The Victors: Wolverines dominate in face of chaos for national title

HOUSTON — The barrier between very good and truly great has always appeared thin. It is not. The distance that separates one’s chances to make their dreams come true can feel like inches, and sometimes, yes, that is the accurate measurement. A fingertip. A splinter of a second on a game clock. A single point on the scoreboard. But when you are forced to keep adding up those fractions and decimal points and missed-it-by-that-much chances year after year, results that were tiny and conciliatory pile up to create mountains of cruelty.

That has been the maize and blue Sisyphus-cursed life of the Michigan Wolverines. Check that, had been.

On Monday night in Houston, when the NRG Stadium clock hit zeroes on a CFP National Championship win over the Washington Huskies — a game that was much tighter than the 34-13 score would indicate — all of that pain seemed swept away with each stroke of the dozens of Michigan players who laid down on the field to make confetti snow angels.

“That’s what a Michigan Man does,” coach Jim Harbaugh said after the completion of his team’s 15-0 season, six wins earned as he was forced to sit at home for a pair of three-game suspensions. “He makes it right.”

The list of gridiron accomplishments in Ann Arbor is staggering by any measure. The most wins of any team in the 154-year history of college football, the 1,004th coming on Monday night. Second-most weeks spent in the AP Top 25. Third all time with 88 consensus All-Americans. Third all time with 45 conference championships. And third all time now among current FBS schools with 10 national championships.

Yet it all has seemingly come with an asterisk. Always so close to glory, but always just a few yards short. Fifty-two bowl appearances, but 29 losses. One week ago, they earned their ninth Rose Bowl win, second all time, which still leaves the Wolverines three games under .500 in The Granddaddy of Them All. Even those national titles came with a dose of “Yeah, but…” as in “Yeah, but their last one was in 1997 and it was shared” or “Yeah, but their last unanimous natty came back in 1948.”

Monday night finally hit the reset button on that oh-forever counter that was as large as the Big House where the Wolverines play. The Blue fans, no longer blue, refused to leave the stadium. One man, hanging over the front row railing wept as he wore a 1940’s era leather helmet, found on the internet and carefully handsewn to perfectly recreate the maize-winged lids worn by that ’48 national title team.

“What these kids did this year and did tonight, it was their accomplishment, but it was also way bigger than that,” said Mike Hart, Michigan’s running backs coach. It was Hart who was one of the coaches charged with the task of standing in for Harbaugh during his first 2023 suspension. He was also the lead back for one of the school’s most memorable what-if teams, the 2007 squad that started the season ranked fifth in the nation but lost to Appalachian State. He continued during the team’s postgame celebration, motioning to all of the former Wolverines players on the field mixing it up with their new young saviors. “You look around here, around us right now, at all these guys, like me, who worked so hard and did so much but have been dogged for so long by what we weren’t able to do. Now, it’s done. And we are all in it together.”

That same toe-the-line-without-actually-getting-over-it storyline has also long dogged Jim Harbaugh. As a Michigan quarterback he was 21-3-1 behind center over his final two seasons, but was denied a national title in 1985, finishing second in the polls. Even in the NFL, he isn’t remembered for winning a Super Bowl, but rather the wild Hail Mary that ended his best shot as a player in the 1995 AFC Championship and his loss as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, lost to a Baltimore Ravens team coached by his big brother, John.

“I think for Jim, this is about fulfilling his promise when he took this job nearly a decade ago, and really, when he signed to play quarterback here, gosh, what, 40 years ago?” Jim and John’s father, Jack said as he stood just off the trophy presentation stage, interrupted by a conga line of congratulatory hugs from countless gray-haired Michigan Men, some wearing too-tight jerseys that they had likely donned for Wolverines’ game days long gone by. “The promise was to win championships. We all worked so hard to do that and so few of us made it happen. It had been a while. So, this is for them all. For us all.”

Jack was defensive backs coach under Michigan demigod Bo Schembechler for seven seasons in the 1970s. But Bo never won a natty. And those teams that Harbaugh helped with ended their years in pain. A streak of losses and ties against Ohio State that ruined would-be national title runs. Finally getting past the Buckeyes, only to lose to USC … and Washington … and USC again in the Rose Bowl. When Jack would come home to his boys, he would regale them with Schembechler pearls of wisdom, but then also have to employ yet another teaching moment on how to deal with the pain of losing … again.

Every single player on every single Michigan team since 1948 had that same story to tell. “Yeah, but…” Until Monday night.

“[Saturday] night before lights out, Coach talked to us about that,” running back Blake Corum, who rushed for 134 yards and a pair of touchdowns, recalled just after accepting his game MVP award. Corum led the charge of veteran players who did not charge out the door for the NFL or the transfer portal one year ago after a textbook Michigan heartbreak season that ended with a stunning CFP semifinal loss to TCU. “He talked to us about what it means to be a Michigan Man, about the history of this team and our responsibility to defend the honor of that. It’s what we always say around here, and it goes back to Coach’s coach. Those who stay will be champions.”

That was Schembechler’s promise, made during his first spring as head coach in 1969, as veteran players, angry that Michigan had hired a coach from Miami of Ohio, were bolting for the door. That team won the Big Ten and went to the Rose Bowl. Yeah, but … they lost in Pasadena.

Now, the shadow that hangs over this team is whether or not Harbaugh will stay. He bristled at postgame questions about swirling rumors and reports of his return to the NFL. “I just want to enjoy this. I hope you give me that. Can a guy have that? Does it always have to be what’s next, what’s the future?” He also didn’t care for any mentions of his suspensions or the causes of them, recruiting violations and accusations of sign stealing, both of which are still being investigated. “The off-the-field issues, we’re innocent and we stood strong and tall because we knew we were innocent.”

A round of potentially large blue asterisks could be affixed to the final record of this latest Michigan football team, but Monday night, on the field in Houston, there was no pain. No worry. No walking into the cold of winter having to answer questions about coming up short.

“People can say what they want and write what they want,” Corum continued, having just been handed a freshly minted T-shirt that read: NO DOUBT ABOUT IT. “Will there always be haters? Yeah, but … we’re the champs.”

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