Let’s start with a couple of facts about the Michigan football season. First, it was a disappointment. The Wolverines finished 10-3. They hoped and expected to finish better.
Second, there was a fair amount of heartbreak involved. Michigan lost on the final play of the game three times, each different than the last. They all uniquely hurt the Wolverines.
Michigan did a fair amount of watching, too. The Wolverines watched Wisconsin and Penn State play for the Big Ten Championship, Ohio State in the College Football Playoff and Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
For all of those reasons, it’s going to be tempting for fans to sit down again Monday, watch Clemson and Alabama play for the national championship and feel ungrateful. Disappointment and heartbreak are reasonable emotions to have. It is an enviable position to feel them after a 10-win season.
Let’s not forget that it could be worse.
Let’s admit another fact about both of Michigan’s highest-profile programs. The football and men’s basketball teams are stagnant this season. The football team finished 10-3 last year and 10-3 this year. The men’s basketball team exited in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season and seems to be headed for a similar finish this season.
In the same way, it’s easy for fans to watch another Michigan men’s basketball loss like Saturday’s, in which the Wolverines were outplayed in a 77-70 home loss to Maryland, and wonder how much better things could be. But don’t forget how good they are, either.
First, football. Many of the 137 teams in the history of Michigan football have finished better than 10-3. There’s no denying that. But you would have been thrilled two years ago if someone had told you the Wolverines would win 20 games in the next two seasons.
Now and two years ago differ in many ways, but consider this one: This season, Michigan traveled to Piscataway and humiliated Rutgers, 78-0. The last time the Wolverines made that trip — not in a different era, not even five years ago — they lost that game, 26-24, in 2014.
Michigan’s players have grown confident in the program they have revived. After that game two years ago, then-junior tight end Devin Funchess was stuck saying, “Wins and losses, that’s just a statistic.” The Wolverines now have a lot more wins.
The embarrassments of 2014 need not be relived. So much is different now.
Two years ago, as Ohio State marched toward a national championship and Michigan missed a bowl game, in the days leading up to the matchup then-redshirt junior center Jack Miller admitted: “They are playing for a lot, and we’re not.” This season, that was not the case in “The Game.”
The following week, then-interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett did what he had to do and fired Hoke. He gave a positive press conference in which he vowed, “The head coach of Michigan football is one of the finest jobs in American sports today, and we will have great options.” But even then, it seemed a bit unlikely.
Later that month, the Daily printed a list of seven coaches Michigan might consider: Dan Mullen, Craig Bohl, Les Miles, Tom Herman, David Shaw, Butch Jones and Jim Harbaugh. All but Miles are head coaches now, from Texas to Wyoming. Some may have been good fits here, but there’s not much of an argument that anyone could have turned around the program as quickly as Harbaugh has.
And then there’s the men’s basketball program, where excitement might be a little harder to see. Still, a journey through history lends a bit of perspective.
In 2007, when Michigan fired Tommy Amaker and hired John Beilein to become its new head coach, the Wolverines had not made the NCAA Tournament since 1998. Worse, enthusiasm surrounding the program was low, Crisler Center was an afterthought and the team showed few signs of forward momentum.
The week Beilein was hired, the Daily wrote that one of his first priorities would be to maintain the commitment of a highly touted recruit, a Michigan Mr. Basketball winner from Redford by the name of Corperryale “Manny” Harris. Beilein did that, and Harris led the coach’s second team to the NCAA Tournament in 2009.
Much more prosperity followed, and the basketball program rose in stature as a result. In the Daily’s coverage of Beilein’s introductory press conference, this newspaper wrote, “The other major issue at hand was Michigan’s lack of practice facilities. Beilein acknowledged that he and (former Athletic Director Bill) Martin have a general plan for the future, but said nothing was set in stone. When pressed on the fact that he indeed, wasn’t guaranteed a new practice facility, Beilein deflected the question.”
“That’s all I can ask, is give us a chance to compete with our competitors and recruiting young men, practicing and developing our players,” Beilein said that day.
Ten years later, he has a pristine new practice facility, the William Davidson Player Development Center, and Crisler Center is newly renovated. Back then, the future of the program under Beilein seemed uncertain. In breaking down the pros and cons of 12 possible hires, the Daily wrote that Beilein, then 54, “may not be interested in coaching for much longer.”
A decade later, it’s safe to say he was. Beilein has led Michigan to one of its longest runs of success. Wednesday, he won his 200th game at the helm of the program, and he will likely go down as the best head coach in its history.
It’s funny what happens when you look back on those moments. Two years ago, the Daily predicted the chances of each of those coaches being Michigan’s next hire. In the section about Harbaugh, the answer to the question “Could it happen?” was “No matter how hard you wish, it’s not likely.” The paragraph added, “But if Hackett were able to swing the deal, it could the beginning of a turnaround.”
He did, and it was. Michigan has Harbaugh, it has Beilein and it could do a lot worse. Don’t forget that.
Lourim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jakelourim.