For a month at the end of 2014, the Michigan football team was a group with no coach and no sign that things were heading in a positive direction.
The Wolverines were coming off a 5-7 season and had fired coach Brady Hoke. The roster was composed of talented recruits, but they couldn’t even muster wins against Maryland or Rutgers to secure bowl eligibility.
Jim Hackett, then Michigan’s interim Athletic Director, gave those players a chance to decide what they needed to get back on track. Over the course of several meetings, Hackett asked the players what qualities they were looking for in a new head coach — ideally, one who could bring out all that untapped potential.
Luckily for the Wolverines, Hackett found a coach who met all the players’ criteria: Jim Harbaugh.
The turnaround has been well-documented and well-publicized — a 10-3 record last season and a 9-0 start this year before Michigan was upset by Iowa on Saturday night.
But with Senior Day at Michigan Stadium coming up this week, the man who kickstarted the Wolverines’ renaissance directed the attention to the players who stuck around through it all.
“This class has meant so much to me personally, to Michigan football, to all of us,” Harbaugh said. “You look at these guys — the direction of the program was going a certain way, almost like a locomotive. These upperclassmen, these seniors, guys last year who played as well, it meant a lot to get it stopped, to get that momentum stopped. Like stopping a freight train.
“I credit them for not only getting it stopped, but even harder, getting it turned on the tracks and headed the other direction.”
Senior tight end Jake Butt is just one of many Wolverines who have been through the wringer over the last few years, hoping their work would eventually pay off.
The players never doubted they had the talent to be successful — they just needed a push in the right direction.
“We always knew we had talent,” Butt said. “It was just about putting all the pieces together. Coach Harbaugh, he’s like a wizard, man. He brought in unbelievable coaches, and it took a lot of time, a lot of hours, a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice by everyone on this team and around the program, but it was all for the right reasons. And now, here we are with a chance to do something great.”
Butt said before the season that one of the biggest mental shifts under Harbaugh was an increased urgency to not let one loss turn into two. That mindset has paid off so far — Michigan has yet to lose back-to-back games under Harbaugh — and now it will be tested again this week, as it tries to rebound from a last-second upset by the Hawkeyes.
The Wolverines have claimed to be treating every game the same way so far this season, and Harbaugh has been a picture of that. Butt said Harbaugh tells his players to go 100 percent all the time — never 110 percent. That steadiness has created an increased urgency to leave nothing up to chance, especially after losses.
Of course, it helps to have a senior class that refuses to “hit the panic button.” According to Butt, they’ve been around long enough to know that one loss doesn’t necessarily warrant drastic changes.
If they’ve learned anything from their roller-coaster ride at Michigan, it’s how to lose and come back stronger.
“We’ve got a ton of seniors on both sides of the ball and special teams,” Butt said. “We’ve got experienced coaches that have experienced big wins, heartbreaking losses at different levels and as players. We all kind of understand a little bit how this goes, and having said that, we’ll be able to handle this situation pretty well.”