ORLANDO, Fla. –

He fought hard against the individual attention leading up to his final game, but in the end, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr lost that battle.

And in doing so, he passed his so-called impassable final test: ending his coaching career on top, both literally and figuratively.

Carr left Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium on the shoulders of his players, the ones he repeatedly told not to play this game just for him. It didn’t work for Bo Schembechler 18 years earlier, so it wouldn’t work for Carr, either, right?

Not quite.

Carr’s team would have none of that talk.

No. 9 Florida may have been the heavy favorite on paper – the home-state, defending National Champion from the supposedly superior Southeastern Conference was playing an unranked Michigan squad, after all – but it didn’t translate on the field. Trailing early, the speedy Gators and their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback did everything they could to regain the momentum. But fake punts and misdirection can only get you so far when you’re battling a team hellbent on sending its beloved coach out in style.

The perfect stage

Though Carr’s intentions to retire didn’t become official until after the Ohio State game, most people within the program figured 2007 would be his last go-around as Michigan’s sideline general. The 62-year-old coach’s team had a chance to send him out on top, but by mid-September, a National Championship was already out of the picture.

Once Michigan bookended its regular season with back-to-back losses, a positive ending for the Lloyd Carr retirement tour looked like a near-impossible fate. A team with top-notch talent and an excess of leadership suffered top-notch disappointment and an excess of injuries.

Time and time again, it became obvious that good things don’t always happen to good people. Storybook endings may make people smile walking out of movie theaters, but they’re a rare fate in real life.

But on New Year’s Day, with millions watching on a national stage, real life made an exception for Lloyd Carr.

Carr’s not alone

The game had all the ingredients of being yet another disappointment for a team too familiar with the feeling.

Mike Hart fumbled twice in the red zone. Chad Henne tossed a pair of costly interceptions. Michigan’s defense got tricked by misdirection in crucial situations.

Mistakes like that are supposed to be deadly, especially against a defending National Champion in a hostile environment.

But this time around the Wolverine miscues were just a sidenote – not a cause of misery.

Hart’s two touchdowns made the fumbles sting less. Henne threw for a career-best 373 yards and tossed more touchdowns (three) than interceptions. And the Wolverine ‘D’ yielded just four total yards during Florida’s two final offensive possessions.

Yes, after a season full of almosts and what-ifs, the Michigan football team finally closed with an exclamation point instead of a question mark.

Defensive coordinator Ron English, who, like most of his fellow assistants, was having an involuntary swan song, designed a gameplan that attacked Florida repeatedly.

Pressure, the word the highly scrutinized coaches leaving this program know all-too-well, ended up being the defense’s greatest asset.

Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who, like secondary coach Vance Bedford, is saying goodbye to Michigan for a second time, also put together one of his finest gameplans. Between a season-high 40-plus plays in spread formations, numerous handoffs to wideout Mario Manningham and even a pass to All-American tackle Jake Long, DeBord proved he actually knew there was life beyond the zone left run.

“They put in all this hard work game planning, and they could have been at Disney World having fun with their kids knowing that they didn’t have a job here,” senior Jamar Adams said. “This is the character that Michigan has. This is the part of the program that’s character-built. It’s respect. It’s loyalty. That’s what they showed.”

Character, respect, loyalty? Sounds like someone we know.

The outgoing senior class, some of the most highly decorated individuals in the history of the storied program, finally put together a memorable team accomplishment in its last chance to do so. It was a great ending for some soon-to-be NFL stars who were 0-7 against Ohio State and in bowl games before Tuesday’s win.

But in the end, the day was Carr’s. And rightfully so.

Icing on the cake sweet as can be

Lloyd Carr was always going to be remembered fondly by most unbiased observers. His most valuable contributions to the program – running a clean program, running it with class and molding good football players into good people – were already solidified, no matter which team ran a ball into a little painted area more frequently.

But Michigan’s on-field performance Tuesday afternoon gave Carr the moment he deserved, whether he wanted it or not.

After his team doused him with water as the seconds ticked down in Michigan’s win, Carr quickly found himself on the shoulders of the players who tried so hard to send him out on top.

Though his smile showed he thoroughly enjoyed the moment, Carr demanded his team put him down so he could shake hands with opposing coach Urban Meyer, the same man who vehemently argued that Michigan didn’t deserve to play in last year’s National Championship.

About a half hour later, after giving a rousing final speech to his players where he pushed every player to stress academics and finish their degrees like they finished the game against Florida, Carr remained classic Lloyd in the post-game press conference, putting his players first.

“I told them I loved them,” Carr said of his locker room message. “And, most importantly I thanked them. Because that’s what a leader does, the last thing you need to do is say thank you.”

But despite Carr’s best efforts to put everyone in the spotlight but himself, it was no secret who this day belonged to.

On the 10th anniversary of Michigan’s split-decision National Championship, Lloyd Carr was declared a unanimous winner, both on and off the field.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better for this man and his career and what he’s meant to Michigan football, what he’s meant to the whole sport of college football,” Athletic Director Bill Martin said. “He’s been a great ambassador for us, and I’m so happy he went out this way.”

– Bell can be reached at scotteb@umich.edu.

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