“For the last five years I’ve been trying to do one thing, get to right here. That’s all it’s been about. Bringing everybody back.”
This line was uttered by Scarlett Johannson’s “Black Widow” in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame when faced with a monumental decision that could save the world. And in a way, it is also reflective of what Jim Harbaugh has been trying to do at Michigan.
Harbaugh enters his fifth season as Michigan Football’s head coach having brought the program back into the national discussion (both on and off the field) after a decade of futility and embarrassment. And for five years, Michigan has been unable to win that first Big Ten Championship and beat its biggest rival, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
The fuel and the desire to hit that goal has increased with each painful loss and setback that has been met along the way. But the most recent failure — the biggest one yet at the end of 2018 — may be the push our heroes need to banding together and saving the universe.
Err, I mean, realizing the potential of this football program.
Anyone who knows me knows that in addition to my duties in my working life and in sports, I’m also a huge Marvel nerd. I wanted to make comic books when I was a kid and the last 10-15 years of comic book cinema has been a blast for me. It’s part of who I am. Which is why I can’t help but shake the forthcoming comparison.
The 2018 Michigan Wolverines was its version of Infinity War and 2019 has the chance to be the second part of the story — its Endgame.
(Spoilers for both films will follow. But they made a buttload of money and you’re still here, so you know what happens already).
Marvel and Disney’s 2018 film was historic in that it was — at the time — called one of the most ambitious crossovers in cinematic history. All of the pieces (the heroes) were in play for an all-out war of epic proportions in a race against the clock to protect the universe from Thanos, a nearly unstoppable warlord in pursuit of magical stones (Infinity Stones) that — when assembled — had the power to wipe out half the universe.
That movie begins with Thor, a cocksure warrior and the god of thunder, getting his behind handed to him while being ambushed by Thanos. The rest of the film sees our heroes scrambling to get this fight back on the right track to set up the final confrontation that saves the universe.
Michigan shared this parallel last season when, with a ton of hype and perhaps a bit of hubris, went into Notre Dame and got punched in the mouth and lost its first game of the year. That setback would become fuel for the rest of the season, where our Wolverine heroes rallied together to set up their final confrontation of the season with the Ohio State Buckeyes, who has been their version of the unstoppable warlord.
In the end, the defense that the Avengers mounted on multiple fronts failed because there was a disconnect there. Our heroes were never truly together and on the same page, and even fought that final battle on different fronts. They lost, and when Thanos assembled the Infinity Stones in an event now canonically known as “The Decimation” or “The Snap,” half of the universe — and many of the heroes — were wiped out of existence.
Our heroes lost. Badly and thoroughly.
Michigan’s final battle went a similar way at the end of last season. Despite their best efforts to shed the narratives about them, Ohio State embarrassed them. Badly and thoroughly.
The defense was a problem and failures to adjust to things they saw down the stretch cost them their shot at a championship. And like the disjointed Avengers, Michigan’s archaic offense did not match where the college football universe was going.
It was never going to be enough.
When Thanos snapped his fingers, every living being in the universe was dusted away into oblivion. That 62-39 embarrassment in Columbus did a similar thing to the Michigan fanbase when the fever pitch turned into humbling silence.
More doubts than ever were cast onto what the future was.
Oh, god, indeed.
But that is not where this story ends.
“We’re in the Endgame now”
Like the depressing cliffhanger at the end of Infinity War, we had to wait a year for what comes next. We do not know how the Wolverines will rebound from the devastating end to last season, but it feels like multiple acts of this story have already been written.
Again, Endgame spoilers on the way.
Endgame sort of opens as an epilogue to what happened at the end of the last movie with our heroes still sulking in their grief weeks later. The remaining heroes finally work up the courage to confront Thanos so they can get the stones for themselves and reverse everything that happened. Well, they get there and it’s too late. The stones are destroyed and all hope is lost. And Thanos loses his head.
“I am inevitable,” he utters as one of his final words.
The weeks after Michigan’s decimation at the hands of Ohio State were similar. Not only did they lose, but they lost friends that they would not be able to count on for the next battle. The likes of Devin Bush, Rashan Gary and Karan Higdon were not “dusted” like the Avengers were, but they decided to sit out the ball game. Michigan would be going in shorthanded.
And what was inevitable was that nothing was going to change. The offense was not going to try anything different. The defense was going to struggle without some of its key pieces. It was going to be another disaster. And it was a hopeless feeling that went into a long offseason of reflections.
So as to not make this writeup too lengthy, basically what happened to the Avengers next was five long years that passed before a glimmer of hope came about that lead to the formulation of a plan that was able to bring everyone back and restore things to the way the world needed them to be. There was a lot of workshopping, a lot of experimenting and a lot of finding out where things went wrong.
Michigan did not wait five years, and it was more like five weeks or so, but Harbaugh decided there was a way that he might be able to win this fight after all. But he had to change. He had to make some sort of sacrifice play, like Black Widow did in the line that was referenced to start this piece off.
Faced with a situation that was going to require a sacrifice, the heroine gave herself up for the good of the fight. And it worked in the long-run, even if it hurt (or in this case, killed her).
Harbaugh’s sacrifice came in the form of doing something nobody believed he was capable of doing (and many people still don’t). He has given up control of the offense to a young and up-and-coming offensive mind in Josh Gattis and is taking a step back for the good of the team. Michigan had to be more modern to compete for Big Ten titles and College Football Playoff appearances, and to his credit, he went out and got it done.
For as much grief as the guy gets for having an “ego,” he has been fighting for five years to restore his alma mater to the glory they are capable of. That’s the Endgame for Michigan.
“If I tell you what happens, it won’t happen”
Once again, the pieces feel like they are in place for the Michigan Wolverines to go out and win a Big Ten title, but destiny still arrives. Even in a different form, Ohio State remains a threat.
They may not be run by Urban Meyer anymore, but that does not make them any less Thanos-like. Even after the Thanos we knew died, a time-travel situation allowed another Thanos from the past to re-appear as the big bad at the end of Endgame. And the 2019 Buckeyes are once again the Thanos that sits and waits at the end of the season, different version or not.
We don’t know what’s going to happen with Michigan Football this season. And after picking them to beat Notre Dame, and even again picking them to beat OSU last year despite saying all year I wouldn’t do it, I’m confident in one thing.
If I tell you what I think is going to happen, it probably is not going to happen.
Michigan has put itself into position to right all of its wrongs. It has the talent, the know-how, and yes, the coaching. But the task ahead is gargantuan and in a lot of ways, the odds and their past failures are stacked against them.
But like Endgame, if everything falls into place, this has every bit the chance to be the beautiful ending — and start of the next phase of the program — that Michigan fans have been waiting for not only since Harbaugh arrived, but in the last 15 years since they won the conference.
Sometimes to win a war, you’ve got to go through some pitfalls and lose some battles along the way. That does not excuse the losses and failures of the last few seasons, but this group they have this year has been through three seasons now of euphoric highs and painful, devastating lows.
But Harbaugh and the Wolverines persist. And are in the conversation again. We’ll see if it ends as well for Michigan as it did for our Marvel heroes.