The Michigan Wolverines fell to the TCU Horned Frogs, 51-45, on Saturday in one of the most painful losses in recent program history. It felt like the combination of “JT was short,” the death of a family pet and the announcement of your mother-in-law permanently moving in all in one.
Despite being questioned across every front, TCU came to fight. Linebacker Dee Winters played like Ray Lewis crossed with a velociraptor, and quarterback Max Duggan played like a tougher Caleb Williams and didn’t require nail polish profanities to speak for his game. In one season, but especially one game, TCU head coach Sonny Dykes graduated from celebrated journeyman to the top of his profession, with a chance to bring a national title to Fort Worth in his first season at the helm.
As for the Wolverines, Michigan still accomplished three of its four goals this season, but fell six points and one week short of accomplishing the fourth. It was the winningest season in Michigan’s 43-year history, but to quote Billy Beane from Moneyball: “If you lose the last game of the season nobody gives a shit.”
Back on Nov. 8 during his weekly appearance on the Inside Michigan Football radio show, head coach Jim Harbaugh spoke confidently about his team and their expectations: “Our time is now. Our time is not last year. It’s not next year. Our time is now, and we’re on a ride.”
The ride came to an abrupt and premature end in the College Football Playoff semifinal for the second year in a row and it is beginning to feel like a cruel recurring nightmare. But this game was vastly different from the egg an overmatched Team 142 laid last year against eventual national champion Georgia.
Despite an abundance of uncharacteristic missed tackles, two pick-sixes from the usually turnover adverse J.J. McCarthy, a goal line fumble, an inability to stop the run, a confused offensive line, untimely bad play calls, a worthy adversary and questionable officiating, the Wolverines found themselves down six points with enough time left to win the game.
Three incompletions and a botched snap to follow, and the blaze of hopeful glory Michigan aspired to go out in quickly fizzled out like deflating balloons at the end of a New Year’s Eve party. The Wolverines were unable to capitalize on the moment and now join the likes of the 2006, 2016 and 2021 teams as great, but not national champions.
Historically speaking though, isn’t that the essence and begrudging legacy of Michigan football?
Every Wolverines fan is familiar with the “Those who stay will be champions’’ rallying chant created by legendary head coach Bo Schembechler. The mantra has echoed through the program since Schembechler’s first season in 1969 and has served as a cultural ethos to remind every team of the importance of a prerequisite commitment and unified perseverance to fuel championship aspirations.
In retrospect, perhaps Schembechler’s legendary quote should be adjusted for accuracy to “Those who stay will be Big Ten champions.” In Schembechler’s 20 seasons as head coach, the Wolverines won (or shared) 13 Big Ten championships and ZERO national championships; 13 great teams, but not national champions.
Even in Schembechler’s legendary “The Team” speech, he opens with, “We want the Big Ten championship and we’re going to win it as a team.”
Why not, “We want the national championship and we’re going to win it as a team?”
During Bo’s hay day in the 1970s, beating Ohio State was their Super Bowl. Without a conference championship game to decide Big Ten superiority, the Michigan-Ohio State game often served as a makeshift championship game.
A myopic approach but one that yielded excellent results, albeit on a smaller scale. But why didn’t he aspire for more? Why wasn’t the stress put on the national level?
Michigan is a rare case in college football where its winningest head coach has zero national championships to his name. It was a tradition continued in Ann Arbor with his successor, Gary Moeller, who won three Big Ten titles but could never break through nationally.
Finally, in 1997, the team, the team, the team won the big one. And regardless if you put stock into the “shared” narratives or not, Michigan went undefeated and, most importantly, won the last game of the season.
The 1997 team sparked a seismic change within the program and for the next 10 years, the expectation was to not just compete for conference titles, but to compete for national titles. Michigan teams for a decade took the field in search of something greater than the Big Ten.
Unfortunately, that era ended with the 2007 season and, more specifically, the loss to Appalachian State, which sent the program into a tailspin. For the better part of 15 years, Michigan teams have not even been battling for conference titles, let alone national ones, but instead have been struggling for relevance and respectability.
With the arrival of Jim Harbaugh in 2015, relevance and respectability were immediately attained. In 2016, conference aspirations became tangible again; in 2021, the team took it a step further and won a Big Ten championship. And now Team 143 has officially ushered in a new era.
Despite falling short on Saturday, Harbaugh and Michigan have helped reset the standard and escaped the shackles of Schembechler. This year was the first time since 2006 a national championship felt tangible, and that is why the sting of defeat was so devastating.
Long gone are the days of conference championship complacency and cries of “Just beat Ohio State.” The Wolverines have entered national championship or bust territory. Now, that can be deceptive because you never want to masquerade as a champion, but you do want to carry yourself like it until becoming one. For 13 games, Michigan carried themselves like champions and played like it en route to achieving three of their four goals.
Now, the fourth goal is all that matters now; the fourth goal is the new standard at Michigan. And if the Wolverines don’t achieve that, just like Billy Beane said, “nobody will give a shit.”