INDIANAPOLIS — There was a moment in Saturday’s game, deep in the fourth quarter once Michigan’s lead had swelled to 35-3, when Jim Harbaugh and Aidan Hutchinson flashed across the Lucas Oil Stadium big screen.
The seventh-year Michigan coach and senior defensive end locked eyes. They screamed in each other’s face and whacked one another across the chest. And the crowd — delirious, jubilant and rollicking — roared in appreciation.
Later in the night, with remnants of maize streamers and blue confetti still draped to their clothes, the pair convened again. They sat side-by-side and smile-by-smile as newly-minted Big Ten champions.
“For guys to live on, really, in Schembechler Hall forever, I mean, this picture is going to be up there on the All-American wall,” Harbaugh said, grappling with the magnitude of the victory. “Every guy on the team in the team picture is going to be up there as part of a Big Ten champion. We’ve got a banner in Glick Fieldhouse that’s going to say Big Ten Champion.”
Last week’s stunning performance against Ohio State thrust this iteration of Wolverines into the history books. But, as has been a common thread throughout this magical season, neither the players nor the coaches were satisfied. They wanted more.
Now, after a 42-3 shellacking of Iowa, they have it.
“We fully believed that at some point or another during our legacy something would happen, something would put Michigan back on top,” sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis said. “And I think every guy that’s come in here after I got here has just bought into that and done everything they can to make it happen.”
Did Harbaugh ever think that this moment would come?
“Nobody’s owed anything,” he said. “Nobody’s entitled to anything.”
“That was obviously one of the goals going into the season, but there’s no guarantees in life, no guarantees that you’re going to win anything.”
Harbaugh is well-versed in that lesson by now. He returned to his alma mater seven years but a lifetime ago, hailed as the savior destined to rescue a tradition-rich program from the abyss. He re-entered the college football sphere with flair, charisma and a brash confidence.
Those blissful images were distant memories this time last year, when it seemed as if Harbaugh’s tenure was careening towards a rather unfulfilling end. The Wolverines were dysfunctional — at 2-4 and in the throes of a COVID-19 outbreak, they seemed direction-less. It was certainly a far cry from any restoration of glory days.
Just look at the difference 12 months can make.
As the seconds on the clock melted away Saturday night, a trio of Michigan coaches rumbled through the pressbox in search of the elevator; they fled the upstairs coaches’ box to join the pending celebration on the field.
Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis hugged safeties coach Ron Bellamy; Bellamy returned the favor to graduate assistant Grant Newsome. They acted like a group of eager, wide-eyed kids, impatiently murmuring about the elevator’s status and debating whether the stairs would be faster.
After the game, the scene unfolded similarly. Redshirt sophomore edge rusher David Ojabo stood at the entrance of the tunnel and took an endless stream of videos with fans. Those same fans informed junior quarterback Cade McNamara that they love him.
And Athletic Director Warde Manuel — the man who offered Harbaugh a contract extension last January, entrusting the embattled coach with the program’s future — pumped his fist and offered a “Go Blue” while he exchanged a hug with sophomore safety R.J. Moten.
Meanwhile, in the Michigan locker room, talk of “2%” and “6-6” abounded, both references to the meager odds that sportsbooks and pundits pegged for these Wolverines entering the season.
“Sometimes, just some of the stuff that’s out there, you just take it and ride with it,” sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis smirked. “Fuel to the fire.”
Twelve games and a Big Ten Championship later, Michigan certainly has.
“We’ve gone under some scrutiny, we know that,” McNamara said. “And we’ve battled through. We’re just such a great group of guys who just care about each other. We’ve really had that mentality of ‘Michigan versus everybody.’ ”
This is a group that Harbaugh refers to as the “mighty men and women of Michigan football.” He recites the reasons for that moniker ad nauseum — their work ethic, their day-to-day approach, their affable personality, their togetherness.
“I love this team,” Harbaugh gushed. “There’s no team I love more than this team.”
That’s high praise coming from a noted football-lifer like Harbaugh. It’s also a sentiment that goes both ways.
“One of the first things I thought of after we won was Coach Harbaugh,” McNamara, his eyes washed red from tears, said. “… After last season, it was so tough and not just for us players but for coach Harbaugh as well.
“And we know that there’s not one person who cares about Michigan more than Coach Harbaugh. This team, we came together. We want to win for Coach Harbaugh, too. We’re just so happy that we were able to give him that joy because he deserves it.”
Moments later, McNamara left the podium and ducked into the locker room, trophy in tow. Vastardis followed him, along with sophomore running back Blake Corum.
Out of sight, but certainly not out of mind. Harbaugh and his Wolverines, immortalized together.