They unfurled the sign in the middle of the fourth quarter, with Ohio State leading Michigan, 42-13.
Generally, signs are harmless pieces of paper that can be ripped to shreds by the human hand in a matter of seconds. But if a sign could ever punch someone in the gut and knock an entire fan base to the ground, it was this one.
In the middle of the Buckeye fan section in the upper half of the south end zone, an Ohio State fan named Rocky showed off the sign. Its background was scarlet, the writing on top white.
“WELCOME HOME COACH HARBAUGH.”
Around the sign, Ohio State fans chanted “OH-IO” and revealed that, no, they still do not give a damn about the whole state of Michigan.
But that sign. Ones with similar messages have appeared all over Ann Arbor this fall, on ATM machines, barber shops and restaurants. Michigan was back, baby. And it was all because of Harbaugh, the savior who grabbed the Wolverines from the fiery depths of a 5-7 season and lifted them to 9-3.
This sign, though, was different. It was an open mocking of Michigan fans in their weakest moment.
Much of the last year had been like a dream. First, Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor last December, defying logic and turning away NFL money to follow his heart. Then, the Wolverines started to put things together on the football field in ways nobody imagined, shutting out three consecutive opponents on their way to a 5-1 record heading into a matchup with Michigan State.
That game, particularly its ending, was no dream. But like the rest of the season, it wasn’t rooted in reality. It was a nightmare.
Saturday was no dream, either. It was a dose of reality, a bucket of water to the face. The sign hanging proudly in Michigan Stadium was the final blow.
Michigan, for the first time this season, looked completely out of sync in most facets of the game. The rush defense, among the best in the country, could not have stopped a 5-year old from getting into Rick’s. The rush offense couldn’t do much of anything, either. Players not named Jabrill Peppers rushed for 28 yards on 18 carries.
Urban Meyer, the coach Harbaugh was supposed to battle in close games for the foreseeable future — like Bo Schembechler did with Woody Hayes decades ago — won the first battle decisively. His team pounded the ball down the middle of Michigan’s defense, beating Harbaugh at his own game.
Across from Meyer, on the other sideline, was Jake Rudock — the guy who has improbably taken his place beside Harbaugh as the second-most beloved Wolverine. He finished the final regular-season game of his college career on the bench. He was smacked by his former high school teammate Joey Bosa and suffered a shoulder injury.
Transfer quarterback John O’Korn, another St. Thomas Aquinas alum and possibly Michigan’s next quarterback, stayed with Rudock while he was on the training table. Shane Morris spent some time consoling Rudock, too. Graham Glasgow and Ben Braden came over for hugs and words of encouragement, and Patrick Kugler gave him a pat on the head.
But all Rudock could do was watch, his left arm seemingly immobile, as his team continued to collapse. Bosa struck again, tipping a pass from backup quarterback Wilton Speight and intercepting it. He rumbled to Michigan’s nine-yard line. The outcome had already been decided.
Harbaugh, the man whose every move has been followed since his hire, didn’t say much after the game. Like he has every week, he said the team’s focus remains on getting better and improving next time. The ground between Michigan and its rivals has gotten smaller, he said.
The outcome wasn’t one the Wolverines expected at the half. Then, in what seems like a lifetime ago, Michigan trailed by just four. The Wolverines’ offense matched the Buckeyes’, and Michigan’s defense stopped Ohio State on occasion.
“We felt like we could win it,” Harbaugh said.
Few things could have put a damper on the Wolverines’ season. As Chris Wormley said after the game, nobody believed in Michigan going into the season, except for the players and coaches on the team. But somehow, the Wolverines gave their fans hope and a top-10 ranking entering the final week of the regular season.
Then came a 29-point loss to their most bitter rival.
Welcome home, Coach Harbaugh. There’s still work to be done.
Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MaxACohen.