ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When this year’s seniors at Michigan came on board, they had plenty of hope.
In the fall of 2012, some joined a football program that was on the rise after a victory in the BCS Sugar Bowl. Even in the fall of 2013, after a bowl-game appearance and the departure of prolific quarterback Denard Robinson to the NFL, there was still optimism.
But then came strife and change. Two underachieving seasons and the firing of a head coach caused some to question if they belonged with the program. Others, however, bought into the change that came with the hiring of Jim Harbaugh in December 2014.
Now, Michigan is in the running for the Big Ten East Division championship. That would open the door to the Big Ten title game and a potential berth in the College Football Playoff. Even now, Michigan faces some adversity. Starting quarterback Wilton Speight is questionable for the weekend with an undisclosed injury to his left shoulder. There have been reports he suffered a broken collarbone.
Michigan will send off its seniors and fifth-year seniors prior to their final home game at Michigan Stadium, a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff Saturday against Indiana. That group includes at least four NFL prospects, but, more importantly, players instrumental in the program’s turnaround under second-year coach Harbaugh.
“It’s just a lot of high-character guys, a lot of great people,” defensive tackle Maurice Hurst Jr. said. “This is more of a collective-leader group. There’s so many people that lead us every day. There’s so many people that try to take freshmen under their wing and try to coach up everyone. This senior group of people has been great, not selfish, very team-oriented and about winning games and not really about themselves.”
In five years with a group of seniors and fifth-year seniors, Michigan is 30-22 with three bowl appearances, the firing of a coach and the hiring of a former — and high-profile — Michigan quarterback as a coach.
“It’s been kind of a roller coaster since I’ve been here,” said fifth-year senior Matt Godin, a defensive lineman. “Two years ago we were 5-7 and now we’re 9-1. And it’s definitely been pretty crazy, how we’ve turned it around the last two years.”
They also had a drastic change in the program. Harbaugh’s hiring was as if a cyclone — a funnel cloud full of energy and enthusiasm — swept through the program.
Some players transferred out, and others considered transferring but chose to stay. They quickly learned of four-hour practices and a certain pursuit of perfection, but didn’t realize how quickly it would pay dividends. By October — less than 10 months after Harbaugh’s hire, less than six months after spring practices, less than three months after summer conditioning — Michigan was re-energized.
“We knew (the program) was going in the wrong direction,” Godin said. “But as soon as we got it turned around, you could feel it.”
Did Godin expect this quick of a turnaround under Harbaugh?
“You envision it,” Godin said. “You want that to happen. I wasn’t sure how quickly it would happen, though.”
All-American tight end Jake Butt had a chance to pursue an NFL career after last season, but chose to return to Michigan for his senior year — and to help the Wolverines pursue a championship.
That may have been unfathomable this time two years ago, when Michigan struggled simply to become bowl-eligible. A pair of losses in its final two weeks — including a 42-28 loss at Ohio State — closed out a 5-7 season and resulted in the firing of Brady Hoke, a little more than a month after the resignation of former athletic director Dave Brandon.
Butt has remained in touch with Hoke, who is in his first year as Oregon’s defensive coordinator. In fact, he cites the foundation Hoke set as the reason he joined the Wolverines.
“Coach Hoke, he’s an unbelievable recruiter and he was a huge reason I came here, and that a bunch of guys came here,” Butt said. “Him and his staff created a family-type environment and really sold us on the Michigan dream. We all bought in.”
When Michigan faced the task of replacing Hoke, Butt recalled the uncertainty.
“It was weird,” Butt said. “I’ve never had to go through something like that in my whole, entire life. No one really knew how to handle it.”
Instead of excluding the football program from the process, Butt said former interim athletic director Jim Hackett engaged the football players in the process of finding a new coach.
“This was a decision that was going to impact so many of our lives,” Butt said. “We had, I don’t know how many meetings, where he asked us, ‘What are the qualities we were looking for in a head coach?’ That was important, to see we had an athletic director to listen to us, to fight for us and to see we were going to get the right guy for the job.”
Harbaugh fit those qualities.
“One hundred percent,” Butt said. “If anything, he’s exceeded them.”
Harbaugh’s arrival was only part of Michigan’s renaissance. A group of seniors who remained dedicated to the program were as pivotal to the turnaround.
“Four years?” Butt said. “It’s hard to sum it up in even one or two sentences. You look back on it and see some of the ups and downs, and the things I’ve been through and we’ve been through as a team, it’s unbelievable.