ORLANDO, Fla. — Jim Harbaugh gathered his team together at halftime with a simple message: Finish the way the way you want to finish.
For a month, the widespread expectation for Wednesday’s Citrus Bowl was a blowout. Even in a down year for Alabama, the Crimson Tide are still college football’s flag bearer, providing a measuring stick for any program — like Michigan — hoping to join the nation’s elite.
Yet, with 30 minutes to play, the Wolverines held a two-point lead. Thirty minutes from the type of win that could re-define a season. Thirty minutes from the type of win nobody in that locker room had ever experienced.
So Harbaugh directed his message at the seniors.
“I know personally, I wanted to get that win for the seniors,” sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone said, echoing his coach’s message. “Cause this is their last time playing a game.”
With one half to play in their college careers, they had lost in all four of their games against Ohio State and all three of their bowl tries. But here in Orlando, Harbaugh told them, there was an opportunity to put that behind them and grab a victory that would stand alone in their careers.
It’s true for the seniors.
It’s also true for Harbaugh.
Hailed as Michigan’s savior when he arrived five years ago, he’s now lost the last two games of the season four years in a row. Since the Wolverines’ five-win improvement in his first year, the theme of his tenure has been stagnation. In that first season, he won 10 games. Half a decade later, he’s still never won 11.
All of that has been repeated ad nauseum, just with the numbers being updated annually.
But on Wednesday, it felt more glaringly obvious than ever. Because on the other sideline stood Alabama, which did win 11 games this year. The Crimson Tide viewed it as a disappointment.
Harbaugh on his nine wins? “I feel good about (the future of our program). I feel good about some of the young players that got great experiences this season and, you know, them getting their opportunity, going to work on that.”
Losing to Alabama shouldn’t deter that. The Wolverines held the Crimson Tide to their lowest point total of the season in a far-from-embarrassing 35-16 loss.
But it does provide a glimpse at the opportunity Michigan, and Harbaugh, let slip away.
“It just builds off going into next year,” Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain said. “Like I said, we needed this game. Just a key moment going into next year. It’s a point of emphasis, going into next year with a high head on our shoulders.”
That’s for Alabama, a program whose expectation next year will be a national championship. The Crimson Tide, though, understand that getting there starts now, where a win will propel them into an offseason filled with confidence and optimism.
Michigan understands that too. Tuesday morning, Harbaugh called the Citrus Bowl, “a great opportunity for our season, for this 2019 season.”
The difference for the Wolverines is they couldn’t take advantage. So while Alabama enters the offseason with 2019 marking a mere blip on their radar, Michigan enters theirs with no more answers than it had a year ago.
It’s why, as the clock ticked toward zeroes late afternoon, Harbaugh paced the Michigan sideline in a familiar pose: hands on hips, eyes trained toward the ground.
A few moments after Harbaugh had walked down the tunnel, towards a familiarly uncertain offseason, his counterpart — Alabama coach Nick Saban — cracked a smile and tossed a few celebratory oranges out of the Citrus Bowl trophy and toward his adoring players.
“I think that there was a lot of value for our program and our team to be able to come and get a reward, first of all, for having a successful season,” Saban said. “I know most people would think that 10-2 was a good season. That’s not necessarily our standard.”
For Harbaugh and the Wolverines, it is. In a good year.