It is the case, even outside the realm of sportswriters like myself, that students often remember their time at Michigan through the snapshot of sports. Questions like “Where were you when Poole hit the shot?” both capture a moment in time and a nostalgic reverence for the past. We get that brief rush of dopamine thinking back to a single moment of joy. Who did we hug? What did we do? Who climbed that light pole on South U?
Students graduating this year — or whatever word we choose — have seen a four-year span packed with Michigan sports success, maybe more so than any crop of graduates since … the late-’90s? The early ’90s? Earlier?
There were iconic moments, legendary athletes, historic runs and unexpected twists. There was a shot, a frozen dagger, a gut-punch in the pouring rain. There was heartbreak — oh, plenty of that. A loss at Kinnick. Inches of a football separating triumph and tumult. Titles and near titles. Surprise postseason runs. Coaching changes we expected and coaching changes that seemed unfathomable.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. I picked eight. Your eight might be different. We’re all susceptible to our own biases. But here are the eight moments, runs, games and events that will define how I remember our four years on this campus. I’d love to hear from you, particularly my fellow graduating seniors — @Max_Marcovitch on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org — to see where you agree or disagree.
I’d imagine if you’d taken an on-campus approval poll of every athletic figure at the school (addendum: someone should do this), Beilein likely would have ranked highest. People inside and outside the program knew him to be a good person. And most importantly, he won — a lot. He singlehandedly made a program relevant at a school that prioritized football first, second and third. He never recruited quite as well as you’d hoped; by the end, he made you a truther in that philosophy, anyway.
For those not plugged into Beilein’s inner-circle, the departure came as a shock. The ship seemed to have sailed for a 66-year-old college basketball lifer to gamble on a professional job, in the unlikely event one would even surface. But he did. On a random May morning, a single tweet from Adrian Wojnarowski sent ripples from Ann Arbor to Cleveland and beyond.
His departure also marked an inflection point in the trajectory of the program. Could the infrastructure he built sustain his departure? Would interest around the program wane?
Early signs are eminently positive on both fronts, though far from a closed book. In other words: It should speak volumes about his successor that when Beilein’s tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers petered out, there wasn’t even the slightest suggestion that Michigan should try to rekindle the flame.
That doesn’t make that single moment — the kind that triggered double- and triple-takes — any less startling.
Put yourself in the shoes of Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman in this moment. Your college career, one which not only ranks among the best in program history, but which has never received the credit it deserves, hangs in the balance. This play is for you — the same play they ran against Minnesota earlier in the season to get him to the free-throw line and force overtime. You should be the hero.
The ball is in your hands. The clock is dwindling. You catch the ball at midcourt, begin to dribble and hear this voice belting your name. You have to make this split-second decision: Keep dribbling and try to get this yourself, as roughly 99 percent of college basketball players in his spot would, or pass to the freshman who had yet to take a shot all game, made just five of his 19 shots in the Big Ten Tournament and averaged just over 12 minutes per game.
It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Poole’s wayward attempt bricks rim, Michigan packs up a roller-coaster season and Abdur-Rahkman spends years regretting giving up the ball at all.
The shot, of course, went in.
Pandemonium ensued. The bench went nuts. Skeeps lost its mind. Students flooded the streets. Poole became an instant legend. Michigan made the National Title Game. The rest is history.
There are plenty of ways to dissect this play from Poole’s perspective. But man, that’s also an astounding display of faith from Abdur-Rahkman, a habitually selfless basketball player. Let’s not lose sight of that.
(Oh, it also gave us the single most iconic image in Michigan Daily history.)
They just kept winning. The Wolverines entered the Big Ten Tournament unsure if they’d even make the NCAA Tournament. They did. The won their Regional. They beat Texas Tech, then Florida State, then Texas Tech again. There were folk heroes, like Jimmy Kerr and Tommy Henry. There was late-inning magic. At some point, those of us who believe in whimsical things like “destiny” in sports couldn’t help but feel this was it. Suddenly, coach Erik Bakich, the disciple, was staring down Vanderbilt coach, Tim Corbin, the master, with a chance at college baseball glory. Quietly, Bakich took a middling Big Ten program and made it a model for midwestern baseball during the last four years. And I say quiet, knowing that emergence from subtlety probably came earlier than expected.
The Wolverines came just short, of course, losing Game Three of the College World Series to the Commodores, 8-2. But the run put Michigan baseball on the map, locally and nationally, in a way it hasn’t been in quite awhile.
Time to get on a bit of a soapbox. If you crowdsourced the entire senior class, I bet a plurality would point to this game as their single favorite sports moment in college. They’ll tell you about how the rain actually energized everyone. They’ll pull out their iPhone, pull up the link of everyone singing Mr. Brightside. And that’s cool.
They leave out one convenient fact: This is one of the worst losses of the Harbaugh era to date!
Michigan’s offensive staff decided to throw the ball with John O’Korn 35 times in the pouring rain. He completed just 16 of those passes, and threw three interceptions. Michigan lost by four. To an unranked, unremarkable Spartans team.
Lots of people remember it for a roaring rendition of Mr. Brightside. It was loud. I remember it as a low point of the Harbaugh era.
Michigan hockey experienced more volatility in our four years on campus than most college hockey programs go through in a decade. It started with the retirement of Red Berenson, who built the Wolverines from the ground up; but for whom that success had started to slip away.
He ceded coaching responsibility to Mel Pearson, a former assistant and then-coach at Michigan Tech. Pearson was ostensibly afforded a few years to recalibrate the program and get the Wolverines on track to compete once again. It was that baked-in expectation that made the 2018 Frozen Four run all-the-more surprising.
Pearson took a pedestrian Michigan team (11-10-3 in Big Ten play) on a magic carpet ride, set to square off with Notre Dame in the Frozen Four. The game was tied at three as the third period winded down; overtime appeared inevitable. But with 15 seconds left the Fighting Irish gained control of the puck and pushed forward. They kept going. Two-on-two. Notre Dame forward Cam Morrison slung a pass in front of the net, where forward Jake Evans tossed a shot on net. The puck slipped through Michigan goaltender Hayden Lavigne’s pads. He leapt back, trying to recover, but the puck was already in the net.
Hockey can be particularly cruel in that way. Swift. Jolting. Crushing.
But that momentary devastation did little to change the 1,000-foot view: Michigan hockey, for the first time in awhile, felt like Michigan hockey.
This team was a good ol’ fashioned buzzsaw. Michigan won the Big Ten without losing a conference game. It had prolific goalscorers and a stifling defense. It had heroics at every step. And it, quite easily, could have won a National Championship.
Under coach Marcia Pankratz’s guidance, women’s field hockey has become one of the most consistent programs on campus. That 2016-17 squad was inarguably her best.
Still, the Final Four loss to No. 9 Maryland does little to take away from one of the most dominant teams, in any sport, of the last four years.
Said Pankratz after that loss: “(They) will go down as one of our best ever.”
The ascent of the women’s basketball program has been steady under Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico these last four years. The 2016-17 group embodied a new high in the program’s history. Barnes Arico shepherded a program-high 28-win season. Still, her team was snubbed from the NCAA Tournament.
But it took that slight in stride, regrouping to storm the WNIT.
The WNIT final against Georgia Tech slips through the cracks as all-time Michigan classics go, but it was that and then some. The most prolific scorer (men’s and women’s) in school history, Katelynn Flaherty, pulled a rabbit out of a hat — hitting two 3-pointers in the final 1:07 of regulation to send the game to overtime. The Wolverines eventually clawed the title out in double overtime 89-79, with Flaherty’s 27 points putting her over 2,000 career points. It also earned her tournament MVP honors.
That team could’ve folded after its perceived NCAA Tournament snub. Instead, it raised its first banner in program history, and paved the way for two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in the ensuing years.
I’ve always thought, and I’m not just saying this, that the arbitrary nature of referees spotting a football from dozens of yards away is the single dumbest thing in sports. I mean, really think about it: A human being, with all the sight deficiencies of any other human being, must decide exactly where a knee or elbow hits the ground or where “forward progress” stops and simultaneously remember, down to the nearest foot, where a football aligns with the field at that very moment. He then must remember those exact measurements as he goes to break up a pile and place the football in that exact spot.
But wait! We then use a very precise indicator — a chain-linked, 10-yard measurement — to assess down to the nearest inch whether that very arbitrary spot made that line to gain. It’s truly insane. I mean, in the sense that big, athletic human beings running into each other at violent speeds for the sake of public entertainment isn’t already insane, but I digress.
I say all this because I don’t remember this game for the JT Barrett spot — an incredibly difficult spot to ascertain even on video review. I remember it for the play before. This game was decided on the play before. The current state of Michigan football, you could argue, was decided on the play before.
Had Jabrill Peppers or Taco Charlton or Mo Hurst or Ryan Glasgow or Ben Gedeon or any of the other six Michigan defenders chasing Ohio State running back Curtis Samuel secured the tackle-for-loss that seemed inevitable, the Wolverines probably win that game. Michigan never leaves it up to an arbitrary spot. And we’re probably talking about a College Football Playoff season.
But they didn’t. And we’re not. Instead, we’re left trying to freeze-frame images and alter physics on a difficult spot, wondering what could have, would have — should have been.
Marcovitch can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch.