ANN ARBOR -- The return of Michigan football came on a frigid Tuesday night in November, with more than 200 Wolverine fans linking arms and singing the alma mater.
Yes, ironically enough, the rebirth of Michigan football happened in a cemetery.
For the last several years, Michigan has had a football problem; there’s no doubt about that. But, more deeply, the very pillars upon which one of the greatest programs in the nation was built had become rotten, putrid with mismanagement and disconnect between those in charge and those who love the excellence Michigan can embody.
The rebirth came Tuesday night, with Jim Harbaugh joining those Wolverine fans in a walk through Forest Hill Cemetery to visit the graves of Bo Schembechler, Bob Ufer and Fielding Yost. It came with his emotional speeches at each stop. It came when he asked the 200-plus fans to bow their head in prayer for Chad Carr. And it came when he led the group in "The Yellow and Blue" and "The Victors."
Video: Jim Harbaugh honors Chad Carr. "Yost and Ufer and Bo will be on the lookout for the newest angel." pic.twitter.com/mpuWibjK7d— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) November 25, 2015
Video: Jim Harbaugh leads Michigan fans in "The Victors" at the grave of Fielding Yost. pic.twitter.com/u9GXs3RHUC— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) November 25, 2015
Saturday afternoon will be about football -- Michigan isn’t quite back in that just yet. But Bo, Yost, and Ufer, and all the Michigan faithful, were smiling Tuesday night.
* * *
Jeff Holzhausen, the original Michigan super fan, has been leading the graveyard walk for more than 20 years. It began when he was a student here, and it has stuck as tradition.
Every year, the Tuesday before the Ohio State game, Holzhausen leads a walk from Burton Bell Tower to the cemetery, where he stops at the graves of some of the biggest names in Michigan athletics. He lays a yellow rose on their tombstones and offers anyone the opportunity to share their stories. Then, in a symbolic gesture, smashes a buckeye nut with a hammer.
It’s a wonderful tradition, and dozens of people join him each year. Sometimes the crowds are bigger, like the year Schembechler passed away. Sometimes they’re smaller -- last year was one of those times.
Tuesday, though, he ran out of flowers to distribute. The procession was so large it briefly stopped traffic; once it arrived at the cemetery, those in the back had to huddle tight just so they could hear.
And right as Holzhausen began navigating the group toward Schembechler’s grave, the first stop, a car pulled into the cemetery. Jim Harbaugh, his father Jack, and Michigan director of internal relations Zach Eisendrath all joined the crowd.
Todd Anson, a family friend, had told the Harbaughs about the tradition, and the coach knew it would be a valuable experience, Jack explained.
So Holzhausen stopped at Schembechler’s grave, where -- as is tradition -- he played the famous "The Team" speech, then afterward asked if anyone had any words. And Jim Harbaugh stepped forward.
"Bo Schembechler set the standard," Harbaugh said. "I draw daily inspiration from Coach Schembechler like so many that knew him, that were associated with him, anyone that played for him, anyone that coached with him. He set the standard at the very highest level. One of the greatest of all time."
Jim Harbaugh speaking at Bo's grave. pic.twitter.com/ApMvQyTGXa— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) November 25, 2015
And Jack Harbaugh: "Never once did he give a talk before a game that your hair didn’t raise up on the back of my neck. He was such a motivator and inspiration. … I love the man, will always love him. As long as there’s breath in my body, he will be an inspiration."
Then Holzhausen handed Jim a buckeye nut and the hammer, and Michigan’s coach completed the ritual.
The next stop was the grave of Bob Ufer, the legendary Michigan radio announcer. Jack Harbaugh shared a story about how, on Fridays, Ufer would come into the football offices, find an empty room and play game film on a projector. He’d call the game "as if he were calling it on Saturday," preparing himself for the broadcasts he knew were so dearly beloved by Wolverine fans.
"It was a labor of love for Bob Ufer," Jack said. "I remember Jim and John, they had those record players, and they’d go up to the room and put those on, and they’d listen to Ufer’s call of those great 1970s teams."
And finally, the group paid tribute to Yost. But before the walk ended, Jim Harbaugh asked the crowd to bow their heads and recite the Lord’s Prayer for Chad Carr, the grandson of former coach Lloyd Carr who passed away Monday at age five.
"I know Coach Yost and Bob Ufer and Bo Schembechler will be on the lookout for the newest angel," Harbaugh said.
* * *
The Game won’t be played until Saturday, and Michigan will need a win and some help to stay in the hunt for the Big Ten title.
But it already feels like Michigan has won something back, doesn’t it?
Jim Harbaugh became the first coach to participate in Holzhausen’s graveyard walk. He did so for the same reason that 200 fans braved the winter night -- to pay tribute to three men he respects greatly.
Harbaugh came because "it’s about the people. People are Michigan’s legacy and its future."
"It just doesn’t get any better to have that connection, to have that feeling of pride and that feeling of love -- to love something and have it love you back as well," Harbaugh said. "If you talked to 99.9% of people who went to the University of Michigan, that’s how they’d feel."
He because Michigan football is a family, and that’s what families do.
Let it sink in: During the week of The Game, Jim Harbaugh spent his Tuesday night walking through a cemetery to honor Bo, Ufer & Yost. Wow.— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) November 25, 2015
Zuniga can be reached at ByAZuniga@gmail.com and on Twitter @ByAZuniga.