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Through transition, class of '09 had its ups, but mostly downs

BY DAN FELDMAN
Daily Sports Editor
Published April 20, 2009

Legendary Michigan broadcaster Bob Ufer described Michigan Stadium as “the hole that Yost dug, Crisler paid for, Canham carpeted and Schembechler filled.” And for four years, we had the privilege of visiting its northwest corner seven or eight times each year.

If you’re a Michigan fan on this campus, many of the seminal moments from your time here are almost certainly Football Saturdays.

For us fourth-year seniors, that first game came in early September of 2005 against Northern Illinois. Unobstructed by any construction, sunlight filled Michigan Stadium. And the Wolverines, wearing their classic Nike uniforms, beat Northern Illinois, 33-17.

The game wasn’t anything special, just a typical warmup game against Mid-American Conference fodder. Jason Avant had nine catches for 127 yards and a touchdown in Michigan’s pro-style offensive scheme. But Michigan’s defense, under the coordination of Jim Herrmann, let Husky running back Garrett Wolfe rush for 148 yards.

The game was over as quickly as it began, and we went back to our dorms to rest up for the last night out before our first classes started.

Flash forward to the Northwestern game this year. Remember how you were happy you were standing in the sleet? At least it was more comfortable than the cold rain. In an absolutely miserable game for everyone involved, Michigan lost, 21-14.

In between, there were plenty of moments that will stand the test of time — both good and bad.

The Wolverines ruined Penn State’s perfect season on a last-second Mario Manningham touchdown catch, lost twice to Ohio State, staged a 19-point comeback against Wisconsin, lost to Appalachian State and Toledo and waited in the locker room while the student section held an impromptu dance party during a lightning delay.

But this is our legacy: 12 times we got up early, went to our favorite pregame spot, drank our beverages of choice, headed down Hoover, into the Big House and then walked home after a Michigan loss.

That’s the most home losses since the class of ’68. From 1970-77, the Wolverines lost just one home game.

And the letdowns extended beyond football. Before us, it had been 15 years since a graduating class didn’t see a Michigan team win a national championship.

We are the class of transition. In our four years here, we ushered out an era of Michigan athletics and witnessed the beginning of another. We saw Lloyd Carr, Tommy Amaker and Nike out and Rich Rodriguez, John Beilein, adidas and luxury seating in.

And no, I didn’t forget about Red Berenson. He transcends eras. Last year, he led the hockey team to break its longest Frozen Four-less streak in two decades, including two years while we were in Ann Arbor.

Don’t get me wrong. It hasn’t been all bad. In addition to many excellent games, we've seen some of the greatest athletes in Michigan history.

Running back Mike Hart and Chad Henne might be the best Wolverines ever at their respective positions. And for my money, offensive tackle Jake Long is the best player in Michigan football history.

If Jack Johnson had stayed four years, he could have been the best hockey player in Michigan history. Ditto for Manny Harris if he stays two more years with the basketball team.

And although most of you never saw them compete, our three years overlapped with four athletes I consider to be the best ever in their sport at Michigan: Tiffany Ofili (women’s track and field), Peri Marosevic (men’s soccer) and Peter Vanderkaay (men’s swimming).

Still, the crowning moment for our class came March 15 of this year. We all knew the Michigan men's basketball team would qualify for the NCAA Tournament — even before CBS’s Selection Sunday show. But when 60 teams’ names were called before the Wolverines’, a familiar skepticism festered in us all. I guess nearly four years of letdowns will do that.

But we’re in a new era now, our second at Michigan.

After 10 years of waiting, the men’s basketball team was finally invited to the NCAA Tournament. Beilein took the team from a program-record 22 losses in his first season to the Big Dance in his second. The first-round win over Clemson was just icing on the cake.

I remember a friend who was a senior when we were freshman, incredulous he went four years without seeing the basketball team make the tournament. At the time, I laughed. I knew it wouldn't happen to us, even though two years later I was sure we would have the same fate.

Making it was enough.

And it probably won’t be long until Rodriguez has the football team, which lost a program-record nine games last year, heading in the right direction, too.

Just a year too late for us.

— Feldman can be reached at danfeld@umich.edu.