• Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Michigan’s Last Dance? After wild season, Wolverines can go out on top


Jan 7, 2024 #Sports


HOUSTON — Last February, at a Michigan basketball game in the Crisler Center, Wolverines running back Blake Corum held a microphone and told the fans, “I promise you we’re going to win a national championship.”

“It was always for us Houston or bust,” he said on Saturday morning at the College Football Playoff media day.

Michigan, one of the most polarizing programs in college football this season because of its involvement in an alleged off-campus sign-stealing scheme, has made it to the sport’s biggest stage in spite of its controversy and because of it. Two separate NCAA investigations and a Big Ten ruling led to coach Jim Harbaugh being suspended for a total of six games during the regular season. That could have derailed the Wolverines, but instead it galvanized them, sparking the “Michigan vs. Everybody” mantra that has further fueled a determination to win the national title after two straight losses in the CFP semifinals.

The question now is if No. 1 Michigan can beat No. 2 Washington on Monday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) and close this tumultuous season with the program’s first national title since 1997 before the door to uncertainty opens again. Harbaugh has been quick to deflect questions about his level of interest in the NFL, but also hasn’t publicly reaffirmed his commitment to Michigan. The ongoing NCAA investigations — including one into alleged recruiting violations during the 2020 season — could result in sanctions as serious as further suspensions and the vacation of wins. The Wolverines also stand to lose several key players, including Corum, quarterback J.J. McCarthy and defensive playmaker Mike Sainristil among others.

“We always said since I was here, Michigan has never been ran by one man, not one coach, not one player,” running backs coach Mike Hart said. “Michigan always finds a way to have success. So I think that no matter what happens, what the future holds, we’ll be just fine.”

As straightforward and unblemished as Michigan’s 14-0 record appears, the Wolverines’ story this year was complicated. It’s impossible to untangle the team’s success from the sign-stealing allegations, one of the biggest stories in college sports this fall. Those within the program, though, have echoed the sentiment of their head coach, which is to focus on what they can control.

“Shoot, ever since coach was suspended, we wanted to show everybody regardless of what happens to this team and regardless of what adversity we face we’re going to still follow our mission,” said defensive lineman Kris Jenkins, “we’re going to still be 10 toes down together.”

For many of them, though, it will be the last time they line up together.

This is a senior-laden roster with a two-deep depth chart that features 20 players (including their kicker and longsnapper) who are fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-year seniors, including nine each on offense and defense. McCarthy is 26-1 as the Wolverines’ starting quarterback. Corum rushed for his 25th touchdown in the Rose Bowl win against Alabama, the most in a season in school history. Will Johnson, a sophomore defensive back who will return next season as one of the most talented players on the roster, said there’s a sense of urgency to win the national title because of the seniors who chose to come back “just for this game right here.”

“I think we also got a young guys that they kind of play sparingly throughout the year and they will have a key role next year and I think they will be prepared for it,” he said.

What Johnson said he’s not concerned about right now, is if Harbaugh will return to lead them.

Michigan’s administration has made it clear it wants Harbaugh to return as head coach, and the two sides have been discussing a contract extension for months, but Harbaugh has yet to agree to it. ESPN has reported that the reasons for the impasse include Michigan wanting a hefty buyout for Harbaugh to leave for the NFL. Also, Harbaugh wants some contractual protection in regards to a potential for-cause firing in the wake of the ongoing NCAA case.

Michigan assistant coach Jay Harbaugh, the coach’s son, said he didn’t have any insight as to what his father might be thinking — other than being focused entirely on winning the national title.

“Anyone that knows him knows that’s not how he operates,” Jay Harbaugh said. “He could be doing anything. It could be working with the chickens in the chicken coop or coaching or doing maintenance on his cabin. He’s just totally dialed in on whatever it is. The notion that there would be something else that’s on his mind, it’s like he wouldn’t even entertain it.”

If Harbaugh stays, he could be facing further suspensions. In late December, ESPN reported that Harbaugh faces a Level I violation for allegedly not cooperating with or misleading NCAA investigators about the alleged recruiting violations during the COVID-19 recruiting dead period. Michigan also faces four Level II violations, which are considered less serious.

Michigan is also in the midst of a second NCAA investigation for the prohibited off-campus scouting and signal-stealing allegedly led by former staff member Connor Stalions, who resigned Nov. 4. Although Michigan has not received a notice of allegations in that case, the Big Ten imposed a three-game suspension for Harbaugh under its sportsmanship policy, which the coach served for the final three regular-season games. Harbaugh could be charged as a repeat violator under head-coach responsibility, also a Level I charge.

The administration has made it clear, though, it wants him to return.

“I am celebrating the great success of the program, the great opportunity that Jim and this team has on Monday night,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel told ESPN. “We are working through everything else, including retaining Jim as our coach. We are all aligned on our goals.”

Michigan defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale conceded some parents have asked about the future of the program while he’s on the recruiting trail, but said he’s completely transparent with them about not knowing the future or Harbaugh’s intentions.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Clinkscale said. “I’m just honest with them. We don’t know. I believe the way our organization is designed that we’ll be fine, whatever the outcome may be. I tell parents all the time, my son is coming to play there. He’s going to be a walk-on. This is a great opportunity for him. But if I wasn’t here tomorrow, I would want my son to be around men at Michigan. You know, the organization, the AD, the president, everybody. Athletically, academically, they do a great job of developing young men and young people. It’s still an opportunity whether Coach is there or not.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the last time a school won at least 14 games in a season and changed head coaches the following year was in 1894 to 1895, when Yale won 16 games with William C. Rhodes and then changed to John A. Hartwell.

Harbaugh declined to say if winning his first national title would influence his decision.

“I’ll gladly talk about the future next week,” he said. “And I hope to have one, how about that? A future. I hope to have one, yes.”

Nobody at Michigan could foresee how this season would unfold when Harbaugh was first suspended in August by the school for failing to come to terms on a negotiated resolution stemming from the alleged recruiting violations. Or how the team would fare when he was suspended again for the final three games — a season-defining stretch that included wins against Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State under acting head coach Sherrone Moore.

What they did know, though, was that it wasn’t going to change their goal of winning their first CFP semifinal and reaching the national championship.

“I think that they’re really resilient, and I think when you have leaders — you lose back-to-back CFPs two times in a row in the semis — and they all came back with the same mindset,” said Hart. “I’ve never seen a team just talk about the national championship all the time.

“I’ve always been one of those guys, win one game before the next game,” Hart said, “and these guys at the end of practice would say, ‘We’re winning a national championship.'”

The staff reminded the players about Michigan’s 2007 upset at the hands of Appalachian State as a way of reminding them about not looking past anyone, but also acknowledged that this particular group wasn’t going to shy away from setting its sights on Monday night.

“Maybe with other teams if you heard players saying that, you would say, ‘Man, we need to focus on beating UNLV or Bowling Green or Nebraska, et cetera,'” Jay Harbaugh said. “With these guys it just never felt that way.

“The thing that made it special is that they were able to simultaneously have that as the goal and not let it distract from what was right in front of them. That’s what I think gave us a chance to be here.”

Corum knows that getting here is one thing. Leaving with the national title he promised fans last February is another.

“We haven’t done it yet, so have to stay locked in this week,” he said. “The hay is never in the barn. Make sure we watch as much film we can over the next couple days and make sure we’re prepared for Monday.

“This is everything I dreamed of,” he said, “everything I came back for.”


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