Michigan hasn’t won a national championship since 1997, when the team went undefeated en route to the title. The running back for that team was Chris Howard.
Howard went on to have 868 yards and 8 touchdowns in that faithful season. Playing alongside arguably the best defensive player of all time, Charles Woodson, and a host of other great players, Howard still finds himself glued to his screen on Michigan football Saturdays. He hosts his own podcast, “The Player & The Fan,” alongside Wolverines alum Glenn Higgins, and the show has become a staple for fans. We caught up with Howard on the resurgence of Michigan football and the rivalry against Michigan State.
LandOf10: What comes to your mind when you hear Michigan vs. Michigan State?
Howard: The first word would be rivalry. When you talk about a rivalry that divides homes, it’s not (an) Ohio State and Michigan, it’s between two great programs that occupy the same state. They go after the same recruits. Michigan State has gone on a nice run, but when I think of this rivalry, it’s that game that truly tests how good you are. This game always tests your manhood. You know it’s going to be physical and a 60-minute battle. You play this game angry; it has a little more tension.
LandOf10: A lot of people have predicted this game to be a blowout in Michigan’s favor. What’s your take on that?
Howard: That’s fan talk. That’s media talk. I don’t care what the records are. As a former player, every time we went into a Michigan-Michigan State game, as far as we were concerned, our records were 0-0. That game is almost a separate game from the season. That game has a life of its own. That game goes back generations. I have former teammates that have sons playing at Michigan State and vice versa. Statistics don’t matter – this is a whole new game. Is Michigan better than Michigan State? Absolutely, across the board. But this game has a life of its own, and I think MSU will come out with a punch, but I expect Michigan to counter. Football is a funny sport. The ball bounces different ways. You have to take the breath out of them from the start, silence the crowd and take the life out of them.
LandOf10: What’s your favorite memory from your years playing against the Spartans?
Howard: I lost my freshman season, then the next three games we just rolled them. It was competitive, then we imposed our will. I had 100 rushing yards each of our last two games. My biggest memory is how physical that game was.
LandOf10: Michigan is 7-0. They’re No. 2 in the country. How do you think coach (Jim) Harbaugh has transformed this team into this?
Howard: A lot of the things I see that coach Harbaugh has done, I don’t look at it as he’s doing something new. He’s taken Michigan, and it’s kind of like a restoration project. It was old and dusty, but now it’s like he came in and began to do the things of the past. It’s a lot like Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr. He’s restored it to its glory and also put his own touch on it and updated it.
Chris Howard scores a touchdown in his final game against Michigan State – Photo via AP
LandOf10: What do you think, specifically, Harbaugh did to elevate this team into a national championship-caliber team?
Howard: I think this is the most fun Harbaugh has ever had. He inherited a lot of talent. Most of these guys were juniors, some seniors, and played a lot of football. He showed them that, if you follow this plan, you can be successful. When players started buying into his sayings, they got confidence. And confidence equals wins. Two years ago, this team would’ve quit and lost in a game against Colorado, a game where they were down early, but they didn’t. The maturation process is taking it to another level.
LandOf10: From a running back’s perspective, what do you think of Michigan’s running back-by-committee system? Should they start one lone back, such as De’Veon Smith, Karan Higdon, etc.? Or is this system now your best bet?
Howard: I would stick with the running back by committee. They all bring something different to the table. If I want to change the pace of the game or hit the hole quicker, then I want to go with Karan Higdon or Chris Evans. Then, you can bring in De’Veon Smith and Ty Isaac. It’s like a hammer and a nail. I love De’Veon because he reminds me of myself. I’m happy for Karan Higdon, though. He was kind of lost, and people had forgot about him, but now he has a lot of success. I feel comfortable with the running backs of the future, very comfortable.
LandOf10: Besides Jabrill Peppers, who is your favorite player to watch on this team?
Howard: I’d go with (defensive tackle) Maurice Hurst. I think he has so much fun out there. I love it when he rubs his stomach after sacks. He just loves to play the game.
LandOf10: What was it like to play with Charles Woodson?
Howard: Charles was one of my groomsmen in my wedding. He’s always been a great friend. He had better plays in practice than in games that no one had the chance to see. Comparing Jabrill Peppers and Charles Woodson is crazy. Peppers is a physical freak, and Woodson never lifted a weight. But, when Woodson went up against Amani Toomer on the field, Toomer couldn’t get off the line of scrimmage. When you can go play as many years as he did in the NFL, then go from never playing safety in your life to playing it in the NFL, that’s a different man.
LandOf10: After years of mediocrity and the struggles, what’s it like to watch a team this good? And to be able to say you played for Michigan when they’re 7-0, instead of, say, 2-5?
Howard: I’m always happy to say I came from Michigan. Win, lose or draw; no one take can take away our history, tradition or success. I went through a couple of bad seasons, and thank God social media wasn’t around then – I would’ve went nuts. I used to see the bad teams of recent years arguing with fans, and I reach out to these players. I talked with Jake Butt, Channing Stripling and others. I told them, for our team, it wasn’t all peaches and cream. I went through 8-4 seasons and being called “Mediocre Michigan.” You have to band together as brothers. All you have is each other; everyone else has turned their backs on you. You have to weather the storm. That’s what you’re seeing now. These guys have been through the fire, and as cliche as it sounds – those who stay will be champions. Being a champion doesn’t necessarily mean rings and banners, it means: “Can you tough it out and look back to say you gave it your all?” There’s a lot of football left, but there’s no reason this team shouldn’t be hoisting a trophy above their heads at the end of the season.
Howard said it best: There’s no reason this team shouldn’t get a trophy. We’ll see if his prediction holds true. Michigan is playing for the Paul Bunyan Trophy against the Spartans at noon ET on Saturday in East Lansing. You can listen to Howard’s podcast on iTunes about twice a week and keep up to date on that with his Twitter feed: @CHoward338.