This evening, it was announced that Jim Harbaugh was leaving his job as head coach of Michigan football to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers in the NFL. Destiny is calling him, and it’s wearing a Super Bowl ring. It seems silly to cry about a head coach leaving a college football team, but I did. I cried even though I fully expected this to happen (although I had been predicting Harbaugh the Bears, who ended up mysteriously firing everyone except their head coach).
Michigan won the college football national championship two weeks ago, for the first time since 1997, when I was five. I loosely remember that championship. I learned the lyrics to The Victors that year. I knew the names of the quarterback, Brian Griese, and the coach, Lloyd Carr. I remember my childhood friend’s father walking around their house, singing the fight song after Michigan won the Rose Bowl. I remember Charles Woodson with a rose between his teeth. I became a Michigan fan.
In the years after, my interest in Michigan faded Throughout the 2000s, football had been slowly moving to ESPN and other cable networks that I didn’t have access to. I couldn’t watch most games. After my older brother left for college at Michigan State, I flirted with becoming a State fan. In 2010, when it was time to head to college, I attended the University of Michigan in large part because it was a good university only thirty minutes down the street. I had student season football tickets my freshman year. By then, Michigan football was different. The Big House now had box seats. Michigan was in year three of attempting to adopt a spread offense under Rich Rodriguez, the replacement for Llyod Carr. The team had a wildly entertaining quarterback in Denard Robinson, but didn’t win many games. Student tickets were quite expensive for the time, $340 for the season. When the season ended, Rich Rodriguez got fired and replaced with Brady Hoke. But I didn’t renew my tickets, as I ended up finding friends and fulfillment in other places throughout undergrad. I didn’t buy student tickets again until 2014, when I returned to Michigan to start a PhD immediately after undergrad graduation.
It was in grad school where I found my people and rekindled the excitement for Michigan football. I watched us lose to Utah in a rainstorm. I attended the protests to fire our athletic director in 2015. I snuck into the front row with friends. I met a family of Michigan alumni, who had been tailgating together for decades. They accepted me and fed me every fall Saturday for five years, and eventually met my brother, mother, and father as they attended games or passed through Ann Arbor.
Michigan football merged friend groups. It is why my computer science friends met my electric engineering friends. It is why I know most of the 2007 Michigan rowing team. It is why I have a place to sleep in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s why I had a roommate and a place to live my last two years of grad school. And it’s how I got to know and love some of my best friends.
But the thing is, for much of the time I was in school, Michigan struggled. We had three disaster years with Rich Rodriguez, who we fired and replaced with the vastly underqualified Brady Hoke, who stumbled to victory in his first year and then never repeated any of his success in the following three years. We had losing seasons for the first time in around one hundred years.
But then, for the 2015 season, we hired Jim Harbaugh. A Michigan Man. A former Michigan quarterback. A successful college coach at Stanford. An NFL coach that led the 49ers to the Super Bowl (only to be defeated by the team coached by his brother). Our savior. Michigan football saw immediate success, a drastic improvement over Brady Hoke. But we couldn’t beat our biggest rivals. There was trouble with the snap. There were blowouts. There were games decided by inches and not in our favor. Games lost to field goals with no time left. From 2015 to 2019, I stood in the cold and the rain and watched us lose to Ohio State and Michigan State repeatedly.
2018 was the last season where I had student tickets. All of my grad student friends had since moved on, to new jobs and cities and faculty positions. I had friends outside of school, but of my core crew, I was the only one left. I was lonely, but the team was good. Harbaugh was finally doing it. I thought this was the year we would finally beat Ohio. Instead, we got blown out. The next week, after the season was over, I was completely demolished. I had a rough year, but Michigan had been winning. They were keeping me going. And then, when we lost, it was like I had crutch give out. There wasn’t anything left to fill the void that had been creeping up on me at the time.
I detached from football some, as I was probably leaning on it in a way that wasn’t entirely healthy. The following season, 2019, I switched to regular “adult” season tickets since I had officially graduated with my PhD. And again, we lost to Ohio. In 2020, the COVID year, the team was a disaster. Myself and many others doubted Jim Harbaugh. The Ohio game was canceled due to COVID, but the team still ended the season with an embarrassing record.
I moved across the country to Denver from Ann Arbor. The 2021 season snuck up on me. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t spend the summer reading everything I could on MGoBlog about what the team would be like. I didn’t even see the first game. I assumed we wouldn’t be very good, incorrectly thinking that the 2020 COVID season was at all representative of what the team really was. But the team came out looking good. I still had season tickets despite not living in Ann Arbor. I sold most of my tickets online, but I was able to attend the second game of the season, against Washington. We ran the ball up the middle the entire game and won by 40 points. Everyone was mad because we didn’t throw the ball enough, despite the dominant showing. But the stadium blasted Pump It Up, a relatively unknown mid-2000s club banger. And the team, hoisting folding chairs on the sidelines, got pumped up. And so did the fans.
That season, we had comeback victories on the road. A run game and a pass game that played off each other. A quarterback that could make the correct read. But we still had then a depressing loss to Michigan State on the road. And once again, the question of whether or not Michigan could make the playoff hung on whether or not we could beat Ohio. And we had never beat Ohio under Jim Harbaugh. And Ohio was very good.
But then, something no one expected happened. After holding on throughout the first half, we completely demolished Ohio in the second half. For the first time in 10 years, and only the second time in 20 years, Michigan beat Ohio. The game was in Ann Arbor, and after the win, the entire stadium rushed the field in a very orderly fashion, in a way that only Midwest schools who pride themselves in academics can.
We advanced to the playoffs. We didn’t win the playoff game, but it was fine. We had beat Ohio. And then in 2022, we beat Ohio again. Until 2022, Michigan hadn’t beat Ohio on the road in Columbus since before 9/11. Again, Michigan went to the playoffs. I attended the playoff game that season with my football friends from grad school. We lost, but it didn’t matter. We had beat Ohio twice.
In 2023, all the players came back instead of going to the NFL. Harbaugh created something special. And for the third year in a row, we beat Ohio. Once again, we advanced to the playoffs. But this time, the playoff game was the Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of them all, the oldest bowl game in existence. Michigan played in the very first Rose Bowl in 1902, defeating Stanford. Once again, I went to the playoff game with the same group of friends. And this time, we won. We won in the most beautiful location in all of sports in the United States. For much of the game, it seemed like we were going to lose. But at the end of overtime, it was Michigan with roses between their teeth again, for the first time since 1997. And it was Harbaugh who hoisted the trophy. In the playoff era, the Rose Bowl doesn’t act as the national championship game anymore. Instead, one game later, Michigan decisively defeated Washington again to win their first national championship since 1997.
I cried when that happened because of all the memories. Memories of all the friends I had made along the way, friends who had dispersed after graduation to live their own lives, but who Michigan still unified. Memories of friends I had kept up with, and friends I had not. Memories of enjoying Michigan football with people I loved. But also memories of the pain. I remember throwing my glasses on the ground after the loss to Ohio in 2016 and drowning my sorrows in ice cream. I remember thinking that we will simply never beat Ohio again in 2018 and 2019. I remember all the times people came over to my apartment, and I cooked way too much food and meat, and we watched away games that we all hoped we would win, but often didn’t. And it was because of all those times, that this meant so much. Brian Cook from MGoBlog put it best, after we won:
I said that everyone was going to float that night, but the people who had invested more would find themselves lighter, and go higher. I said that the payoff here was proportional to the pain. And I still believe that.
If it wasn’t for the three years of Rich Rodriguez, and the four years of Brady Hoke; if it wasn’t for the eight straight losses to Ohio and the only two wins in nineteen games against them, we wouldn’t have had the experience we got the last three years from these Jim Harbaugh led teams. Even when the team was bad, we came back, because we believed in Michigan. Although there were times we may have stopped believing in Harbaugh, he never gave up. At the start of 2021, Jim’s record as head coach was 49-22. Three years later, as he exits, Jim’s final record is an incredible 89-25.
I am sad to see Jim go. But I know that the highs of these past three years wouldn’t have been as meaningful without the lows of the last two decades. I know that even if Jim stayed and Michigan won another championship or won another Rose Bowl, it wouldn’t be the same. The championship that means the most to me has already happened. Because of the journey it took to get back here.
I am thankful for the time with Jim Harbaugh as our coach, and for the time spent with the best friends, family, and fanbase in the world. Who’s got it better than us?