We need to put things into perspective here.
Sure, call 2016 a disappointing year. Say the team didn’t live up to expectations, or that they fumbled down the stretch.
Now talk about all the talent that was lost to the NFL. Discuss what’s coming back, about the “rebuilding” that needs to be done. Chatter about how difficult it will be to put another Top 10 squad on the field this fall, and about the challenges they face starting Week 1 against a tough Florida team.
Does Jim Harbaugh have the magic we all believe he does? Can he get it done in his third year? Can this program avoid receding — rather, can it keep moving forward?
Yes, when you take a step back and evaluate objectively, following back-to-back 10-win seasons, the Wolverines are in a good position. But it wasn’t long ago that the troubles overshadowed the program. Lest we forget the Rich Rod era? The fall of Hoke?
Let’s go back 10 years, to the glory days, to before this crazy decade began.
All the pieces were in place heading into the 2007 season.
There was the senior quarterback and the senior running back — both of whom had started the previous three seasons. There were the dynamic receivers, the stout defense. There was the seasoned head coach, a man who already had one national title under his belt.
This was the year. The preseason fifth-ranked Wolverines were poised to make a run for all the marbles.
And then Appalachian State happened. I won't go into further detail — we all remember what happened. Hell, the entire college football world remembers that game, as if "Appalachian State" is not simply the name of a school, but rather a term coined to describe David beating Goliath.
In one week — a day, really — the lights flicked off on championship dreams. And that was really when this whole rollercoaster ride began.
The 2007 team went on to complete a respectable year, though far from the high expectations that it held in fall camp. They finished the regular season at 8-4 and then beat the No. 9 Florida Gators and Heisman winner Tim Tebow in the Citrus Bowl.
The cloud over the program, though, had already begun forming by that point. Coach Lloyd Carr had announced his retirement, and in an effort to nab a hyped candidate for his replacement, Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez before the bowl game.
Following the triumph of carrying Carr off the field on its shoulders for the final time following the win over the Gators, the Michigan football program, in what seemed like an instant, lost its way.
From the beginning, Rich Rod didn’t stand much of a chance.
He was an outsider from West Virginia. He wasn’t a Michigan Man, they said.
Star receivers Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington decided to forego their final year of eligibility and departed early for the NFL Draft, joining the mass exodus of talented senior starters. Promising quarterback prospect Ryan Mallett transferred. Not only was Rodriguez inheriting a program with off-the-field distractions, but he would have to completely rebuild his team on the field — all while implementing a system that many declared would not work in the Big Ten.
Then his team was hit with sanctions — they were practicing too much, violating the NCAA rules. A tough situation got worse. The result: a 3-9 season in 2008. It was a low point for the program. Opponents scored at-will and the proclaimed high-powered offense that Rich Rod supposedly was bringing from West Virginia scored little more than 20 points per game. Something needed to change.
Give him time to get his system in place, Rich Rod supporters said. But Michigan fans aren’t exactly a patient bunch.
In 2009, after a 4-0 start, the Wolverines lost 7-of-8 to close the season. If the seat wasn’t hot yet, the match was at least lit.
A year later, a guy named Denard Robinson stepped into the starting quarterback role. By the second week, the Heisman hype train was full steam ahead. Robinson had just tallied more than 500 yards of total offense and three scores en route to defeating rival Notre Dame in South Bend.
Maybe this Rich Rod fella isn’t so bad after all?
But then the team fell into the same slump as the previous season, losing 6-of-8 to end the year and finishing an average 7-6. There was little hope that Rodriguez was the guy to lead the program back to national prominence, and worse than that, there was little confidence he even had control over his own locker room.
At that point, the writing was on the wall. Even Rodriguez knew it. He seemed to be losing it a little, tearfully playing “You Lift Me Up” at the team’s end of season banquet.
In early January 2011, athletic director Dave Brandon made the dismissal official.
Glad that’s over, Michigan fans thought. Now what top coach can we get to replace him, to truly lead this program to the Promised Land? It had to be the best possible candidate. After all, this was Michigan, fergodsakes.
On January 11, 2011, Dave Brandon announced the hiring of Brady Hoke to take over as head coach.
Most of the reception from the fanbase was positive. Hoke greeted a packed Crisler Center the next night before the Wolverines took on the Buckeyes on the basketball court. It all seemed like it was meant to be. He was, after all, a Michigan Man.
From his first press conference, Hoke set the tone for how he would run his program. The demand would be perfection. The discipline would be unforgiving. The work ethic unmatched. And the program would once again demand respect on the national level.
Morale was sky-high. In his first game as head coach, the Wolverines faced the Broncos from Western Michigan. With a sizable lead late in the third quarter, the skies opened up and a torrential downpour caused the game to be called early. Images of Hoke soaking wet in the storm, waving his arms ready to play ball, circulated through social media.
This was our guy.
Michigan went on to an 11-2 record, defeating Ohio State for the first time since 2003 and knocking off Virginia Tech in the BCS Sugar Bowl.
Michigan was back. Until, of course, it wasn’t.
The next season — 2012 — started with a pounding, courtesy of Alabama. Despite a Top 10 preseason ranking, the Wolverines lost their four biggest contests of the year and finished with an 8-4 record before falling to South Carolina in the bowl game. But there was still optimism.
It’s tough to go south and take on the best team in the country to start the year.
Notre Dame was having a special season — nothing we could do about that.
We had the Buckeyes on the road — we’ll get them back in Ann Arbor next year.
These excuses piled up, but that’s all they were — excuses.
The next year was much of the same. The team finished 7-6, getting pushed around by the Spartans in East Lansing and losing on the final play to Ohio State. Suddenly, three short years later, Hoke didn’t seem like the answer most had hoped he would be.
Things got worse in 2014. The Fighting Irish shutout the Wolverines, 31-0. MSU beat Michigan by more than three touchdowns. Ohio State, after a tough battle for most of the game, pulled away with a 14-point victory.
After four years, it seemed Hoke’s ride was over. Dave Brandon had been dismissed earlier in the season, and finally, on December 2, Hoke joined him.
Then, after rampant speculation, excitement and anxiety, Michigan’s third coaching search in seven years came to an end on December 30, 2014, when interim athletic director Jim Hackett announced the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as the next Michigan coach. Thank goodness.
The rest, I’d like to say, is history.
But that would be naive, given what we’ve experienced over the last 10 years.
Harbaugh taking over the reigns feels different than the last two hires, people will say, and they’re right. In many ways, it doesn’t feel like a new program. It feels like Lloyd Carr is back. It feels like Bo is back. But in many ways, it feels like these ain’t your daddy’s Wolverines either.
There’s a new fire burning in the program — this time a productive one. It’s motivating. It has led to 20 wins in Harbaugh’s first two years at the helm.
But now the pressure’s on. He is losing an exceptional senior class. The team is in the national spotlight, and expectations are once again through the roof. There’s no room for taking steps backward. We’ve seen that before. It didn’t go well.
Let’s learn from the last 10 years and enjoy the expectations — and the pressure — and hope they are here for the long haul. Something tells me as long as Harbaugh's on the Big House sideline, these Wolverines will be just fine.