Those who stay will be champions.
This has been a mantra at the University of Michigan since head coach Bo Schembechler instituted it when he took over the reigns of a struggling football program in 1969. Schembechler’s hardened style forced almost half the team to quit, and this became a rallying cry for those who remained on the team.
Beyond cliched lip service, the new Michigan coach saw the message through. When Schembechler retired in 1989, every player who stayed at least four years won at least one Big Ten Championship.
However, the modern era has not been as kind to those who stayed. Prior to this season, the Wolverines’ last outright Big Ten title came in 2003 (shared titles in 2000, 2004) and since the introduction of a conference title game in 2011, Michigan had yet to even make an appearance.
It seemed like those who stayed would lose to Ohio State (Michigan beat the Buckeyes only three times between 2000-2020) or those who stayed would finish third in the Big Ten East.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh could win big games, but never The Game. And without toppling that team from Columbus, a Big Ten Championship would always remain elusive.
Before the 2021 season — according to DraftKings Sportsbook — the Wolverines were +700 to win the Big Ten Championship, ESPN gave them a 2% chance to win the conference, and most pundits predicted another third place finish in the Big Ten East.
Even despite a 10-1 start, Michigan was expected to do what it always did: lose to Ohio State, miss another conference championship and finish third in the East. But suddenly, two wins changed everything.
After the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes 42-27 and boat raced Iowa 42-3 in the Big Ten Championship, all demons from the last two decades had been exorcised. Moreover, these wins were not exclusively beneficial by only providing longevity to an already special season; these wins set up the program for the next three to five years.
For future Wolverines, when Michigan coaches recruit they can say, “Come to Michigan because we beat Ohio State; we win Big Ten Championships; we compete for national championships.”
Selling the idea of becoming a ‘Michigan Man’ is all well and good, but without success on the field (success being defined here as competing with the best of the best; not consecutive blowouts and consolation Citrus Bowls), this value alone isn’t enough to sway the best recruits in the country. Now, the coaching staff can perfect their recruiting pitch by promising excellence in life, in the classroom and on the field because it has now been proven.
From a confidence standpoint, the impossible has now become the attainable. Every returning member of the 2021 Michigan football team believes they can beat Ohio State and contend for championships because they have done it.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh said it best after the Ohio State game when asked what this moment feels like. “It feels like the beginning.”
Those who stayed became champions in 2021.