When a football season ends, it’s always important to take a look back for some perspective. For the 2016 Michigan Wolverines, taking a look back to 2014 is even more important. The program was a mess. The athletic department was a mess. The athletic director was forced to resign after Shane Morris went back into a game when just a few minutes before he took a big shot that left him stumbling. The team was reeling, only able to win five games and looked unorganized, and frankly unwatchable.
There were some tough decisions to be made. Brady Hoke, a man who only three years before led Michigan to an 11-2 record with a win over Ohio State, was relieved of his duties as head football coach. It didn’t feel good. He was a good man, but it just wasn’t working. You felt for him. It was his dream job and he had failed on the biggest stage. It was not a particularly fun time to be a Michigan fan.
Then the month-long coaching search that had national writers hear every coach from David Cutcliffe to Butch Jones had turned down the job. NFL insiders everywhere said Michigan had no chance to bring home the Prodigal Son, Jim Harbaugh. Michigan insiders everywhere knew better, as John U. Bacon, Sam Webb, and Brian Cook all knew Harbaugh had yet to say no to Michigan and was more than likely leaning towards returning to returning to his hometown of Ann Arbor to coach his alma mater.
Fast forward to December 30th, 2014. Jim Harbaugh was in Ann Arbor and he was here to take on the challenge of rebuilding one of the most storied programs in the history of college football. It was his dream, and almost his destiny to fulfill this position. “To come back as football coach at the University of Michigan. I have to tell you, I have thought about that, dreamed about that, since the time I was a young lad.” Harbaugh said on that sunny afternoon in Ann Arbor. “Nine or 10 years old, and throughout adult life- dreamed about coaching at Michigan, and now it’s time to live that.”
There was still a rough road ahead, though. Michigan had struggled mightily on the field, and no one was expecting a miracle from Harbaugh. Many national pundits thought Michigan wouldn’t win 6 games. They thought it would take three years for Michigan to compete nationally. They said the talent wasn’t there, that Michigan would have to wait until Harbaugh filled the team with his recruiting classes. They weren’t supposed to win in 2015.
With a grad transfer at quarterback that Iowa decided wasn’t good enough to be their starter, Michigan won 10 games and was 2 plays away from winning 12. They smashed the SEC East winner in their backyard and set the stage for a big 2016. Then, they signed a top 5 recruiting class while signing the best high football player since Jadeveon Clowney. This was all just over 12 months removed from one of the lower points in Michigan Football history. 2016 started off so well. Michigan had the baddest defense in the country and an offense that was turning the corner into being one of the best in the country. Jourdan Lewis, Taco Charlton, Ryan Glasgow, Chris Wormley, Jabrill Peppers, Channing Stribling, Delano Hill, Dymonte Thomas, Jake Butt, De’Veon Smith, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson. There were stars everywhere. The team was loaded.
After a dominant 59-3 win over Maryland, Michigan fans were thinking National Title or bust. But, some funny things can happen when you travel to Iowa City. There’s just something about Kinnick at night. Michigan struggled down the stretch and lost to the Hawkeyes on a kick with no time left. Shellshocked, they came back home for a bout with Indiana still ranked third in the country. The snow came down hard as Michigan fought their way to win an ugly ballgame against the Hoosiers. 10-1 heading into Columbus with a chance to win the Big Ten East and head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship is an ideal scenario.
The second ever meeting of top-3 teams in The Game lived up to its billing, as Michigan and Ohio State traded blows back and forth to send the game to overtime tied up at 17. After Ohio State scored on their first possession, Michigan face a season-defining fourth down. Wilton Speight hit Amara Darboh to keep the game going. After Ohio State held Michigan to a field goal, the Buckeyes faced a 4th and 1. They went to their star quarterback to try to get the first. Michigan had him stopped, they thought.
Then that spot. That. Damn. Spot.
Ohio State scored on the next play and Michigan was left to walk off the field and into the locker room, thinking what could have been. A trip to Orange Bowl was the consolation prize and a week spent in Miami couldn’t be all bad. However, it ended up being another heart breaker for Michigan as they fell to Florida State by 1 point.
After a 9-0 start, a 10-3 record is not what Michigan or its fans had hoped for. There were lots of heartbreak in the last two months for Michigan football. The loss to Ohio State was the worst. Six inches stood between Michigan and a likely spot in the College Football Playoff in year two of the Jim Harbaugh era.
And that’s the craziest part. No one could have expected that Michigan would even be in the conversation for the playoffs in year two. This is not to say that the performance in the last four games is excusable - it’s not. Michigan faltered in some of the season’s biggest moments. Some upperclassmen made some questionable decisions. Michigan failed to show that they could put opponents away in the fourth quarter.
But, it’s progress. Something this program hasn’t shown for a decade. Michigan can play defense, and soon, they’ll be able to run the ball like those teams at Stanford. Jim Harbaugh isn’t a miracle worker. He is, however, a damn fine football coach.
And Michigan is lucky to have him.