The whole Michigan football program was crashing down around them. They had no coach. No reason to be proud just days after an embarrassing loss in a bowl game that ultimately was the final straw in their coach’s dismissal.
The soon-to-be-seniors were of a different breed, having already suffered through the first bowl drought in 30-plus years. Even more rare, the fifth-year seniors were about to meet their third coach in five years, something that hadn’t been done since the 1920s.
“There were rumors that Denard (Robinson) was going to transfer,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen. “There was going to be people going all over the place. Everybody was going to jump ship.”
“We’ve seen it before — we saw it when coach (Lloyd) Carr left and Rich Rodriguez came in — where everyone who was on that swing fence, where they could either leave or stay, they left,” added fifth-year senior center David Molk. “And we kind of disbanded as a team. And it wasn’t good for our team in a lot of ways.”
In early January, Van Bergen and Molk called a team meeting to make sure everyone bought in — not to a coach, but to themselves.
“We didn’t really have (a coach),” Van Bergen said. “There was speculation it was going to be the coach from Stanford or LSU. And we’re just like, ‘We need to stick together. Whatever happens, we’ve got a good thing going that people don’t necessarily see.’
“We wanted to see this thing through.”
All season long, the seniors have been the legs of Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s operation, driving the 9-2 machine the Wolverines have become. That’s why Hoke’s not doing much different this week as a matchup with Ohio State looms. The only change will be when they practice on Thursday, and that’s because of a planned Thanksgiving dinner.
Consistency is important, Hoke says, from the film room to the preparation. He even said practices wouldn’t be more physical, even if The Game will be. But that’s because his practices are notoriously physical already — the same for Iowa as they are for Ohio State.
Once he built the machine, there was no sense in screwing with what the seniors had going.
The difference this week — as it has been every week — will be the seniors, who have one last shot to beat the Buckeyes and end the program’s seven-game losing streak against its archrival. The seniors are the ones holding everyone else accountable, pushing everyone to improve each week, making the whole thing go.
“This is a huge game for our legacy as a team, for this senior group, for Team 132,” senior defensive tackle Mike Martin said after the Nebraska game.
“We just got to make sure we finish this season out the way we want to, and the way we envisioned the whole season.”
Their redemption season has been impressive already, turning around a porous defense and returning the program to national relevance in just 11 games.
No one doubts the seniors deserve their due credit.
Carr still bumps into a few of the fifth-year players he recruited, and when he sees them he tells them how proud he is that they persevered. Hoke always said that the team wouldn’t go very far if he had to lead them, and he’s deflected much of the praise for Michigan’s success to his senior leadership.
Ohio State coach Luke Fickell agreed.
“I think it starts with momentum, and adversity creates some toughness,” Fickell said. “The ability to have some older guys and some seniors that have been through some tough times, have been through a lot of ups and downs, only makes you stronger in the long run.”
The mature focus of his team allows Hoke to be hands off this week. Instead of basking in the glory of their Nebraska win, focus shifted almost immediately to preparation for The Game. And the mood around Schembechler Hall was “more serious than normal” on Sunday, Van Bergen said.
That may be the only difference — that the values and diligent preparation Hoke and the seniors instilled are amped up a notch.
Van Bergen described the “tunnel vision” he turned on to focus on each individual practice, and how he can keep improving — a mantra of Hoke’s team — instead of getting swallowed by The Game’s excitement. But Hoke admitted he thought a few of the seniors may have already been getting caught up in it, putting too much pressure on themselves this week.
It’s a heavy thought — how the seniors could complete their remarkable journey from Carr’s final season to Hoke’s new regime with a win over the reeling Buckeyes.
The expectation, though, is bigger than just Ohio State, a team Hoke has made a priority of beating since day one. The way they talk about The Game, it’s more about Michigan, how they bought into themselves all the way back in January.
“I thought we were going to win more games than this,” Robinson said bluntly. “The best that we can do is go 10-2. So we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to go 10-2.”
The machine keeps churning: November is when championships are won, Hoke told them. Now — as it has been building to this crescendo all season — championship month is capped by The Game of all games.
No one would admit what a win over Ohio State would do for their legacies, but, in generalities, beating the Buckeyes is all part of the goals.
“We have the potential to win 11 games,” Van Bergen said on Nov. 14, even before Michigan throttled Nebraska.
“There’s no reason to be satisfied with what we’ve done so far. If we sit on what we’ve done so far, our legacy won’t be anything special. But if you win 10 games at Michigan, win your bowl game, you’re going to be remembered for a long time.”