FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Sitting behind the podium at Wednesday’s Orange Bowl press conference, Andrew Vastardis was asked about his “Michigan vs. Everybody” t-shirt. A smile crept across the sixth-year center’s face as his eyes peered down at the maize lettering.
“That shirt really begins from fall camp and spring ball when we knew that a lot of people would be counting us out,” fifth-year offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said. “I saw somewhere there was a 0.05% chance of making it to the College Football Playoff. A lot of people didn’t believe in us, and it kind of drove us this whole season.”
Coming off a dismal 2-4 season, there was little reason to believe the 2021 Michigan football team would be competitive back in August. Yet here the Wolverines are, four short months later, fielding questions ahead of the team’s first-ever College Football Playoff appearance.
That’s a credit to the program’s drastic culture shift. The players came together early in the offseason after hitting rock bottom in 2020 and agreed change was necessary. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took similar action, overhauling his coaching staff while vowing to coach without fear of consequences.
“We had to be different,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara said. “We had to change the way we were doing things, whether we thought that we were too cool or whatever the reasons were. I just felt like there were some issues on the team that we had to handle, and we had to come together.”
So they did. Winter meetings zeroed in on culture change, while Harbaugh’s new hires injected much-needed youth into the program. Harbaugh called a team meeting to deliver a critical message: The train is leaving the station. Don’t miss it.
Shortly after, a fired-up roster began putting the changes in motion.
“It’s been mentioned that this team is really player driven, and I think that’s true,” McNamara said. “The guys on this team care about what this team looks like, how this team carries itself, and the combination of the change that coach Harbaugh wanted to make, I think it has created a result and a really great culture that we have here.”
Added senior running back Hassan Haskins: “The culture on this team definitely changed, and I’m loving it. Everybody has just been buying in, coaches, players, and we’re just all coming together. The energy is top tier.”
From that moment on, there was no turning back. After a two-win season, reconstructing the program’s culture became just as much of a focal point as improving the on-field issues. As a result, the Wolverines’ bond only grew stronger leading up to the season.
“This team is so special, and one thing I can point to in all seriousness is our togetherness,” fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross said. “We’ve got each other’s back, and we not only say it, we’re about it — offense, defense, special teams. We all have each other’s backs, and we play for each other, and I honestly feel like that’s the separator with us in these games. … The best possible chemistry of a team you can have.”
Even after an October loss to Michigan State, Michigan stayed the course. In a spot where previous iterations of the program may have folded, the Wolverines rebounded with blowout wins over Indiana and Maryland and a gutsy comeback victory at Penn State. That set the stage for a program-shaping win over Ohio State and a 42-3 blowout of Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Through it all, Michigan relied on its reshaped culture. It’s guided the team from Big Ten bottom-dwellers to conference champions in just one year. And with a matchup against No. 3 Georgia looming, the Wolverines have an opportunity to further etch this season into the program’s storied history.
“The relationships and how to go about preparing for these moments, how to go about work ethic, that’s really the legacy I think we’ve left,” Vastardis said. “Obviously, this is how we believe it should be. Michigan should be at the top. Michigan should be playing for the top. I think that legacy must carry on, and I think we have the best staff and young group of players to carry that on.”
Whether this season truly marks an inflection for the Wolverines as a program will be determined over the coming years. If it does, the concerted effort to change the culture will go down as the turning point.