ORLANDO, Fla. — Minutes after Friday’s Citrus Bowl ended, senior fullback Sione Houma stood near midfield, trying to put on his championship T-shirt. It started off as a simple process. He put his arms through the sleeves with ease, eager to show off his team’s victory. But then his pads got in the way, leaving the shirt rumpled up above his midsection.
Houma called one of his teammates over, and with assistance, he was finally able to do something he had never done in his collegiate career: be officially recognized as a champion.
Sure, it wasn’t the national championship, a Rose Bowl championship or a Big Ten championship, but for one day, it seemed like none of that mattered. Friday wasn’t the day to minimize Michigan’s feats.
The senior class Jim Harbaugh inherited for one season is one that arrived just after of Michigan’s Sugar Bowl victory to cap the 2011 season, right before the program suffered the downturn that led to the firing of Brady Hoke. Among the fifth-year seniors, only linebacker Desmond Morgan played in that Sugar Bowl.
The rest of them had never appeared in a game that ended with them wearing shirts that had the words “Michigan” and “champions” on the front.
A loss Friday would have put Michigan’s seniors in unfortunate territory: The last four-year period in which the Wolverines won neither a Big Ten championship nor a bowl game culminated in 1968.
The previous three seasons for the senior class ended like this: a heartbreaking loss in the Outback Bowl to South Carolina in 2012, a blowout loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in 2013 and them sitting on their couches last season while 10 other Big Ten teams played in bowls. Somehow, it did not crush their resolve.
“The trust and intensity these boys had, given everything that happened, we all stuck together,” Houma said. “And the bond we created, I’ll never forget that.”
They had never experienced anything like Friday’s postgame: Jake Rudock, Joe Bolden, Joe Kerridge and Jehu Chesson standing on a podium with a trophy they had won, maize and blue confetti enveloping them; half of a stadium in Florida, the state where its opponent resided, screaming “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine”; players who not only didn’t want to leave the field after the game, but who stayed so long to run around and give fans high-fives that they needed to hustle so they wouldn’t delay the team’s TSA airport security check on the way out of the stadium.
The fans were relentless, screaming for Jim Harbaugh, chanting his name. But he stood to the side of the stage, out of the spotlight and among a crowd, holding his son Jack in his arms. Harbaugh took pictures with a never-ending line of fans and donors, stopping only to tell passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch that Friday’s offensive performance was as good as he has ever seen.
Harbaugh’s handprint on the win, on his team, was evident through it all. Michigan was relentless Friday, pounding Florida’s top-10 defense from start to finish. Things weren’t much different on the other side of the ball — Bolden said he was surprised Florida managed to score seven points. But if every day of 2015 was about Harbaugh, the first day of 2016 wasn’t really about him at all: It was about Michigan’s senior class.
Bolden, as much as anyone else, is emblematic of the struggles of his classmates. His teams have suffered through four losses to Ohio State, nothing easy to cope with for an Ohio native; he was ejected from Michigan’s game against Michigan State for a questionable targeting call that changed the complexion of the game; and last year, in the middle of a 5-7 season, he was called upon as one of a few team representatives charged with frequently explaining the inexplicable to the media.
But Friday eased much of that pain. There will, Bolden noted after the game, be a banner commemorating this bowl victory hanging in Schembechler Hall for decades. The final game of his career was a victory, and the dominating fashion in which they won made it all the more satisfying.
“It’s also memorable that you beat the runner up in the SEC that bad,” Bolden said. “If I remember correctly, I think it was worse than ’Bama beat them. It goes to show that when we’re clicking on all cylinders, in my opinion, we can beat anyone in the NCAA.”
The Wolverines will try to prove that in 2016, when this year’s senior class has moved on to other endeavors. Harbaugh will have to try to top this year, his favorite season in football. He had a team full of “jackhammers,” players who not only bought into his message, but lived it every day. They helped bring Michigan back into national prominence, and did it while mentoring the players who will follow them.
And in their final act as Wolverines, the senior class helped give the younger players their first chance to put on championship T-shirts. And for next time, they’ll have had practice. They won’t have to worry about the shirts getting stuck.
Cohen can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @MaxACohen.