coach to be our keynote speaker.”

This didn’t play well in Tuscaloosa–Saban was not about to speak at a Michigan camp. But the national media drank it up. On ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” Tony Kornheiser called Harbaugh “fabulous” and said that the buzz was “buoying college football.” PTI co-host Mike Wilbon called Harbaugh “a rascal” and chided Saban for “not having an ounce of humor in his body.” The SEC gave up its NCAA complaint–and rescinded its own ban on off-campus coaching events.

Without playing a game, Harbaugh had Michigan back in the public eye. One day he was in Detroit with Michelle Obama promoting educational incentives. The next day he put in an appearance at a Michigan baseball game. Then he was speaking at a charitable organization or giving a whimsical interview to Fox TV’s Charlie LeDuff. Shoehorned in, he was advising Jameis Winston (No. 1 NFL pick) in an ESPN TV segment. Then he was hanging out with the Oakland Athletics as a base coach. Then he traveled to Peru for his annual mission trip to assist the parish of Santisimo Sacramento. Over the summer, he tweeted the U-M fan base from Paris. In August, the Wall Street Journal said he’d “hijacked” the college off-season–including the revelation that he’d dropped in on the U.S. Supreme Court, “where he gave justice Elena Kagan his heavily underlined book about legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant.” Where’s Waldo? Where’s Jim is a lot harder.

A football program is like an aircraft carrier: it’s massive and intimidating but not something you’d want to turn on a dime. Yet that’s what Michigan has been attempting ever since Lloyd Carr stepped down in 2007. The program spun 180 degrees to try Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense, then steered back to its original course under Brady Hoke.

Harbaugh first has to steady the ship’s course, then pick up speed. Thanks to his promise and peculiar charisma, football tickets sales are doing better. In that sense, Hackett’s $35 million commitment already has paid off.

Will it also produce a winning team this year? Beats me.

The defense–Rich Rod’s undoing–finally solidified with Mattison’s hiring in 2011. Besides great depth, in Jabrill Peppers it has a hybrid safety-corner linebacker who can defend the run and the pass on the fly, minimizing the need for substitutions against morphing offenses. Even with last year’s turnovers, Michigan’s defense clocked in at tenth in the FBS in yards allowed. As long as Peppers stays healthy, there is no reason the defense should not be just about as good as anyone’s this year.

The offense is another matter. Neither quarterback in the spring game, Shane Morris or Alex Malzone, fared particularly well. The potential solution is Jake Rudock, a transfer from Iowa who has immediate eligibility (and medical school) in his future. Rudock isn’t a superstar, but he is a solid game manager who makes few mistakes and completes a high percentage of his passes.

Then there’s the continuing saga of the offensive line. While Hoke recruited seeming stars out of high school, they never panned out. Splitting the OL in the spring probably made it look worse than it is, but after last year’s disappointment, I find it hard to believe that the OL will yield a quality running game this year.

If not, that will add to the pressure on the quarterback (not yet announced, but probably Rudock)–and the QB won’t have a lot of “skill” players to turn to. Michigan does have a quality tight end (Jake Butt) and possession receivers who should provide good targets (Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson), but there’s no demonstrated playmaker on the outside or anyone who can stretch the field vertically. Running back has a lot of highly regarded talent, but no one who has proven much yet. Baxter has Aussie transfer Blake O’Neill as a punter, and freshman kicker Andrew David is highly regarded. But star return man Dennis Norfleet is gone, transferring to Tuskegee.

Special teams should be intriguing, but it’s too soon to tell whom Baxter will use. In the spring game he didn’t let his placekickers (all walk-ons) make attempts at actual goalposts–he had them kicking exclusively into nets, working on form.

Harbaugh has taken the helm of the aircraft carrier, and we’ll soon see what direction he’s taking it. But it’s likely to be a while before it gets back up to speed. If Michigan can run the ball even moderately, Jake Rudock (or anyone who can beat him out) is talented enough to direct an offense that can score some points. If not, look out.

I guess it at 7-5 with some glimmers as the season progresses–if Baxter can work some magic, maybe 8-4. And hopefully, all the drama from here on out will be on the field.

The new AD is a folk hero. The new coach is the one everyone wanted. This year, we should be talking about the games.